By Kiratiana Freelon
Exclusive for The Muslim Observer
When “Mama” Sarah Obama visited the New York City last year, she told an audience of 400 people that she had one request of her step-grandson, President Barack Obama—that he visit her in Kenya before he leaves office in 2017.
Her request might soon be granted.
This July President Barack Obama will make his first trip to Kenya as President, and he will likely visit Nyang’oma Kogelo, a small town west of Nairobi. Kogelo, Kenya is the ancestral home of the President’s father, Barack Obama Sr., and Mama Sarah Obama still lives on the family compound there. The 94-year old has practiced Islam her entire life. She raised Barack Obama Sr. senior along with this two sisters and her own six kids that she had with his father, Hussein Obama. People in Kenya always refer to her as “Mama” out of respect because she is considered a mother to all.
A Kenyan friend offered me the opportunity to meet and interview “Mama” Sarah Obama in February, 2015. The President had yet to announce that he would visit Kenya later this year. But the possibility of a trip has always dominated local conversation – especially since Obama visited West and East Africa in 2013, skipping over Kenya. He hasn’t visited to Kogelo since he toured Kenya as Senator during a 2006 family trip.
Mama Obama visited the United Nations last November to receive the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award for her work to help poor Kenyans. Since Barack became President, she has used her resources and prominence to support orphans, widows through the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation (please link HERE – http://msof.org/).
I soon learned that her generosity is not a recent development. She has always helped those in need around her.
To get to Kogelo, my friend and I left Nairobi at midday—late enough to escape the crushing traffic jam that makes Nairobi difficult to traverse in the morning and early evenings. The 400-kilometer drive toward the Kenya-Uganda border near Lake Victoria took us through two major cities (Kisumu and Nakuru) and past the homelands of five of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups—the Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Kisii, Masaai and finally Luo, Mama Sarah Obama’s ethnic group.
During our journey we stopped to take a picture overlooking the Rift Valley, a mass of land that is home to the Masaai tribe. Over time, informal roadside markets eventually gave way to multiple-story hotels and conference centers—evidence of the area’s wealth from winnings of Kenyan long-distance runners. Between major towns we drove past tea farms that looked like a never-ending green sea. In Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city after Nairobi and Mombassa, our car battled for space on the road with motorcycles.
We arrived in Kogelo just before dusk. To reach Mama Obama’s house we drove down a paved road that has paid homage to President Obama since 2006. The primary and high schools that line the road are named after Senator Barack Obama. Kogelo Village Resort, the town’s only hotel, offers suites named after Malia, Sasha, and of course Barack. I stayed in the Michelle suite later that night. When I walked down a dirt path toward Mama Obama’s house, I saw an eight-year old girl in a green t-shirt with the word Obama plastered across her chest.
As I stood in front of the Obama compound, I half-heartedly expected the secret service to be there. Instead, a tired man in army fatigues opened the gate to the compound where two houses and several one-room huts stand. Barack Obama Sr. and his father were buried in a one corner. We walked by cows, chickens and small farms to get to the first house, which was small and compact. When it was built in the 1960s, it was the town’s first western house and in a village where people still live in one-room structures made of the earth, it’s still unique. Family photos of Barack Obama Sr. and his brothers and sisters line the wall of the crowded structure. Mama Obama raised her family in this house, but she now lives in the second much larger house at the back of the compound. Its wrap around porch and blue reflective windows made the house look more glamorous than it actually was.
When I entered the newer house, an award display case of all of Mama Obama’s honors greeted me at the door. She displayed her awards from Moi University, a Doctorate of Letters from Great Lakes Kisimu University and of course the UN award. I sat on a couch in a large but sparingly decorated living room waiting for her. Till that point, I had only seen pictures of her smiling with toothy grin while surrounded by dozens of children. Soon after, Mama Obama shimmied out of the kitchen into the living room—without any assistance. The 94-year old woman sat on the couch across from me and greeted me. Dressed in a yellow and black Kenyan dress, she looked very sturdy.
I interviewed Mama Sarah Obama with the help of her daughter Marset Oyango because she speaks Swahili and Luo—her mother tongue—and I speak only English. Oyango translated her responses from Luo to English.
What is the secret to how you have been able to maintain your health and do so much at your age? How are you able to travel across the world? When I’m 94, I want to be like you.
It’s God power. That’s why I have reached 94. I eat everything. I love the same food you eat. I love chicken, fish, vegetables and meat. I used to be a very strong woman. God has given me power and I have to go where I am called.
How strong were you?
I used to work a lot because I was a farmer. I was also born strong.
Why did you start the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation?
I started my foundation because HIV has killed so many people. In the community we have so many orphans and vulnerable people. I love helping people and giving what I have to give.
Every year, your organization sponsors a half-marathon. Why should people participate in the marathon?
People are doing the half-marathon because they want to be strong and do exercise. People have to run to stay in shape. I want the half-marathon to be bigger than last year and I want you to participate.
What advice would you give women today, especially those in the United States?
The advice I would love to give a woman in the U.S is that I would ask the lady to keep on loving the children and give them education.
Your son, Barack Obama Sr., was extremely well-educated. He attended Harvard University as an international exchange student in the 1960s. At this time most Kenyans didn’t even attend primary school. What did you do to raise smart children and show them that education is important?
There reason why I took Barack Obama Sr. to school is because I never went to school and I love education. During the time women never went to school. They believed if you educated girls you would not have respect for your husband. I loved education but I was denied education. I decided to take Barack Obama Senior so Barack could read for me letter instead of taking the letters somewhere else. Barack Senior was a very smart boy, very intelligent. He loved education the same way I loved education. So I would take Barack Senior to school every morning, six killometers away from here on a bicycle so we wouldn’t be late.
So you rode the bicycle?
Yes. This was in 1942 that I was riding a bicycle, even in Nairobi. I could even go far.
Tell me about the time when you first met Barack Obama Jr.
The first time that I met Barack Obama Jr. was in 1987, when he was still in college. He was at Harvard and he was 25 years old. The visit was good because he managed to meet and get to know the rest of the family. He brought me some gifts from the United States, some clothes.
Did he return to Kenya soon afterwards?
I met him again in 1991. That’s when he came with Michelle. He brought Michelle to Kenya to come and meet the rest of the family, shortly before they were engaged.
What is a typical day for you?
Well my favorite day is Friday because it’s a day for praying and relaxing.
If I am in America, how can people help your organization?
If you want to help, you can help. You can pay school fees for orphans and vulnerables. I accept any kind of donation.
If you could say something to President Barack Obama right now what would you say to him?
The only message I can ask Barack to do is to work hard, help people who don’t have anything and to bring peace.
After I finished my interview with Mama Sarah Obama, she walked over to another couch and turned on a video DVD player. She started watching music videos in a language I did not know. She watched the man singing on the video and rocked to the beat. I later learned she was watching Luo music videos about love.