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Mama Sarah Obama, a sincere conversation with an extraordinary grandmother (By

Eva Rogo-Lévénez)

Right before the Presidential election in America, Kenyan Translator, Eva Rogo-Lévénez, had a
privileged meeting with the grandmother of Barack Obama.

Published on 18th November, 2008 in Africultures Magazine.


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“Reflecting on where I was born and how life has led me to this scene, one only needs to look
out there and realize that we have all made inspiring journeys, not only as women, but also as women
of colour. It leads to me to think of a simple Kenyan woman, who never imagined that her
offspring would one day inspire the world just as Martin Luther King did many decades ago.
Mama Sarah is her name and she is the strong Kenyan woman that many of us have come to know as
the paternal grandmother of Senator Barack Obama, the next President of the United States of
America.”
With these words, I had launched my speech at the Black Women International Congress that
took place in Paris, France in April 2008. Overwhelmed with such conviction, my meeting Mama
Sarah for a sincere conversation before the election of the 44th American President was unavoidable.

I arrived back to Paris from my beloved country, Kenya, on November 4, 2008, a day that will
remain forever engraved in the history books of the United States of America and the rest of the world
as well as in my memory. Leaving my motherland under the clouds also meant, losing sight of the
jacaranda and flame trees, bougainvillea bushes covered with colourful flowers and the evergreen
surroundings, which, is simply a reminder that Nairobi will forever merit its nickname of “A Green
City in the Sun”. For the past few weeks, spirits are extremely high because the election of Barack
Obama seems almost certain; jubilation is in the air throughout
the country. As I was taking off from Jomo Kenyatta
International Airport that warm Monday night of November 3, I
must confess that I began regretting this departure. That was a
place to be on the historical night of November 4.

Excitement was at its peak, especially in Barack


Obama’s paternal ancestral lands in Nyanza Province. The
portraits of the Senator, so calm, and his effigies decorated
every corner, all sorts of objects, buses... Well-known musicians
such as Tony Nyadundo - a traditional Luo singer, Mama Sarah Obama © Eva Rogo-Lévénez
Makadem –the Ohangla man, Kenge-Kenge and many others have composed some of the most
beautiful melodies I have ever come across, all in praise of their hero. Having missed a successful
conclusion of the Kenyan presidential election in December 2007, my fellow countrymen had hoped
that this time, the one whom they consider as their own would occupy the White House, a chance to
give them at last, a taste of that jubilation. All members of the Obama family from close-by or from as
far as Europe had gathered at Nyang’oma around Mama Sarah, awaiting the election process on and
the verdict. “If my grand son wins, a bull will be slaughtered,” so she promised.
The morning before my departure, I had decided to go throughout the length of Biashara Street
to unearth a last Barack Obama Kenya-made t-shirt that might have remained stuck at the bottom of a
drawer of any of the Indian shops. By not giving up, I found a black beautiful one bearing the mark
“Obama 2008” and on the back, his famous campaign slogan, “Yes, we can”.
Personally, I would have changed this to “Yes we shall make it”, a fact I always advocated all along in
my interventions from the beginning of the year 2008.
At the beginning of this year, any time I claimed my conviction at his election, many remained
sceptical or would not even care to make a bet as to such an eventuality. Well aware of the history of
his late father, an extraordinary economist, one of the most brilliant economists that my country ever
had, I had never doubted his strength, his intelligence and his determination. However, I had to wait
for the American verdict before screaming, hallellujah!
On that Monday night, before leaving my dear country, I had a last telephone conversation
with Mama Sarah Obama. As I was speaking to her, journalists from around the world, some from as
far as Japan had been camping near this homestead at Nyang’oma, Alego Kogelo in Siaya District for
days without getting close to the extraordinary grandmother. Without any doubt, I was privileged. May
I confess this: she was so serene and was evidently aware of the historical opportunity before the
American people and hoped that they would make the right choice. Let me take you back to the
conversation I had with her in October 6, 2008: Mama Sarah Obama and I have one thing in common,
dholuo, a language spoken in Nyanza Province, Western Kenya. As there would be no communication
barrier, no need for an interpreter, I was convinced that a conversation between us would be convivial.

After flying over the massive Lake Victoria, we finally


landed at Kisumu Airport and found myself on the road that leads
to this famous village, the same road that passes in front of my
parents’ homestead in Sagam. I could hardly hold back my tears.
My mind was so concentrated on Barack Obama Senior, the late
father of the 44th President of United States of America. Many
decades ago, he had taken the same road, an outlet from this
region of Lake Victoria, towards the dreamland. It is right here
that the history of the extraordinary man who has just fulfilled
Martin Luther King’s dream begins. At that moment, I am treading © Eva Rogo-Lévénez
on the footmarks of a great man; I cannot control my emotion. With this feeling that I have already
humbly had a date with history, the minutes remaining to reach a village that has already become a
pilgrimage site, seemed long.
Nyang’oma village at Alego Kogelo situated in Siaya District, Western Kenya has become one
of the most visited places, especially by journalists. However, how was it possible to reach Mama
Sarah?
Since the attempted theft at her house in Alego Kogelo, a police post was installed within the
homestead. I was therefore compelled to apply for permission at the beginning of October 2008 from
the District Officer’s Office in Siaya to be able to enter the property. A huge metallic gate had been
recently installed and in the courtyard, some workers were still completing some works. Finally, I
arrived at Nyang’oma and one of the police officers examined the letter carefully before announcing
that Mama Sarah was actually away. One of her nephews, an adolescent who lives there, explains to us
that his aunt will be away for at least three days. I had no option but to call her on the mobile
telephone.

A very distinctive, calm and somehow young voice for an


elderly person of 86 years old answered this call. Naturally, I
presented myself in dholuo, as she is not used to speaking English
but speaks perfect Kiswahili, the national language in Kenya. As
Mama Sarah knows my family quite well, she does not hesitate to
invite me to join her in Kisumu.
Relieved that I will be able to see her, the nephew leads
me to Mama Sarah’s house. On the roof, there is a solar panel in
place so that she can follow bulletins concerning her grandson, in
her living room there is a radio, photographs on the wall of her © Eva Rogo-Lévénez
late son as well as those of the grandson and other members of the family. One of Barack Obama’s
snaps carrying a bag on his back draws my attention.
This photo dates back to 1987, the first time that Barack Obama came to Alego Kogelo.
During his stay, he would help his grandmother carry the provisions from the market. Another big
poster of her grandson facing the entry door gives the impression that you are facing the Senator. A
calendar with photographs of members of the Kenyan family, the Senator and Michelle is also hanging
on the wall.
It is not very polite to venture into a house when the owner is absent. The weather outside is
exquisite, green homestead, mango trees, a corner with tomatoes, onions, green vegetables. There are
other houses in the compound and a tent occupied by workers lazily partaking of their morning tea.
Mama Sarah told me later on that one of her sons, older than Barack Obama, also lives in this
homestead.
The grandmother of Obama is a lady over 86 years old in excellent physical form, extremely
lively, very humble, full of humanity and most of all, very intelligent. She speaks fluently, giving a lot
of precision and remembering every tiny detail. When speaking about her family, it is easy to sense
that she had really loved her son, the late father of the Senator.

“Nene oriek ahinya, (he was brilliant)”, she recalls.


Each time she hears her grandson speaking, it reminds her of
her late son; the Senator has the same voice and is an
extraordinary orator, like his father. The region of Nyanza can
boast of having produced some of the best orators such as the
late Minister Tom Mboya and Robert Ouko, the late Minister
for Foreign Affairs. Mama Sarah has poured all the love she
had for her son to her grandson. “Waherore ndii gi nyakwara
(my grandson and I love each other very much)”, she says.
Her sincerity is so moving. You can feel it in her voice and Mama Sarah Obama © Eva Rogo-Lévénez
you can read it in her eyes.
I feel more should be said about Obama Senior because the two beings not only resemble each
other intellectually but also through sheer determination. In order to understand where Barack
Obama’s oratorical talent comes from, it is necessary we acknowledge and understand the mind and
strength of the brilliant economist and graduate of the prestigious Harvard University.
Obama Senior started his primary school in Nyang’oma at around the age of 10, a brilliant
young boy whose talent had convinced the grandfather of the President-Elect to send him to school.
He could feel that his son would go far in education. I must say that Kenyans, whether poor or rich
have always cherished good education and some of the top scholars recognized internationally hail
from this region. He moved to another school near Ng’iya before joining Maseno Boys School, which
was that time, one of the top secondary schools in the country and the best boys school in Nyanza
Province. Maseno now has a university too, situated just under the Equator line, hidden in the greenery
on the left side of the main road towards Alego Kogelo.
At the end of secondary school, he decided to stop his studies and find a job in Mombasa. At
that time, any bright young fellow could secure a job very easily. After a short while, Obama decided
to move to Nairobi and found employment as an administrator with East African Railways and
Harbours, but his father was not satisfied with this solution, he wanted him to continue his studies.
Luckily, at this period, the pleasant young man met two American women and the three become good
friends. It did not take long for the American friends to realize that the young man was brilliant and
they insisted that he continues with his studies. They organised for him courses by correspondence
with one of the colleges in the USA. This establishment was not one of the best but they believed that
by associating with a brilliant young man like Obama would give it visibility. The final examination
results of these studies were simply beyond their expectation and they were excellent. Mama Sarah
says that from this point, the preparation for his departure to the University of Hawaii moved very fast
indeed and the university and the two American women arranged the bursary, air ticket and everything
else. In this way, Barack Obama Senior left Kenya for higher studies, not before promising his parents
he would come back home, to help develop his country.
Mama Sarah speaks very tenderly about the late mother of her grandson. The two young
people met at the University of Hawaii. “She was also a brilliant young lady”, so she says.
“Unfortunately, marriage between a white woman and a black man in America in the 1960s, where
racial segregation in some of the states still existed was not an easy matter” she concludes. In addition,
she adds on this, “My son never stopped communicating or seeing his son. He was the Chief
Economist at the Kenyan Ministry for Finance, responsible for drafting the budget. He would
accompany the Minister on some missions. He would stop to see his son if this was possible. No,
never did he cut off contact.”
Even at 86 years old, Mama Sarah is an active woman; she has always cultivated her land and
she is not yet ready to stop this. She eats what she cultivates: potatoes, maize, vegetables, beans,
millet, fruits, and eggs from the hens she rears. Everyone in the village appreciate the delicious
doughnuts she makes now and then for the market day. I was just as astonished as you would be by her
physical form and intellectual vivacity at such an advanced age. Eating the natural fibres, low fat and
non-treated foods could be part of the good health. She also confided to me that she lives with an 11-
year-old grandson who lost his parents and is taking care of his education.
“Wuoda nene ohero nyithindo masomo.” My son appreciated children who love school, she
says. “I must take care of the education of this little boy, he is an orphan,” she concludes.
“My son would sit down besides any child reading a book.” Like most Kenyans, he knew that
education is the hand stretched out to any child to access a better life. Education is a noble act.
Her grandson came to Kenya for the first time in 1987 after the tragic death of his father, killed
in a road accident in 1982. This was his first direct contact with his paternal grandmother. He was at
that time still a student at the Harvard University but he promised to invite his grandmother to the
graduation ceremony in Boston. For the first time out of Kenya, Mama Sarah went to the United States
of America via Germany and London. Barack Obama’s stepsister, Rita Auma, had lived as a student in
Germany. At this occasion, Barack Obama, or Barry to most of his friends, took his grandmother not
only to Harvard, but also to the other universities where his father had studied. This was also an
opportunity to visit the beautiful city of Boston and its suburbs. The eternal link between the
grandmother and her grandson was hence sealed.
The President-Elect came back to Kenya for the second time to present his future wife,
Michelle to the family, which is the Luo tradition. Mama Sarah says that she was moved by the
humility and simplicity of this move. Michelle would help her cook, clean the house and enjoy the
local food together. Barack Obama and Michelle invited her to the wedding that was to take place in
Chicago. Unfortunately, she did not attend this wedding because the money sent by her grandson for
the airfare through a reliable source never reached her.
Obama was upset and even embarrassed not to have his paternal grandmother at his side on this
important day, especially because only his stepsister Rita Auma and stepbrother Malik were present.
Two years ago, Mama Sarah visited the United States of America for the second time. Well- informed
of the position of her grandson twenty-six days or so before the Election Day, she promises that she
will be in Washington for the inauguration if he is elected. Barack Obama became the 44 th President of
United States of America on Tuesday, November 4, 2008; Mama Sarah will therefore travel to
Washington for the inauguration on January 20, 2009.
“It is indeed impossible to speak to him on telephone since the presidential campaign began,
but before, he used to call so often. He is very close to the stepsister, Auma, she is the one who would
reply in English and translate it to me in dholuo. I would answer in dholuo and she would put to him
what I have said in English. Nevertheless, when there is love, we do not need words we somehow
understand one another. He knows a few dholuo words and I hope that my great grandchildren will at
least learn Kiswahili so that I can communicate with them directly” so she explains.
In addition, she says, “Wuoda nene ohero jii ahinya kendo nene ohero dongruok, nyakwara
okawo kite,” my son was a man of the people and he stood up for development. My grandson is
exactly like him.
It was not easy to leave the company of Mama Sarah. She is such a wonderful grandmother
but I promised to keep in touch and visit her whenever I come to Kenya. I have spoken to her on the
phone three times since I came back to France, specifically on November 5 in the studios of French
International Radio. I asked for her reaction to her grandson’s election directly on the French radio
from Paris.

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