Michelle Obama on meeting Mama Sarah: ‘I was bowled over by her easy joy’

Mama Sarah Obama, step-grandmother to former US President Barack Obama, smiles at her homestead in the village of Kogelo. [Reuters]

For former US first lady Michelle Obama, the first time she met Mama Sarah Obama it was love at first sight.

In her “Becoming” memoir, former US First Lady Michelle Obama describes her first encounter with Mama Sarah in detail, concluding how safe and confident she felt in her presence.

The year is 1991, Michelle and Barrack Obama, with new jobs each, have just engaged. They have taken a vacation to Kenya, arriving in Nairobi to finding Barrack’s sister Auma waiting with a rickety Volkswagen bug before taking a bumpy train to Kisumu and a matatu to Kogelo.

Sweaty and thirsty, Michelle and Obama arrive in Mama Sarah’s “well-kept concrete home” and find her waiting for them.

Barack Obama brought Michelle to meet his grandmother Mama Sarah and his Kenyan family just before their wedding. [Courtesy]

“Granny Sarah, they called her. She was a short, wide-built lady with wise eyes and a crinkling smile. She spoke no English, only Luo and expressed delight that we had come all this way to see her,” she writes.

Standing next to Sarah, Michelle writes, she felt very tall.

“She studied me with an extra, bemused curiosity, as if trying to place where I came from and how precisely I’d landed on her doorstep,” she says.

Mama Sarah’s first question to her, she writes, was; “Which one of your parents is white?”

With Auma’s help, she tried explaining they were both black but Mama Sarah found it all funny, given she looked a bit of white.

Michelle Obama: She seemed to find everything funny... I was bowled over by her easy joy. [Courtesy] 

“She seemed to find everything funny, teasing Barrack for not being able to speak her language. I was bowled over by her easy joy,” she recalls.

When the night fell, she says, Mama Sarah slaughtered- Michelle says “butchered”- a chicken and made them a stew which she served with Ugali. Neighbors and relatives also flocked the homestead to see them.

“I gobbled the food gratefully as the sun dropped and night settled over the village, which had no electricity, leaving a bright spray of stars overhead,” she writes.

Michelle Obama in Kogelo. [Courtesy]

Michelle says it all seemed a miracle to be in Kogelo, sharing a rudimentary bedroom with Barrack, and listening to the stereo sound of crickets and rustle of animals they couldn’t see.

She remembers feeling awed by the scope of land and sky around them and at the same time feeling protected inside Mama Sarah’s home.

“I had a new job, a fiancé, and an expanded family, an approving Kenyan granny even. It was true: I’d been flung out of my world, and for the moment it was all good.”

The following year, Barrack and Michelle got married.