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Mama Sarah Obama Foundation projects set to change lives

By Kepher otieno | August 14th 2016
Master plan of the proposed Mama Sarah Obama Foundation Centre to be built in K’ogelo. It was designed by renowned Berlin Burkinabe architect Diebedo Francis Kere. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

“I am very proud of my grandson. He has made me travel all over the world. I have slept in big hotels. I have met very important people.

“He has put K’ogelo in the international map. It is because of him that I am now taking care of hundreds of orphans and vulnerable children.”

Twelve years ago, Mama Sarah Obama, the grandmother of US President Barack Obama, eked a living by selling vegetables at the dusty Nyangoma market, 1km from her home.

In one of the pictures in President Obama’s album and which has been widely published in local and international media, young “Barry” (Barrack) is seen helping his grandma carry a sack of vegetables to the market, long before he knew he would become the world’s most powerful man. Those days, Mama Sarah lived in a semi-permanent house and relied on a kitchen garden for her food. She had three cows and a dozen goats and hens in her compound.

The only visitors she received were neighbours and relatives from the Obama tree who are scattered in Karachuonyo and Oyugis in Kasipul, Homa Bay County.

A fence around the homestead was an unimaginable luxury and, besides, there was little to protect with a fence. One could access her house from any direction.

Today, as President Obama prepares to leave the White House, Mama Sarah is an icon; arguably the most protected and celebrated granny in this side of the world. The grand leap in her lifestyle is one of the most visible and obvious legacies of Obama’s presidency – at least to the people of Kogelo and Kenya.

Her home has become an important government installation, complete with a police post. Besides the fully gazette and operational police post, at least two police officers live within the compound to provide 24/7 security surveillance.

The road to her home is perfectly tarmacked.

Entry into the compound to visit Mama Sarah is strictly by appointment, which must be approved by her personal aides or her son, Said Obama.

Taking pictures of the compound is prohibited and journalists visiting the home must leave their cameras in their cars. No visitor is allowed to drive past the gate. The Standard on Sunday crew experienced Mama Sarah’s powers on a visit to her home last week.

At the outer gate, a police officer asked if we had an appointment. We did not and so we were asked to keep off. Luckily, we called a close relative of Mama Sarah, who spoke to the officer, and we were allowed in.

“Please if you are journalists, don’t go in with the cameras. Mama does now like cameras. The flash scares her. And please make sure you don’t interview her or take notes because her PA is not around,” the officer instructed.

As the officer escorted us to the posh waiting area, metres away from Mama Sarah’s bungalow, she watched every move we made and listened to every conversation.

“Now sit here. Mama is in the house but someone is coming to tell you whether she is in the mood to see visitors,” said the police officer.

A few minutes later, a young woman appeared at the waiting room. “Are you from the media? Follow me please,” she said politely. We found Mama lounging on an easy sofa set, dressed in a flowing Kitenge and looking jovial. After listening to our introductions, she welcomed us.

Mama Sarah was delighted to recollect that this writer was one of the first journalists to interview her in 2004 when President Obama’s story first broke in the US, two years before he became the Senator for Illinois. She suddenly opened up, taking us through her journey as one of the world’s most adored grandmas, in a conversation spiced with lots of nostalgia and mirth.

Small sales

“I used to sell small items in the market. I was also the only vegetable hawker at the Nyangoma market. I used to travel to Kisumu to buy items at wholesale price, then sell at Kogelo for small profits,” she remembered.

“The first time Barry made his first surprise visit here (in 1985), I did no go the market and almost the entire village came to my home in search of vegetables. News had spread that I had a visitor from America. That evening, Barry insisted that we go to the market to sell Sukumawiki. That was the day the famous photo was taken,”says Mama Sarah.

Fast forward to 2016 and Mama Sarah speaks fondly about her grandson’s presidency and how it has raised her profile to international status. “I am what I am because of Barack. I never knew I would board big planes and sleep in posh hotels. I am today paying fees and caring for countless number of needy children because of him. The goodwill and donations I get towards my charity work are because of him,” says Mama Obama. She says one of the most memorable moments was when together with selected members of the wider Obama family she had dinner with President Obama at Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel in Nairobi in July last year.

“We discussed so many things. Later on, I saw a very big and scary plane coming to pick him and I thought it would land on me,” she says.

“Nyakwara osemiyo aneno gik mangeny. Otingo nyingwa malo (My grandson has made me see many things. He has lifted the name of our family,” she said.

As President Obama’s tenure comes to an end in a few months, Mama Sarah says he has done a good job. She still sees President Obama’s rise to stardom as a miracle and wishes him well in retirement.

The octogenarian speaks fondly of the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation which seeks to change lives through the construction of an Early Childhood Development Centre, rehabilitation of Senator Barack Obama primary and secondary schools, construction of a health clinic and a vocational skills centre.

“It pains me when children do not get an education and are left in the streets to beg. This is a job I do without a salary. I never went to school but I like school and that is why I educated the father of the most powerful man in the world,” she was once quoted as telling guests during a fund raising ceremony for her Foundation in Nairobi. “I want to build a school for the children of Kenya. They are smart. I want children to get good education even though I never stepped into a classroom. Education is life, if somebody holds a pen, they will do well and are assured of bright future,” she said.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the Great Lakes University for her work.

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