© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering Mama Sarah: Philanthropist And Obama Family Matriarch Dies In Kenya At 99

Sarah Obama holds a photograph of her grandson, Barack Obama in Kogelo, Kenya while awaiting the results of Super Tuesday's primary in Feb. 2008. She died on Monday after a brief illness, and is being remembered as a beloved matriarch and philanthropist.
Paula Bronstein
Getty Images
Sarah Obama holds a photograph of her grandson, Barack Obama in Kogelo, Kenya while awaiting the results of Super Tuesday's primary in Feb. 2008. She died on Monday after a brief illness, and is being remembered as a beloved matriarch and philanthropist.

Tributes are flooding in for Sarah Obama, philanthropist and step-grandmother of former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement that Sarah Obama passed away on Monday while receiving treatment at a hospital in the port city of Kisumu. He said she was 99, though the Associated Press reports she was "at least" that age. Kisumu Gov. Anyang Nyong'o said she died after a brief illness.

The Obama family matriarch, who was known widely as "Mama Sarah," was a beloved figure who spent much of her life promoting education for orphans and girls. Kenyatta said she will be remembered for her philanthropic work and the community development projects she led in her home village of Kogelo.

"The passing away of Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation," Kenyatta said. "We've lost a strong, virtuous woman. A matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values."

Nyong'o described her as a "role model" and "motherly figure" who helped raise money to pay school fees for orphans and other vulnerable children, and also supported many widows.

She was the second wife of the president's grandfather, the AP reports, and helped raise his father, Barack Obama Sr. The family is part of Kenya's Luo ethnic group, and she spoke Luo and some Swahili, according to The New York Times.

President Obama referred to her as "Granny" in his memoir Dreams From My Father, according to the AP. He wrote about meeting her during a 1988 visit to Kenya and described how their relationship, initially awkward because of communication challenges, "developed into a warm bond."

He visited her in Kenya as a senator in 2006, and she attended his first inauguration as president in 2009. He also met with her during a 2015 trip to his ancestral home — becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Kenya — and again in 2018.

"My family and I are mourning the loss of our beloved grandmother, Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama, affectionately known to many as 'Mama Sarah' but known to us as 'Dani' or Granny," the former president posted on Twitter Monday, alongside a photo of the two of them. "We will miss her dearly, but we'll celebrate with gratitude her long and remarkable life."

The president's half-sister Auma Obama, a social activist who works in Kenya and Germany, mourned the loss of her grandmother in a tweet, describing her as the most important person in her life, as well as "my inspiration, my rock, my comfort zone, my safe space."

In an 2014 interview with NPR, Sarah Obama said through a translator that she never went to school herself, as it was harder for women to get an education at the time. She told the AP that same year that she didn't want her children to be illiterate, and recalled pedaling the president's father six miles to school on the back of her bicycle every day.

She later turned her focus to helping other children, particularly girls and orphans, get the education she couldn't. She told NPR that she encouraged them to go to school "so that the cycle of poverty can end," and that she sometimes used her grandson as an example of the doors an education could open.

Her work went beyond encouragement, as she mobilized funds to pay for school and often sheltered orphaned children in her home.

"I help the orphans and widows, especially the young girls who have been orphaned by their parents dying of HIV," she said. "I am their sole parent right now, so I help them pay school fees and also get them the things that they need, like sanitary towels, books, necessities like a pencil, school uniforms. That's what I do."

She created the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation in 2010, according to the New York Times, to raise money to build an educational campus in her village and sponsor scholarships for Kenyan youth.

In 2014, she received the Education Pioneer Award at the United Nations as part of its Women's Entrepreneurship Day. A page on the award's website said she was "heartbroken by the sight of children without parents in her country ... fighting off the AIDs epidemic in the last three decades" and "tirelessly worked with community leaders to meet the critical needs of these orphans."

She told NPR that year that many of the children she helped educate ended up matriculating to institutions of higher education, like Nairobi University, Moi University and Bondo University.

"These are orphans who I've helped pay for their school fares, and now it's my joy to see them in the universities about to graduate," she said. "There's a lot of success stories, and it just makes me happy and it keeps me going."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!