Obama's Kenyan 'granny' dies, aged 99

Sarah Onyango Obama, the grandmother of former US President Barack Obama died on Monday (March 29) in a hospital in Kisumu. She was said to be 99 years old.
Ms Sarah Obama rose to world fame with the 2008 election of her step-grandson Barack Obama as US president.
Ms Sarah Obama rose to world fame with the 2008 election of her step-grandson Barack Obama as US president.PHOTO: AFP

NAIROBI (AFP) - Ms Sarah Obama, the grandmother of former US President Barack Obama, has died at the age of 99 in western Kenya, her daughter told AFP on Monday (March 29).

"It is true she has gone to be with the Lord, she passed on this morning," said an emotional Ms Marsat Onyango.

Ms Sarah Obama, popularly known as Mama Sarah, had been admitted to the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu.

Family spokesman Sheikh Musa Ismail said she had been unwell for a week, but had tested negative for Covid-19.

Mr Ismail said the former president had "sent his condolences".

Once a simple country woman, Ms Obama was, for a long time, best known for the hot porridge and doughnuts she served at a local school.

But she rose to world fame with the 2008 election of her step-grandson Barack as the first black US president.

Already a national celebrity after the former Illinois senator visited Kenya in 2006, Ms Obama's modest homestead became a tourist attraction with Mr Obama's November 2008 election triumph.

Born in 1922 in a village on the shores of Lake Victoria, Ms Obama was the third wife of Mr Hussein Onyango Obama, President Obama's grandfather, a herbalist and a village elder who fought for the British in Burma, now called Myanmar.

Mr Onyango Obama, who died in 1975, is said to be the first man to swap goatskin clothing for trousers in his village.

He returned from the war in Burma with a gramophone and a picture of a white woman he claimed to have married.

'Strong, virtuous'

Although not a blood relation, Mr Obama often referred to Sarah as his grandmother, calling her "granny".

On his trip back to Kenya as US president, he met her, among other family members in Nairobi.

After leaving office, he travelled to her home in the village of Kogelo in 2018, joking that he had been unable to do so in 2015 as his jet was too big to land in Kisumu.

Mr Obama is linked to his Kenyan family via his father, Barack Senior, a pipe-smoking economist who Mr Obama has admitted he "never truly" knew.

Obama Senior met Mr Obama's mother Ann Dunham in Hawaii. But he walked out when Mr Obama was just two and died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982 at the age of 46.

Obama Senior had worked in the government of Mr Jomo Kenyatta, who led Kenya at independence from Britain until his death 14 years later in 1978.

The two men did not get along well, with Mr Kenyatta - the father of Kenya's current president Uhuru Kenyatta - sacking Obama Senior, and blackballing him for further government jobs, an ostracisation that would help fuel alcoholism.

Mr Kenyatta said on Monday that the country had "lost a strong, virtuous woman. A matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values".

He said she would be remembered for her philanthropic work, adding that she had initiated several community development projects in her village.

Mama Sarah will be buried on Tuesday at her home, in line with Islamic traditions, said Mr Ismail.