News Obama family matriarch, ‘Mama Sarah’, dies in Kenya

Obama family matriarch, ‘Mama Sarah’, dies in Kenya

Sarah Obama, step-grandmother of Barack Obama, in November 2012. Photo: AP
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Sarah Obama, the matriarch of former US President Barack Obama’s Kenyan family has died. She was at least 99 years old.

Mama Sarah, as the step-grandmother of the former president was fondly called, was a philanthropist who promoted education for girls and orphans.

She died at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral hospital in Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city in the country’s west, according to her daughter Marsat Onyango.

“She died this morning. We are devastated,” Ms Onyango told the Associated Press.

Mama Sarah will be remembered for her work to promote education to empower orphans, Kisumu governor Anyang Nyong’o said.

“She was a philanthropist who mobilised funds to pay school fees for the orphans,” he said.

Sarah Obama was the second wife of President Obama’s grandfather and helped raise his father, Barack Obama Sr.

The family is part of Kenya’s Luo ethnic group.

President Obama referred to her as ‘Granny’ in his memoir Dreams from My Father.

He described meeting her during his 1988 trip to his father’s homeland and their initial awkwardness as they struggled to communicate which developed into a warm bond.

She attended his first inauguration as president in 2009.

The Mama Sara Obama Foundation helped provide food and education to children who lost their parents, providing school supplies, uniforms, basic medical needs and school fees.

In a 2014 interview she said even as an adult, letters would arrive but she could not read them.

She said she did not want her children to be illiterate, so all her family’s children went to school.

She recalled pedalling the former president’s father nine kilometres to school on the back of her bicycle every day from the family’s home village of Kogelo to make sure he got the education she never had.

“I love education,” Sarah Obama said, because children “learn they can be self-sufficient”, especially girls who too often had no opportunity to go to school.

“If a woman gets an education she will not only educate her family but educate the entire village,” she said.

In recognition of her work she was honoured by the United Nations in 2014, receiving the inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award.