President Obama, your grandma says hello

Sarah Ogwel Onyango, better known as "Mama Sarah"

Sarah Ogwel Onyango, better known as "Mama Sarah"

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Though Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya, it’s hardly a tourist attraction. It does boast a decent expat community mostly working in NGO and research groups, but for many Mzungu, it’s just a waystation, a stopover for a safari, a watering hole on the trek from Kenya to Uganda.

Not true, however, of the infinitely smaller village of Kogelo, about an hour-and-a-half drive north and west. There, in the shade of a giant tree, in a circle of handmade wooden chairs, an 87-year-old woman plays the role of  tourist magnet, pulling thousands of Kenyans and foreigners alike.

Meet Sarah Ogwel Onyango, or as she is better known, Mama Sarah. She is the stepgrandmother to President Barack Obama.

(Mama Sarah doesn’t accept press interviews — a police guard there ensures that the media are kept at bay — so I went purely as a tourist. The pictures and recording (above) are entirely my own, not to be sold for publication.)

I went with a group of friends; we hired a private 11-person van (known as a matatu) for the trip, which turns down bumpy dirty roads and runs past a secondary school named after then-Sen. Obama.

The village — really just a scattered collection of huts, small farms and a market center with a few shops — was typical rural Kenya until its most famous grandson became senator and eventually president.

Mama Sarah’s house now has a satellite dish and television and a water tower and solar panels and police protection. The road still shakes car suspensions and fillings loose, but its wider and better than it was, the locals say.

But one look at the nearby school yards, the fields of cane and maize, the rustic huts with thatched roofs, and you’re hit with the amazing accomplishment this place symbolizes. In two generations, a family line went from herding goats to the U.S. presidency.

The story boiled down is thus: Barack Obama Sr. was raised on the family homestead here and attended a mission school. He excelled in classes so much that he went on to better schools, eventually a nearby university and then a job in Nairobi. He took courses and an exam that got him to Hawaii.

In the United States, he met a woman from Kansas. That woman gave birth to Barack Obama Jr., the Harvard law grad turned community organizer turned senator turned president.

Talk about the immigrant dream.

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3 Responses to “President Obama, your grandma says hello”

  1. Royal Says:
    September 16th, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Did you sarge her?

  2. Charlie Dalton Says:
    September 28th, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Is she the one that saw Barack when he was born in Kenya, or was that his real Grandma? Maybe you can ask her the next time you see her. Are you doing any fishing? Send some pics.

  3. Adam Jadhav Says:
    September 28th, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Fishing safari was too expensive, unfortunately. But I’ll probably get some time in with a rod in Madagascar.

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