Sarah Onyango Obama, Ex-President’s Stepgrandmother, Dies at 99

Known widely among Kenyans as Mama Sarah, Ms. Obama was seen as the matriarch of Barack Obama’s extended family in Africa.,

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Sarah Onyango Obama, the stepgrandmother of former President Barack Obama who grew up without formal education in remote, rural Kenya and devoted many years of her life to philanthropic efforts to help younger people secure places in school, died on Monday at a hospital in Kenya. She was 99.

Her death was confirmed in a statement published by the Kenyan presidency, which said that Ms. Obama died while receiving treatment for an unspecified illness at a hospital in Kisumu, a city in western Kenya.

Known widely among Kenyans as Mama Sarah, Ms. Obama was seen as the matriarch of Mr. Obama’s sprawling and sometimes fractious extended family in Africa.

She traveled to Washington in early 2009 to attend his inauguration as America’s first Black president, but the two were separated not only by geography but also by divergent lives, ways and eras.

At the inauguration, for instance, she presented him with an oxtail fly whisk, an emblem of power in Kenya. She spoke Luo, the tongue of her ethnic group, and some Swahili, and used an interpreter to translate her thoughts into English for the president.

There was some debate as to how often Mr. Obama interacted with his stepgrandmother, whom he referred to as “granny,” according to his 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” Some members of his family said that he neglected her, along with his other family members in Kenya.

She was the second or third wife of Mr. Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, who traced his polygamy to his ancestry and Muslim faith.

During Mr. Obama’s second term, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, Mr. Obama’s half brother, told The New York Times that the president was “almost trying to leave behind the family that he so passionately engaged in those early years as he moves through the presidency.”

Specifically, he said Mr. Obama had not called his stepgrandmother “for a number of years” although she was “the oldest member of our family and may leave us any day.”

ImageMs. Obama with Barack Obama, her stepgrandson, in Kenya in 2006.
Ms. Obama with Barack Obama, her stepgrandson, in Kenya in 2006.Credit…Simon Maina/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That was not the impression that Ms. Obama gave. Before the 2008 elections that brought Mr. Obama to power, journalists flocked to the small village of Kogelo in western Kenya, where she lived. Some of them noted that she did not have running water or electricity, although she seemed better off than most: Her home had a tin roof, rather than thatch, and she had a cellphone that she charged with a solar panel.

In 2014, during another reporter’s visit, she gestured to the recently installed electric power supply, paved roads and running drinking water, attributing the improvements to her stepgrandson’s presidency. (The enhancements, perhaps coincidentally, were precisely those she had listed as her wishes in an interview with Time magazine in 2008).

Not only that, Mr. Obama was said to have telephoned and, through an interpreter, wished her a happy new year. “He is still very central to my life today,” she said in 2014.

Sarah Onyango Obama was born in 1920 or 1921, in an era when British colonial records were, at best, patchy. She had said that she did not know the date or place of her birth.

Her husband, Hussein Onyango Obama, served during World War II as a British officer’s cook and was deployed to Burma, as Myanmar was then called.

The older Mr. Obama also influenced his grandson’s quest for self-discovery, as portrayed in “Dreams From My Father.”

Significantly, when he visited Kenya in the 1980s, the junior Mr. Obama was told by family members that his grandfather, like many of his compatriots, turned against the British colonists after World War II and was tortured by them. The accusation of abuse was challenged in “Barack Obama: The Story,” more recently published, in 2012, by the Washington Post journalist David Maraniss. But the allegation of torture was nonetheless deeply woven in the family narrative.

Hussein Onyango Obama was reputed to have been the first person in the area around Kogelo to have worn Western clothes — a sartorial manner that may have foreshadowed “the circumstances of his American grandson, when he was dismissed by some of his own people for acting white, or not seeming Black enough,” according to “Barack Obama: The Story.” He reportedly died around 1979.

The elder Mr. Obama had initially adopted Roman Catholicism but converted to Islam when he married an earlier wife from the largely Muslim island of Zanzibar. His son, Barack Obama Sr., the president’s father, was raised as a Christian and spent his early years under Ms. Obama’s tutelage.

Into her 80s, though, Ms. Obama maintained a rigorous commitment to Islam, rising at 5 a.m. to pray. “I am a strong believer of the Islamic faith,” Ms. Obama said in The New York Times in 2007.

But she defended her stepgrandson energetically when, as a presidential candidate, he faced taunts from his adversaries that he was a Muslim who had not been born in America. “Untruths are told that don’t have anything to do with what Barack is about,” she said in 2008, according to The Associated Press. “I am very against it.”

“In the world of today, children have different religions from their parents,” she said.

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Known widely among Kenyans as Mama Sarah, Ms. Obama was seen as the matriarch of Mr. Obama’s sprawling and sometimes fractious extended family in Africa.Credit…Ben Curtis/Associated Press

Her family ties to her stepgrandson brought other challenges and suspicions, voiced by reporters who visited her, that members of her family were trying to draw benefit from presidential celebrity through books and foundations.

Indeed, a year after the president’s inauguration she created her own foundation — the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation — to raise funds for an ambitious project to build an educational campus in her home village and to sponsor bursaries for young Kenyans, particularly girls, who would otherwise be denied schooling.

“I help the orphans and widows, especially the young girls who have been orphaned by their parents dying of H.I.V.,” she told NPR through a translator in 2014, when she won an Education Pioneer award at the United Nations. “I am their sole parent right now, so I help pay school fees and also get them the things they need, like sanitary towels, books, necessities like a pencil, school uniforms. That’s what I do.”

But there were risks in her ties to the American former president. After the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs in 2011, the Kenyan police ordered increased security in her village for fear of reprisals from a local affiliate of Al Qaeda. Even after Mr. Obama left office in 2017, the heightened precautions were maintained.

Mr. Obama’s own security arrangements also prevented him from visiting the ancestral village.

When Mr. Obama paid an official visit to Kenya in 2015, the first sitting American president to do so, his African relatives had to meet him in the capital, Nairobi. About three dozen members of his extended family, including his stepgrandmother, joined him at his hotel for dinner around long banquet tables.

During that trip, he also spoke at an indoor arena, where he was introduced by his half sister Auma Obama, who had also met him during his first visit to Kenya three decades earlier. She told the audience that a Kenyan had said to Mr. Obama, “don’t get lost,” but that there was no way he would.

“I’ll tell you that because he was with me. He fit right in,” she said.

“He’s not just our familia,” she added. “He gets us. He gets us.”

Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting.

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