This summer, while I was in Nairobi to teach in Widener’s Summer Law Institute
, I was delighted to have the opportunity to travel to western Kenya to meet Mama Sarah, President Obama’s Kenyan grandmother. President Obama’s father and grandfather are dead, but his grandmother, Mama Sarah, now well into her eighties, regularly receives visitors from around the world at her modest home in Kegalo, where the President’s father grew up. Kegalo is in the mountains of western Kenya, about an hour north of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. Kisumu, situated on Lake Victoria, is a day’s drive west of Nairobi.
Mama Sarah’s compound, at the edge of the village, is now fenced and is guarded by the Kenyan police. Although I had to show my passport to get in, things quickly became more relaxed. There was a small circle of chairs under two large shady mango trees. Mama Sarah’s daughter greeted Patrick, my driver, and me. She had us sign the guestbook and explained that Mama Sarah was with the Japanese ambassador at the Senator Obama School. There was a tree planting ceremony for trees donated by the Japanese government. We would have to wait. She would return in “maybe one hour.”
The handful of us waiting in the small circle of chairs under two large mango trees included two college women from California, two Irish women and a group of Kenyan and American evangelists. We chatted, took a few pictures and looked at the graves of the President’s father and grandfather. While we were waiting, a group of 50-60 Kenyan schoolboys from Kisumu arrived in a large bus. They, too, were there to meet Mama Sarah.
After two hours, a red Toyota Rav pulled into the compound and sure enough, Mama Sarah emerged. She was beautifully dressed in traditional Kenyan dress, made of elegant yellow silk. Using her cane, she made her way to a chair just outside the circle and invited the first group of visitors to join her. She greeted each group of visitors individually. When it was my turn, I asked her about her trip to Washington for the inauguration (“it was very cold”) and about some of the children in the compound. Most were her grandchildren; one was an orphan from the village. She founded an orphanage for the approximately 80 orphans in the village, and her daughter proudly showed me the certificate from the Kenyan government authenticating her non-profit organization before Mama Sarah turned to her next group of visitors.
Mama Sarah is a serious and rightfully proud woman who is enjoying her celebrity in her humble, but comfortable and familiar surroundings. It was a pleasure and an honor to meet her.