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meeting Obama’s grand-mama

Besieged by vicious Tea Party rhetoric, Barack Obama may have his detractors in the United States, but few people are as popular in Kenya as our President. Obama gear is everywhere to be seen, remote village shacks that sell basic supplies bear his name, and a whole generation of Kenyans will grow up as namesakes to him. In fact, we’ve even heard people hoping that he will lose his bid for re-election and decide to come to Kenya to take over the political helm here. His popularity is so high that he wouldn’t even have to run a campaign to have a legitimate chance of sweeping an election here in a landslide.


The epicenter of Obama mania is Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city and home to the Luo tribe (See diverging paths). Obama’s father was a Luo and the region surrounding Kisumu is home to many distant relatives of our President. A lot of purported Obama relatives are no doubt impostors, trading on his fame, but quite a few are genuine. When Ambo’s recent travel took him to Kisumu, he insisted on paying his respects to the Obama clan.

The other site visits completed, Ambo’s traveling caravan headed off to Kogello, a small village where Sarah Obama has her home. Mama Sarah, as she is known, is not actually a blood relative of the President’s, but she is the one he calls grandma. Born in 1922, she is the third wife of his paternal grandfather and is the undisputed matriarch of the clan. She traveled to the States for his inauguration, and she is the one Kenyan relative he makes a point of seeing when he visits this country. Despite pushing 90, Mama Sarah is in great shape and is extremely active. In addition to receiving hundreds of visitors each week, she runs a foundation for orphaned and vulnerable children and is a voice for agricultural reform.

Ambo only had about an hour to visit with her before having to rush back to Kisumu for the return flight to Nairobi. Mama Sarah, dressed smartly in a pink dress, welcomed Ambo and his wife into her receiving room, which was likewise decked out entirely in pink. Ambo’s security detail had to wait outside, but D was invited indoors to listen to the somewhat surreal multi-language conversation that ensued. Mama Sarah doesn’t speak English, and Kiswahili is also not her first language. Having spent a significant part of his childhood here, Ambo speaks Kiswahili pretty well, so most of the time they were able to understand each other. However, every once in a while, Mama Sarah would switch to her native Luo, which had to be translated into English by her assistant. Before leaving, Ambo paid his respects to Barack Obama, Sr, whose grave is located right outside Mama Sarah’s house, thus concluding his visit to one of Kenya’s premier celebrities.

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