By Essie Wambui
She is proud of her grandson. After all, he is the President of the United States of America, a position whose holder is considered to be the most powerful person in the world.
But at the moment, that’s not what she wants to talk about; although she kindly acknowledges that the name recognition has definitely opened a wider stage for her to expand her cause.
Instead, she would like to focus our talk on Education – her great passion – education for the vulnerable and orphaned children from her Kogelo community in Kenya.
[Short video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00uDRkn-Ex8 ]
Dr. Mama Sarah Obama, or Mama Sarah as she prefers to be called, principally came to Toronto as a guest of the Goodlife Fitness Toronto Marathon. But various groups and individuals have since organised to meet the pleasant community champion.
The 94-year-old grandmother’s packed itinerary defies her age. As the patron of Safeguard Orphans and Widows organisation (SOWO), Mama Sarah is using her short visit to seek support for the NGO.
Her work within the community of Kogelo started long before the Obama name became world-famous. In the last three decades, HIV/AIDS has ravaged Sub-Sahara Africa, resulting in millions of orphans. It was in these years that Mama Sarah turned her attention to the welfare and educational needs of these orphans and their poverty-stricken families.
“I like to see children get an education, so I help the orphans, especially the young girls who have been orphaned because their parents died of HIV,” she says. “I not only encourage them to continue with school, but I also, with support from others, help them with school fees and other necessities including school uniforms, pencils and books”. She tells me in Swahili.
President Obama’s last surviving grandparent, whom he fondly refers to as “Granny” in his memoir Dreams from My Father, tells me she never herself went to school. Mama Sarah, who was a stepmother to the president’s father, Obama Sr. says she raised the elder Obama since he was 9 years old.
“In those days, when I was born,” she reminisces, “It was very hard for girls to get an education. Only boys were allowed to go to school, and that is why I’ve always pushed to get children within my family and community through school”. She says.
For longer conversation, Mama Sarah spoke in her native Luo, while Dr. Kenneth Kambona, a development consultant based in Nairobi served as interpreter. Dr Kambona is currently working to define the strategy for Mama Sarah’s SOWO programs.
“She says that since HIV/AIDS has affected many families in Kenya and Africa, she urges Kenyans in Canada and elsewhere to be keen in their support efforts to alleviate the need.” He interprets.
“Mama says that the work she does requires a lot of support from others, so we use such events to galvanize supporters and donors,” Kambona says. “Many people don’t realize that when a family loses the breadwinner, they are left without many options. Widows require a decent basic livelihood. They need some money for themselves and their daily needs.”
Over the years, Mama Sarah Obama has been at the forefront of championing the plight of orphans, the girl-child and widows, for which she has won various international awards including UN Women Education Award in 2014.
“Some of the many children I have helped educate are now in universities.” She says with a shy yet open smile.
I wouldn’t let Mama Sarah go without asking her to let me in on the secret to her energy and vibrancy at 94. Without hesitating, through Dr. Kambona, she attributes it to God’s blessing.
“God has given her the strength and wisdom to continue to this date. So she’s very grateful to God.” He says.
By Esther “Essie” Wambui