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Who was Sarah Obama? Barack Obama's Kenyan step-grandmother dies at 99, family is 'devastated'

Tributes poured in for Sarah Hussein Obama, who was fondly called 'granny' by former president Barack Obama. The education advocate was described as a 'philanthropist', 'icon of family values' and a 'strong, virtuous woman'
UPDATED MAR 29, 2021
Sarah Obama, the matriarch of former President Barack Obama's Kenyan family has died at 99 (Getty Images)
Sarah Obama, the matriarch of former President Barack Obama's Kenyan family has died at 99 (Getty Images)

Sarah Hussein Obama, the Kenyan matriarch and the step-grandmother of former President Barack Obama died at the age of 99 on Monday, March 29. 

Although her cause of death was not immediately revealed, Sarah's daughter confirmed to The Standard newspaper in Kenya that she died while undergoing treatment at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu, Kenya. “She died this morning. We are devastated,” Marsat Onyango. told The Associated Press on a phone call.


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Obama's 'granny'

Sarah Hussein Obama, was the second wife of President Obama’s grandfather and helped raise his father, Barack Obama Sr. The family is part of Kenya's Luo ethnic group. The former president fondly referred to her as "granny" in his memoir 'Dreams From My Father.' He recalled meeting her for the first time during a trip to Kenya in 1988. Since she only spoke Luo, they had to communicate through interpreters.

Barack Obama tweeted an emotional tribute with a picture of him as a young man when he visited her in Kenya. He wrote: "My family and I are mourning the loss of our beloved grandmother, Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama, affectionately known to many as “Mama Sarah” but known to us as “Dani” or Granny. We will miss her dearly, but we’ll celebrate with gratitude her long and remarkable life."


A family photograph of Barack Obama with his step-grandmother Sarah Obama on a 1987 visit to Kenya stands on a table in her house on January 12, 2008 in Kogelo, western Kenya (Getty Images)

She attended his first inauguration just over two decades later in 2009. Obama also spoke about his grandmother again in his September 2014 speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

Sarah, who was an advocate for literacy and child education, recalled cycling six miles to take the president’s father to school every day from the family’s home village of Kogelo to the bigger town of Ngiya to make sure he got the education that she never had.

'I love education'

She founded The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation to help ensure children in her native Kenya get an education. The foundation helps provide food and education to children who lost their parents, including school supplies, uniforms, basic medical needs, and school fees. In 2014, she was honored with the inaugural Women's Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award at the United Nations for her efforts.

While accepting the award, she said she was "living on borrowed time." She had traveled to the US to promote her "legacy plan" for a modern education and health complex in Kogelo that she would like to see finished before the end of her life.

Barack Obama's step-grandmother Sarah Obama is pictured with her son Said Obama (reflected in mirror) in her house on January 12, 2008 in Kogelo, western Kenya (Getty Images)

In a 2014 interview with AP, she recalled the pain of receiving letters that she could not read, even as an adult. She wanted to make sure that her children were not illiterate like her and that they went to school. She added that she loved education because children "learn they can be self-sufficient," especially girls. "If a woman gets an education she will not only educate her family but educate the entire village," she said.

Kenyan leaders paid tribute

Kisumu Governor Anyang Nyong’o said that Sarah will be remembered for her work to promote education to empower orphans.“She was a philanthropist who mobilized funds to pay school fees for the orphans,” he said.

Sarah Hussein Obama on February 5, 2008 in Kogelo, Kenya (Getty Images)

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta was among those who tribute to Sarah on Monday, describing her as a "strong, virtuous woman." "The passing away of Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation," Kenyatta said in a statement. "We've lost a strong, virtuous woman. A matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values. She was a loving and celebrated philanthropist who graciously shared the little she had with the less fortunate in her community."

Raila Odinga, Kenya's former president, also posted a statement on Twitter. "In the passing of Mama Sarah Obama, we have lost a matriarch who lived ahead of her time. She single-handedly kept the family going long after the husband departed," he said. "In between, she became a symbol of the Resilience and Confidence of the African woman with a unique capacity to face the challenges of life. She utilized her grandson President @BarackObama's rise to promote the education of girls and fight social ills through her Foundation."