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At Home In Kenya With Obama's Grandma

As the U.S. President visits his father's homeland, an exclusive encounter with the now 94-year-old woman who raised Barack Obama Sr.

Mama Sarah Obama in Kogelo on June 29
Mama Sarah Obama in Kogelo on June 29
Paolo Mastrolilli

KOGELO — Mama Sarah is shucking corn, sitting on the steps in front of her house in this village in western Kenya. She hands me one ear of corn to help her: "We must make ugali, Barry's favorite dish."

To the rest of us, Barry is President Barack Obama, but for this 94-year-old woman he is her lost-and-found grandson, who arrives Thursday to the land of his forefathers as the 44th President of the United States.

Her modest house is surrounded by other relative's houses in a "family compound," on the green hills an hour's drive away from Lake Victoria. Barack's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, built the house and was the one who converted to Islam — generating many false suspicions about the true faith of his grandson.

Barack Obama Sr. was born here in 1936, and earned a scholarship that took him to the University of Hawaii in 1959, where he fell in love with the president's mother, Ann Dunham. After the car accident that killed him in 1982, he was buried at this house and six years later his son came to mourn and be reconciled with the father who'd abandoned him — and reconnect with his African roots.

Mama Sarah is not President Obama's biological grandmother. Her name was Akumu, one of Hussein Onyango's three wives, who ran away after giving him three children. Sarah was the only wife left, the woman who Barry's father grew up with, so the president calls her "Granny," and she is respected as matriarch of the family.

"When he came here for the first time," she recalls, "he was overjoyed. He wanted to know everything about his father, and we were delighted because we had heard so much about Barry but never thought we would get to meet him."

Sarah says that Barack Sr. always carried a photo of his son: "He was so proud of him. He always said that he was intelligent and would become an important person, a politician, a lawyer, a writer, maybe even the president."

Secrets, past and future

When Barry was two years old, however, his father left him in Hawaii with his mother. He went to Harvard and met another young woman, Ruth, who followed him to Kenya and bore him two more sons. Barry saw him again only once in his life, when he was 10 years old. Why? "You can't understand," says Sarah, "Barry went to school and his father couldn't take him away from the U.S. He thought it was better to grow up there, he would get more opportunities. And wasn't he right?"

Little Barry grew up with an emptiness and the legend of his father, as his mother Ann always spoke highly of him. In Chicago, however, he met his half-sister Auma, who told him the truth: He was a bitter man, distant and unpleasant with his family, who sought comfort in alcohol until the accident that killed him.

Suddenly, as he wrote in his memoir Dreams From My Father, Barry collided with reality: "It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself, the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela. Now that image has disappeared." To deal with this disappointment, Barry went to Kogelo, where he found the warm embrace of Mama Sarah.

Now, the president's older brother Malik — who as a young man drank potent chang'aa with him, and was the best man at his wedding — complains that "we only learned from newspapers that he was coming to Kenya. He should have told his family and come to visit us, to pay homage to his father's tomb."

Mama Sarah, however, is more understanding. "He is coming as president to visit Kenya and all Kenyans to talk about the economy, the corruption devouring our country, the terrorism that threatens us. He couldn't waste time here with us."

Despite this, the local government in Siaya spent extra money to clean the streets, even though the people here remain poor: 18% of the population are suffering from AIDS and the two schools named after the faraway president are falling apart.

Things have not been very good for Kogelo since Barry arrived in the White House, apart from the foundation, named after his grandmother, that promises to repair schools, build a kindergarten and a hospital.

Mama Sarah, however, has a secret which perhaps makes her more hopeful: "Last month I was in New York to visit him. He was very happy to see me, as always so affectionate. He will come back here when his term as president is up, to eat my ugali. And maybe he'll stay here, forever."

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