‘Mama Sarah,’ the Obama family matriarch in Kenya, dies at 99

Sarah Obama, step-grandmother of President Obama
Sarah Obama, step-grandmother of President Obama, speaking about his reelection in 2012.
(Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

Sarah Obama, the matriarch of the Kenyan side of President Obama’s family, has died, relatives and officials confirmed Monday. She was at least 99 years old.

Mama Sarah, as the step-grandmother of the former U.S. president was fondly called, promoted education for girls and orphans in her rural village of Kogelo. She died about 4 a.m. Monday while being treated at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral hospital in Kisumu, in western Kenya, according to her daughter Marsat Onyango.

“She died this morning. We are devastated,” Onyango told the Associated Press.


“Mama was sick with normal diseases — she did not die of COVID-19,” family spokesman Sheik Musa Ismail said, adding that Obama had tested negative for the disease. He said she had been ill for a week before being taken to the hospital.

Former President Obama has been informed of the death and sent his condolences, he said.

She will be buried Tuesday before midday, and the funeral will be held under Islamic rites.

The president-elect’s extended family there is enjoying instant celebrity and its perks, but the fame also has brought challenges.

“The passing away of Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation. We’ve lost a strong, virtuous woman, a matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said.

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

Sarah 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.

Former President Obama often showed affection for her and referred to her as “Granny” in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” He described meeting her during his 1988 trip to his father’s homeland and their initial awkwardness as they struggled to communicate, which later developed into a warm bond. She attended his first inauguration as president in 2009.

Obama spoke about his grandmother again in his September 2014 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

For decades, Sarah Obama has helped orphans, raising some in her home. The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation helped provide food and education to children who lost their parents — providing school supplies, uniforms, basic medical needs and school fees.

In a 2014 interview with the AP, she said that, even when she was an adult, letters would arrive, but she couldn’t read them. She said she didn’t want her children to be illiterate, so she saw to it that all her family’s children went to school.

She recalled ferrying her son Barack six miles to school on the back of her bicycle every day from Kogelo to the bigger town of Ngiya to make sure he got the education that she never had.

“I love education,” Sarah Obama said, because children “learn they can be self-sufficient,” especially girls who too often had no opportunity to go to school.

“If a woman gets an education, she will not only educate her family but educate the entire village,” she said.

In recognition of her work to support education, she was honored by the U.N. in 2014 with the inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award.