Obama Step-Grandma on Women's Rights

What Sarah Obama says might shock some. But they're not really listening to the Kenyan matriarch.

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The visit, which began after Mama Sarah awoke from her afternoon nap, did not unfold as planned. Instead of focusing on life in Nyanza, Mama Sarah's work with her widows group and the challenges women farmers face in a region plagued by hunger, the conversation gravitated to what she thought of the presidential inauguration, how often she communicated with President Obama and the immigration ordeals of various Obama relatives in the U.S.

There were few queries about Nyanza. She sighed, then patiently answered the questions. The supplies we brought delighted her, and as we drove off, she began dragging the boxes in backward through her front door.

In June 2012, I returned with a group of international bloggers who were looking at women's reproductive-health issues in Kenya. Once again we visited Nyanza province and Mama Sarah.

Over three years, much had changed. A brightly painted sign saying "Sarah Obama's Road" had been placed at the turnoff. On the compound's metal gate, another sign posted official visiting hours. The souvenir table was gone. She now had a government minder, a young female civil servant. In the three years since I first met her, Mama Sarah had become a regional tourist attraction. 

We sat under the mango tree, and again, the conversation did not go as I had envisioned. Mama Sarah was somewhat irritable, still recovering from a bout of malaria two days prior. Delegation members asked her about women's reproductive-health issues but didn't approve of the answers they got. She opposes abortion and objects to family planning for practical reasons.

"In our circumstances the [child] mortality rate is very high," she said. "If you limit [births], you lower the number that will remain. So the more, the better." She repeated what she told the young Barack Obama Jr., as described in Dreams From My Father: that she believes disobedient wives should be beaten.

It's only recently that some rural Kenyan women feel empowered enough to negotiate with their husbands on family size. Others secretly visit clinics (if there are any available in their area) for injectable contraceptives.

Her thoughts on beating disobedient wives may seem shocking, but it's complicated. She herself was an abused wife. Her husband, Hussein Onyango Obama, President Obama's paternal grandfather, was known as "the Terror." He beat his wives (polygamy is widespread in Nyanza), children and even dinner guests, often for no apparent reason. According to Mama Sarah's account in Dreams From My Father, several wives who predated her couldn't take the abuse and returned to their parents' compounds, a radical act in Luo society that shames the woman's family. 

Akumu, Sarah Obama's co-wife and the biological mother of Barack Obama Sr., repeatedly tried to flee but was always returned to Onyango Obama's house by her parents. When Barack Obama Sr. was 9 years old, Akumu finally escaped, abandoning her son to be raised by Mama Sarah, Onyango Obama's third or fourth wife, who was barely more than a teenager herself.

Mama Sarah's experience may explain why, in 2009 and 2012, she spoke repeatedly about the importance of educating girls. "During my day, women were not allowed to go to school," she told us during the visit this year. "We had to take care of the garden, cook and take care of the children. Now it is better." If a woman is educated, "she can take care of herself."