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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Sarah Obama in June 2012 (Louise Lief)

(The Root) -- No visit to Kenya is complete without calling on Sarah Obama, President Obama's remarkably sharp 90-year-old step-grandmother, the woman who raised his father, Barack Obama Sr.

Since the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Westerners have trooped to her door, eager to learn about the president's African heritage from the woman he calls "Granny." Obama used her accounts of the family history extensively in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father. Thrust into the spotlight by improbable circumstances, Mama Sarah, as Kenyans call her, graciously receives these many visitors. 

I've had the pleasure of seeing Mama Sarah several times, most recently this past June, and have visited her with two groups of journalists. It is revealing to hear the narratives Western visitors bring to these encounters, preloaded storylines that can become obstacles to seeing Africa for what it is. 

First, you should know something about Nyanza province, where the Obama family, members of the Luo tribe, has lived for generations in the village of Nyangoma Kogelo. Located in Western Kenya, Nyanza has some of the worst health indicators in the country. If President Obama had been born in Kogelo, chances are he would not have lived to age 5. In Kenya nationally, the infant mortality rate is 74 in 1,000; in Nyanza it is 200 in 1,000.  

The average Kenyan's life expectancy is 56. In Nyanza it is 44. Infants are more than twice as likely to die here than elsewhere in Kenya, and mothers are more likely to die in childbirth. The HIV/AIDS rate is more than double the national average. Almost two-thirds of the population lives below the national poverty line.

While it's true she's more prosperous than many of her neighbors, this is Mama Sarah's world.

I first met Sarah Obama in March 2009, shortly after her step-grandson took office. In those days you could just show up. When I arrived, Mama Sarah, wearing a colorful dress and matching headscarf, was sitting under a mango tree in front of her small house with a group of local women.

She spoke in Luo, her tribal language. The women were part of a widows-and-grandmothers group taking care of orphaned children. Most of the children were probably AIDS orphans, and some of the women sitting in the circle were probably HIV-positive, too. (Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a study in Nyanza, up to 36 percent of women between 20 and 30 years old and up to 40 percent of men ages 25 to 34 are HIV-positive. Women are almost twice as likely to contract the virus. Polygamy and customs such as wife inheritance further spread the disease.)

Sarah Obama was caring for several orphans and paying the secondary-school fees of other students so they could continue their studies. She said she had also persuaded more than a dozen non-Kenyan visitors to sponsor more students.

I headed back to Kenya in June 2009 with an editors' delegation. I looked forward to introducing them to the "other" Obama community organizer, to have them see life in Nyanza through her eyes. We came with supplies she had requested for the widows: sugar, tea, maize meal, cooking oil, candles and salt. Someone had set up a souvenir table at the entrance to her compound featuring earrings and necklaces of colorful paper beads made from old magazines.

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