Obama Step-Grandma on Women’s Rights

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

Sarah Obama in June 2012 (Louise Lief)
Sarah Obama in June 2012 (Louise Lief)

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.

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.