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)

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.”  

To live to age 90 in a place like Kogelo, to survive an abusive marriage, is not only good fortune. It is also a triumph of tenacity and willpower. Mama Sarah — complex, evolving — is beginning to see and help foster some of the changes taking place in her country.

And yet the soundbite from this latest visit that interested the Americans in the group most was her emphatic statement that President Obama was not born in Kenya, more fodder for the 24-hour news cycle of Birther claims and counterclaims.  

I wish more people who visit Mama Sarah would say, “Tell us about your life,” and then listen.

Louise Lief is the former deputy director of the International Reporting Project. She traveled to Kenya in 2009 and 2012.

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