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.


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."  


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.