Barack Obama’s paternal step-grandmother, Sarah Obama, has died at the age of 99.
She died on Monday at a hospital in Kisumu, Kenya, a close relative confirmed, according to BBC News. The family did not reveal the cause of death but said she had been ill for a week and did not die from COVID-19.
Former President Obama also confirmed the news of Sarah Obama’s passing in a statement on Monday.
“My family and I are mourning the loss of our beloved grandmother, Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama, affectionately known to many as “Mama Sarah” but known to us as “Dani” or Granny,” he said. “We will miss her dearly, but celebrate with gratitude her long and remarkable life.
“The passing away of Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement. “We’ve lost a strong, virtuous woman. A matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values.”
The Obama matriarch raised the former president’s father, Barack Obama Sr., in Nyanza Province in the Western region of Kenya. She was the third wife of Obama’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, and took over the upbringing of Barack Obama Sr. after his biological mother ran away. Late into her life, she continued prioritizing the care of orphans and for decades ran a foundation to help educate orphans and girls, reports the BBC.
Obama himself wrote about his journey to meet Sarah in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.
“When I first traveled to Kenya to learn more about my heritage and father, who had passed away by then, it was Granny who served as a bridge to the past, and it was her stories that helped fill a void in my heart,” Obama said on Monday.
Living in humble circumstances throughout her life, Sarah Obama eventually went on to command crowds of curious visitors across the globe after her step-grandson became the first Black president of the United States.
“Granny would witness epochal changes taking place around the globe: world war, liberation movements, moon landings, and the advent of the computer age,” Obama said. “She would live to fly on jets, receive visitors from around the world, and see one of her grandsons get elected to the United States presidency. And yet her essential spirit—strong, proud, hard-working, unimpressed with conventional marks of status and full of common sense and good humor—never changed.”