NAIROBI, Kenya – Sarah Obama, the matriarch of Barack Obama’s Kenyan family, died, relatives and officials confirmed Monday. She was at least 99 years old.
Mama Sarah, as the step-grandmother of the former U.S. president was called, promoted education for girls and orphans in her rural Kogelo village. She died around 4 a.m. local time while being treated at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral hospital in Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city in the country’s west, according to her daughter Marsat Onyango.
“She died this morning. We are devastated,” Onyango told The Associated Press on a phone call.
“Mama was sick with normal diseases; she did not die of COVID-19,” family spokesman Sheik Musa Ismail said, adding that she had tested negative for the coronavirus. He said she had been ill for a week before being taken to the hospital.
Barack Obama sent his condolences.
She will be buried Tuesday before midday, and the funeral will be held under Islamic rites.
“The passing away of Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation. We’ve lost a strong, virtuous woman, a matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said.
She will be remembered for her work to promote education to empower orphans, Kisumu Gov. Anyang Nyong’o said, offering his condolences to the people of Kogelo village for losing a matriarch.
“She was a philanthropist who mobilized funds to pay school fees for the orphans,” he said.
Sarah Obama was the second wife of Barack Obama’s grandfather and helped raise his father, Barack Obama Sr. The family is part of Kenya’s Luo ethnic group.
“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. We will miss her dearly, but we’ll celebrate with gratitude her long and remarkable life,” the former president wrote in a social media post Monday.
“When our family had difficulties, her homestead was a refuge for her children and grandchildren, and her presence was a constant, stabilizing force,” he said.
Obama referred to her as “Granny” in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.” He described meeting her in 1988 during a trip to his father’s homeland and their initial awkwardness as they struggled to communicate, which developed into a warm bond. She attended his first inauguration as president in 2009. Obama spoke about his grandmother in September 2014 in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
For decades, Sarah Obama helped orphans, raising some in her home. The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation provided food, education, school supplies, uniforms and fees and basic medical needs to children who lost their parents.
In an interview with AP in 2014, she said letters would arrive, but she couldn’t read them. She said she didn’t want her children to be illiterate, so she saw that all her family’s children went to school.
She recalled pedaling the president’s father 6 miles to school on the back of her bicycle every day from the family’s home village of Kogelo to the bigger town of Ngiya to make sure he got the education she never had.
“I love education,” Sarah Obama said, because children “learn they can be self-sufficient,” especially girls who too often had no opportunity to go to school.
“If a woman gets an education, she will not only educate her family but educate the entire village,” she said.
In recognition of her work to support education, she was honored by the United Nations in 2014, receiving the inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award.
Contributing: Matt Brown, USA TODAY