Meeting Grandma Sarah Obama

 My driver in Kisumu told me that when he took some journalists to a nearby town to investigate, they were greeted by a sight so gruesome as to be unbelievable.

(Published in Daily Times, 14 November 2012) 

Nairobi is very crowded and polluted.  Some have called the capital of Kenya “Nai-robbery”.  I decided not to check the facts behind this appellation and quickly moved on to the town of Kisumu, about 350 kilometres to the west.  It had the advantage of being situated on the road to Uganda, my next destination.  Kisumu is also close to Kogelo, President Barack Obama’s ancestral village, which I planned to visit.

Strolling along Odingo Odingo Street, Kisumu’s main road, and watching brisk economic activity – shops selling, hawkers peddling, pedestrians walking and motor vehicles cruising – it was hard to imagine the inhumanity and mayhem witnessed here not so long ago.

In December 2007, riots had erupted in Kisumu along tribal lines as a consequence of massive election fraud perpetrated by the ruling party.  Luos and Kikuyus were cutting each other’s throats, when not burning one another alive, after the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, from the majority Kikuyu tribe, was declared the winner over Raila Odinga, an opposition leader who is a Luo, the dominant tribe in western Kenya.  More than 1500 people were killed and 300,000 displaced in the rioting that followed.  It was tribe against tribe, man against man.

My driver in Kisumu told me that when he took some journalists to a nearby town to investigate, they were greeted by a sight so gruesome as to be unbelievable: severed human heads held aloft on spikes on either side of the main road, like decorative busts. Judging by their looks, these were relatively fresh kills, he said.

Like elsewhere in Africa and the Third World, politicians are believed to fan the flames of tribalism and sectarianism and to instigate riots for their own political and financial benefit. Angry Kenyans have launched a campaign of painting murals on Nairobi’s walls to shame their politicians. Some of the murals depict the country’s politicians as vultures.

One mural purports to show a man lying down comfortably, thinking: “I am a tribal leader.  They loot, rape, burn and kill in my defence.  I steal their taxes, grab land, but the idiots will still vote for me”.  The caption below reads “MPs screwing Kenyans since 1963”.  That is the year Kenyans won their independence from British colonial rule. 

Besides being named and shamed at the public level, the high and mighty can no longer count on the legal impunity they once took for granted.  Six prominent Kenyans, including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the founding-president Jomo Kenyatta, now face charges in the International Criminal Court at The Hague for their role in the riots of 2007. 

A Sudanese businessman, Mohammad Ibrahim, has established the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Good Governance for African heads of state or government “who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents, and who democratically transfer power to their successor.”

The recipients so far have been Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique, 2007), Festus Mogae (Botswana, 2008) and Pedro Pires (Cape Verde, 2011). Unfortunately, in 2009, 2010 and again in 2012, the independent selection committee did not think anyone deserving of this prize, which awards an initial US$5 million to the recipient, followed by an annual $200,000 a year for life, exceeding the Nobel Prize in total value.

I confess to being partial to Barack Obama.  For the son of a Kenyan father to win an election (and re-election) to the post of president of the US is a credit to the man.  But it is also a proof of how much America has changed.  In the year Obama was born (1961), a black person would have been refused a haircut in the vicinity of the White House.  Less than five decades later, he was elected to preside over the country from that White House.

Having read Obama’s very personal account (in “Dreams from my Father”) of his father’s extended family and his visit to his late father’s village in 1987, I was determined to go there myself.  I can now report that I sat with “Grandma” Sarah Obama under the shade of a tree next to their house. In fact, though, Sarah is President Obama’s step-grandmother, but of that later.

At the age of 90, Sarah Obama is surprisingly fit but surrounded by hangers-on and an unofficial minder who seemed too clever and manipulative for my liking. This gentleman claimed to be from the extended family and was her interpreter, minder and public relations officer, all in one.  When we arrived he was with a group of about 20 people, seated on folding chairs in a circle, as if an important meeting was in progress. 

Before agreeing to allow us to see “Grandma” Obama, he extracted from me a promise “not to abuse or misrepresent” this privilege, registered my name and address and took my photo to ensure compliance. And, yes, wouldn’t I like to make a donation before I bid farewell?

Getting through the main gate wasn’t easy either. The lone uniformed policeman behind the locked gate was a formidable gate-keeper.  He interrogated me from behind the grills of the locked gate, on my provenance and purpose and consulted with the minder before letting us in.  On the way out, when I asked if I could have my photo taken with him, the policeman declined saying “the law” didn’t allow him to be photographed “in uniform” with strangers.  I knew that a couple of dollars would have permitted the law to be flexible in this matter, but it wasn’t worth it.

One of my good friends tells me that when he was visiting the former palace of Egypt’s King Farooq in Alexandria, he was stopped from taking a photo of the bedroom by the attendant, who said it was not permitted.  Offered a “baksheesh” of a couple of Egyptian pounds, this guardian of the law not only allowed my friend to take a photo of the bedroom but offered to take a photo of him and his wife relaxing on the royal bed!

By Razi Azmi


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2 Responses to Meeting Grandma Sarah Obama

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Thanks to Razi Azmi Sahib we get know important facts which others fail to see. It is not only the information that we get there always are insights which help in understanding.
    All I can say is thank you Razi Azmi Sahib.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Interesting, but you should have elaborated a little bit more about Obama’s grandmother. Could you take a photograph with her. Is the next article on Uganda. reading your articles remind me of Nairobi and Kisumu where I have spent early years of my life. I would expect some description of the wild life in east Africa. Thanks Razi for developing my insight into Africa.

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