Before his 2008 election, former US President Barack Obama’s step grandmother Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama or “Mama Sarah” as she was affectionately known, was best known in her rural village of Nyang’oma Kogelo, in Western Kenya for bringing mandazi or sugar coated doughnuts and porridge to schools in the community.
As a farmer, an agricultural ambassador, a food security activist, a market vendor, a philanthropist and a food entrepreneur, Mama Sarah’s story was one that could be told in food.
The farm, which her famous step grandson would refer to in his memoir, as “a small plot of earth, an ocean away,” was Mama Sarah’s primary source of income, from which she would raise and educate his father, her stepson Barack Hussein Obama Senior, and help orphans, many of whom would eventually come to live with her.
A member of the Kenya’s Luo ethnic group, comprised mainly of pastoralists, Mama Sarah was no stranger to food insecurity. Croft, Marshall and Hallett (2016) refer to Western Kenya as “a prime example of the interconnected and complex issues of poverty, malnutrition, and low agricultural productivity which has created many food insecure communities.” Eighty per cent of Western Kenya’s farmers are women, the majority of whom do not own the rights of the land on which they work.
Mama Sarah “had no formal schooling, and in the ways of her tribe, she was married off to a much older man while only a teen,” said Barack Obama, of Mama Sarah’s life.
“She would spend the rest of her life in the tiny village of Alego, in a small home built of mud-and thatch brick and without electricity or indoor plumbing. There she raised eight children, tended to her goats and chickens, grew an assortment of crops, and took what the family didn’t use to sell at the local open-air market,” recounted her famous grandson.
Mama Sarah was a poultry farmer. Joe Ombuor, a journalist for Kenyan newspaper, The Standard depicted large numbers of free-range chickens that indiscriminately roamed the Obama property, many choosing to settle atop the adjacent gravestones of her husband Barack Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who had been a great chicken lover, and Barack Obama’s father, Barack Hussein Obama Senior.
According to Kenyan tradition, a visitor’s significance is symbolized by the size of the chicken slaughtered in their honor and Mama Sarah said that she had slaughtered cocks for her grandson on three occasions— first when he visited upon the death of his father, then as a US senator, and finally as the President of the United States.
Mama Sarah’s shamba or farm was also a home to cattle, exotic birds and a variety of crops such as avocados and bountiful mango trees that littered the soil with their fresh fruits.
There was a dairy unit from which milk was sold at subsidized prices to the local schools, as were eggs from the chickens and fish from the farm’s pond.
Mama Sarah would frequently attend the Nyang’oma market where she had a small stall selling produce from the farm and foods that she had made at home, such as Sukuma Wiki, a spicy dish of braised collard greens.
As a farmer in the early 1940’s, the family matriarch relied on ox-drawn ploughs but would later substitute these for tractors. But even as farming practices in Western Kenya became more automated and commercialized, she continued to rely on traditional farming techniques.
When Joe Ombuor interviewed Mama Sarah for The Standard, in advance of President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated visit to Kenya in 2015, he marveled at how she would thresh maize— a post-harvest practice that is typically automated— by using her bare fingers, as she engaged with other women on her compound.
Mama Sarah was a naturalist and would become a well-known ambassador of ecological push-pull farming, an organic practice that relies on natural insect–plant and insect–insect relationships rather than toxic chemicals to deter pests from food crops such as maize. She began to promote the farming method due to its positive impact on yields and food security.
The interconnection of economic development and food security was not lost on Mama Sarah. After all, the majority of the proceeds from her farm went towards the education of her stepson and the orphans in her community, and agriculture would eventually become one of the pillars of her philanthropic initiatives.
Mama Sarah would use her fame as a platform for her philanthropy, through the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, which provided food and education to orphans.
The foundation promoted farming as a means of improving food security and reducing poverty and supported the alleviation of waterborne diseases by providing clean water to the communities which it served.
As she became more immersed in her foundation, Mama Sarah’s daughter, Marsat Onyango took over the operations of the family farm.
Onyango would collaborate with Amiran Kenya, a Kenyan farming company focused on creating opportunities through modernized crop production techniques.
Through the collaboration, they would demonstrate how modern methods and technologies, such as greenhouses, can help to make ideal use of small plots of land so that subsistence crops such as beans and maize could be converted into cash crops.
In recognition of her many achievements, Mama Sarah was granted the inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award by the United Nations in 2014.
When Mama Sarah passed away on March 29 2021, she took exactly eighty years of farming knowledge with her. During her eight decades as a farmer, she used food to lift herself and others, including Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Senior, out of poverty.
Mama Sarah Obama was buried on March 30 2021 at her home, beside her husband and stepson. Governor of Kisumu, the capital of Western Kenya, Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o said at her funeral that the Obama home in Nyang’oma Kogelo should remain a shrine to the world as it produced men and women who had made history, despite coming from humble beginnings.