Barack Obama’s step-grandmother, known affectionately to many as Mama Sarah, has died in Kenya at the age of 99.
Sarah Obama was the third wife of the former president’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama. She died early on Monday in hospital in the western town of Kisumu after a short illness, the Daily Nation newspaper reported, saying her death was not Covid-19 related.
In a statement, Barack Obama said: “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.”
She became a celebrity in her own right after her step-grandson visited Kenya in 2006, two years before he was elected to his first White House term and while he was still a US senator for Illinois.
As Mama Sarah, she was known to generations of Kenyans for her social activism, largely centered on children’s and family issues. The Guardian met her in 2012 during an international reporting project trip to Kenya about reproductive health.
Sarah Obama, a Muslim, was born in 1922 as part of western Kenya’s Luo native group. She spent decades as head of a foundation to educate girls and orphans, AFP reported, despite being unable to read herself. She was popular with local schoolchildren for serving hot porridge and doughnuts.
Barack Obama made two further high-profile trips to Kenya, one in 2015 when he became the first sitting US president to visit, meeting Sarah Obama and other family members in Nairobi.
The other trip came in 2018, after he left office. He visited his father’s childhood village and jokingly apologized that he hadn’t returned to visit his grandmother sooner because Air Force One was too big to land at her local airfield.
Sarah Obama attended her grandson’s inauguration in Washington in January 2009, presenting him with a Kenyan oxtail fly swatter as a symbol of power. She also fiercely defended him from rightwing attacks, fuelled by Donald Trump’s lie that Obama was born in Kenya and raised as a Muslim.
Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan president, paid tribute to Sarah Obama on Twitter.
“The passing away of Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation,” he wrote. “We’ve lost a strong, virtuous woman. A matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values.”