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Sarah Onyango Obama, Ex-President’s Stepgrandmother, Dies at 99

Indeed, a year after the president’s inauguration she created her own foundation — the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation — to raise funds for an ambitious project to build an educational campus in her home village and to sponsor bursaries for young Kenyans, particularly girls, who would otherwise be denied schooling.

“I help the orphans and widows, especially the young girls who have been orphaned by their parents dying of H.I.V.,” she told NPR through a translator in 2014, when she won an Education Pioneer award at the United Nations. “I am their sole parent right now, so I help pay school fees and also get them the things they need, like sanitary towels, books, necessities like a pencil, school uniforms. That’s what I do.”

But there were risks in her ties to the American former president. After the killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs in 2011, the Kenyan police ordered increased security in her village for fear of reprisals from a local affiliate of Al Qaeda. Even after Mr. Obama left office in 2017, the heightened precautions were maintained.

Mr. Obama’s own security arrangements also prevented him from visiting the ancestral village.

When Mr. Obama paid an official visit to Kenya in 2015, the first sitting American president to do so, his African relatives had to meet him in the capital, Nairobi. About three dozen members of his extended family, including his stepgrandmother, joined him at his hotel for dinner around long banquet tables.

During that trip, he also spoke at an indoor arena, where he was introduced by his half sister Auma Obama, who had also met him during his first visit to Kenya three decades earlier. She told the audience that a Kenyan had said to Mr. Obama, “don’t get lost,” but that there was no way he would.

“I’ll tell you that because he was with me. He fit right in,” she said.

“He’s not just our familia,” she added. “He gets us. He gets us.”

Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting.


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