Meeting President Obama’s Grandmother

So, I met President Barack Obama’s grandmother. Seriously.

This past weekend I spent several days in a rural village with a friend’s family in order to learn about Kenyan life outside the big city. My friend’s family’s home happened to be just seven kilometers from the Obama family home which is in the village of Kogelo, an area several hours from Nairobi that is home to the Luo tribe of Kenya. When I found out how close we’d be to the Obamas, I decided I had to make a visit. Perhaps, I thought, I could see the area where the President’s father grew up or get a glimpse of the family’s homestead.

On Sunday afternoon, we all piled into the car – my friend whose home we were visiting, his cousin, my friend Abby, and me. We drove through the luscious, rolling green hills and powder blue skies of the Kenyan countryside into the village of Kogelo. I knew we had arrived upon seeing signs like “Senator Secondary School” and the “Barack Obama Shop.”  After a few more winding roads going further into the village, we came upon what we believed to be Sarah Obama’s homestead, the grandmother to President Barack Obama. There was a police officer guarding a large gate into the area. We got out of the car and my friend walked up to the police officer and asked if we could visit Mrs. Sarah Obama. I was taken aback by his request, thinking he must be crazy to assume we might be able to meet her. The police officer looked at us hesitantly and asked for our passports. Abby and I did not have them with us because we had no idea that this opportunity might come up. Did we have our state ID’s? No. Our student ID’s? No. A friggin’ business card? No. The police officer asked my friend for his Kenyan ID, and he pulled it out from his wallet. The police officer saw money in it and suddenly became very friendly. Sure we could come in – he would just “close his eyes.” Plus, he said, Sarah Obama did not have the heart to turn down visitors.

The police officer led us up to the home…and there she was! Ninety-year-old Sarah Obama, sitting in a chair on the lawn. She was wearing a dress made of the traditional, brightly colored Kenyan cloth and her head wrapped in the same cloth. She had kind eyes, soft wrinkles, and a hearty laugh. There were a few other people sitting in chairs around her, and the police officer whispered to us that they were some of President Obama’s extended family members who had come to meet her. Then, we were led right up to Sarah Obama. I shook her hand and said the only word I knew in her tribal language of Duluo – “Erokamano” which means “Thank you.” She laughed loudly and shook my hand firmly when she heard me say it.

A woman brought out chairs for us to sit on and cool sodas to enjoy. For several minutes we sat there with Sarah Obama and her family members as she shared stories in Duluo about the family and the President. She laughed about how much life had changed since the 2008 election – now she travels all over the world and people come to visit her nearly every day. She laughed about how people think she’s rich. She talked about how electricity and roads had come to the village after the election. She cracked jokes in Duluo, and our friends were in tears from laughter as they tried to translate what she had said into English through their giggles. She explained that she had spoken to the President on the phone a few days prior. He had sent her a Mother’s Day card and was planning a visit. Just a hundred feet or so away, she pointed to the President’s father’s grave and explained that as a young man, Barack had visited and stayed in her home.

After some time, several important-looking men in suits showed up demanding her attention, so we politely excused ourselves. On the way out, my friend handed the police officer a few hundred shillings for his trouble (a few dollars). He smiled and said we were welcome back any time.

(FYI, Sarah Obama asked that we not take any photos of her, so the photo of her above was not taken by me. The other photos I was able to take on the way into the homestead.)


Robbery Attempt

First of all, let me say this: I love Kenya and I feel very safe here with my host family and local friends. The last thing I want to do is paint a negative picture of the beautiful place that I call home. But to be completely honest, there is a major problem with crime in Kenya. Nairobi has been nicknamed “Nairobbery” because of how common theft and robbery have become. Even the police are often involved in crime due to high levels of corruption.

Since I arrived in Nairobi five months ago, I have come in contact with crime in a few forms. Today I was pick-pocketed and my phone was stolen. A friend of mine was held at gunpoint and her laptop was taken by thieves as she walked in her neighborhood. Another friend was captured by police after he refused to give them money, held for three days with no food or water, accused of being a terrorist and then drugged (yes, drugged by police). Every Kenyan has stories about their wallet being stolen or their home or car broken into. Personally, I have been the victim of a few robbery attempts, one that I will share about in detail here (don’t worry, it’s actually kinda funny).

Abby (my fellow student) and I were taking a matatu from home to church last Sunday morning. As soon as we got in and sat down, a man entered and settled into the vacant seat next to me. I was instantly suspicious because he sat next to me when the rest of the matatu was empty – something that people rarely do. He also had a large backpack that was flat and empty, which is a typical tool for robbery (you’ll see why in a moment).

A few moments later, a girl got on the matatu that was lost, so I explained to her how to get where she wanted to go (and stopped clutching my bag momentarily). When she was getting out of the matatu I suddenly became aware of the guy next to me again and realized he had his large bag covering part of my arm and the corner of my bag, and his hand was partially into it! He was trying to rob me! I pulled my bag away suddenly and looked at him, and he got spooked. The poor guy caught me on the wrong day…I said in a loud voice for the whole (now full) matatu to hear: “I am a visitor in your country, and this is how you welcome me? By trying to steal from me?” Then I turned around to address all the people in the matatu and pointed to the man, saying: “This man is a thief!”

The guy motioned for the conductor to let him out of the matatu immediately – he was nervous and embarrassed. As he stepped out I said, again loud enough for everyone to hear, “I hope you are going to church so you can repent for your sins.” The whole matatu was in shock, in disbelief that this Mzungu girl confronted the thief. I was a bit worried about how people might react, until an older Mama looked a me, smiled, and gave me a thumbs up! I was satisfied in my small piece of justice.

Check out my previous post on matatu culture here: