Mama Sarah: I met Obama, McCain and Oprah

Published on 03/02/2009

By Peter Atsiaya

Mama Sarah Obama is beside herself with excitement after witnessing the inauguration of her grandson as the president of the United States.

She silently returned home from the US on Monday evening. The family kept her return trip secret to avoid a large crowd at the airport.

During President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, the grandmother sat at a conspicuous place a short distance from Obama.

The US government treated her as a State guest, booked her in a hotel and provided her with 24-hour security.

Ms Masat Obama and her mother Mama Sarah, arrive at Kisumu Airport, on Monday. Photos: James Keyi/Standard

At the main dais overlooking the Washington mall where a multitude stood and entry was restricted, Mama Sarah and close family members from Kenya, UK, US and Indonesia, sat two rows from the podium where Obama took the oath of office.

Some Kenyan Cabinet ministers who were in the US for the inauguration could only watch the historic event on TV.

Draped in warm clothes to keep off the winter cold, Mama Sarah, 87, for a moment thought she was dreaming, she said on arrival at Kisumu Airport.

Caught unawares

Sarah’s arrival at Kisumu Airport shortly after 6pm in a Jetlink flight caught many people unawares.

Dressed in a kitenge dress and walking with the aide of a walking stick, Mama Sarah smiled at airport employees and passengers as she disembarked from the plane.

With plainclothes security officers and her daughter, Masat, by her side, she headed for the airport lounge, but the airport manager, Mr Joseph Okumu, ushered her into the VIP lounge.

When journalists started taking her pictures, she complained:

“Yawa jo gazette ma America kod ma Kisumu ok uol gi goyo piche Mama Sarah?” (You journalists in America and Kisumu don’t get tired of taking Mama Sarah’s pictures), she asked.

At the lounge, Finance Assistant Minister Oburu Odinga, MPs Shakeel Shabir and Polyns Ochieng, who were at the airport, greeted her. Sarah told Dr Oburu about her trip.

“Koyo ng’ich America,” (It was too cold in America), she told Oburu.

She said she was wrapped in clothes like a baby because of the cold weather. “I was on a wheelchair because I have problems with my legs,” she added.

When she arrived in America, the US government security took charge of her throughout.

Other Obama relatives who attended the fete and got VIP treatment are his half-sister and brother, Auma and Malik, his uncle Saidi and cousin Wilson.

She did not understand why she got tight security yet she is a “small person”.

“The inauguration day was the most memorable of my stay,” she told Oburu.

Shocked by treatment

She could not believe it when she was ushered to a seat two rows behind her grandson on the day he became the most powerful person in the world.

“Tears of joy rolled my cheeks as he took the oath of office. I could not believe that Obama who once spent a night at my home in Kogelo had risen this far. I couldn’t believe that this was the boy whose father I took care of,” she said, laughing.

Mama Sarah said Kenyans in the Diaspora invited her to their homes. But she did not honour the invitations because of her tight schedule.

Before inauguration day, Sarah met Obama and had a personal chat with him. She declined to give details of what they discussed, and only said: “I know that is what you want to write.”

She also met Obama’s rival for the presidency, Mr John McCain, among other leaders at the inauguration dais.

She met Obama again later at a post-inauguration party where family members were invited.

Pictures which The Standard saw, but which the family declined to release for publication, show Mama Sarah chatting happily with Obama at a party. In another picture, she is with McCain and other Senators.

In yet another picture, the grandmother is with showbiz queen Oprah Winfrey.

When the family delegation left for Washington DC, Mama Sarah carried gifts traditionally meant for warriors to give to Obama: A three-legged stool, a flywhisk and a miniature shield.

Traditional gifts

She had wanted to carry a traditional Luo spear but dropped the idea after it became apparent that airport security would not allow it.

The onus of passing over the gifts to President Obama was left to a Kogelo resident, Mr Nicholas Rajula, who accompanied Mama Sarah. Obama’s aides received them on his behalf.

As Sarah was leaving the Kisumu Airport lounge for her Kogelo home, Oburu told her: “You are a prominent person and the road to your home should be tamarcked.”

She laughed and replied: “I have told your brother (PM Raila Odinga) that, and he promised to have it tarmacked from next week.”

A security officer respectfully opened the door to a green Mitsubishi double cabin pick-up, ushered her in and signalled the driver to leave.

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