Barack Obama Just Shared This Heartbreaking News

She was a powerhouse in her community for promoting education as a way of empowering the less fortunate. And while that work made Sarah Obama a celebrity in Kenya, she was known in the United States for a different reason. Sarah, who was also known as "Mama Sarah," appeared as "Granny" in the book Dreams From My Father, written by her step-grandson Barack Obama (via CNN). It was her death that made the former president take to social media to mourn her passing. 

He posted on Twitter: "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." Barack Obama's half-sister, Auma, also posted a memorial on Twitter, calling Mama Sarah, "the most important person in my life ... my inspiration, my rock, my comfort zone [and] my safe space." 

In his book, Barack Obama chronicled the difficulty he had when he tried to speak with his grandmother and told of an awkwardness that later turned into affection. Mama Sarah even traveled to the United States to see her step-grandson sworn in as the first African American President of the United States in 2009 (via Associated Press). On a later trip to Kogelo, President Obama was caught on camera, laughing and dancing with his grandmother during the inauguration of a local youth center (via Twitter). He visited Kogelo at his grandmother's request (via DW). 

Barack Obama is mourning the death of his step-grandmother

Mama Sarah had been ill in the week leading up to her death, and a family spokesman clarified that she did not die from COVID-19 (via Associated Press). Her daughter, Marsat Onyango, confirmed that she passed away while under the care of doctors at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral hospital in Kisumu, Kenya (via HuffPost).

CNN reports that Mama Sarah had previously worked as a cook for British missionaries in her home country and that she was a devout Muslim. But it was her experience raising the former president's father, Barack Obama Sr., that inspired her life's work. "When he was nine years old, I would take Barack Obama Sr. on my bike about nine kilometers to a primary school way off my homestead," she told Leaders, "I would do this every day so he could get an education that I was denied." Mama Sarah soon began to advocate for literacy rights, particularly for girls and orphans who lived around her village. She spent decades raising or helping orphans by giving them food and an education.

In a 2014 interview with NPR, Obama's grandmother described her work. "I encourage [girls] — even the ones who have had families at a young age — I encourage them to go to school so that the cycle of poverty can end." That same year, as per The Washington Post, the United Nations awarded Sarah Obama with the Women's Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award.

Kenya mourns the death of Mama Sarah

When Barack Obama first saw his paternal grandmother, he saw a woman who he described in his book with "smooth and big-boned [face, and] sparkling, laughing eyes" (via Politco). For him, the loss is deeply personal. But Sarah Obama's philanthropic work through the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation marked Kenya profoundly. She became such a prominent national figure that during her life that The Guardian wrote about her as "embedded in Kenya's national mythology," astounded over the fact that Greenpeace volunteers installed solar power in her home. Her death has been marked by many of Kenya's most prominent politicians.

Former Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga called Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama "a matriarch who lived ahead of her time" in his Twitter tribute. Kenyan senator and human rights activist, James Orengo tweeted his condolences, praising Mama Sarah's "magnetic personality and ability to care deeply for others." For his part, the governor of Kenya's Mombasa County, H.E Hassan Ali Joho wrote on Twitter that Sarah Obama "will always remain a symbol of strength, kindness and humility. Finally, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said, "The passing away of Mama Sarah is a big blow to our nation. We've lost a strong, virtuous woman. A matriarch who held together the Obama family and was an icon of family values" (via CNN). 

Many of the former president's followers also took to social media to console Barack Obama over the death of Mama Sarah. CNN reports that the Obama family matriarch will be buried immediately in accordance with Islamic rites.