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Westport man meets Obama’s granny

Westport man Seán O’Malley is pictured with the paternal grandmother of US President Barack Obama on her family farm in Kisumu, Kenya, last month.
Westport man Seán O’Malley is pictured with the paternal grandmother of US President Barack Obama on her family farm in Kisumu, Kenya, last month.

The Westport man and Obama’s granny

A few spare hours in a Kenyan town and the charm of the Irish left one Westport man with an unexpected but great story to tell

Neill O’Neill

On a coach trip across the east African country of Kenya on May 1 last, Seán O’Malley found himself with some free time in the town of Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. With a day to spare before getting his connecting bus to an international Lions Club conference in Entebbe in Uganda, the retired teacher and vice-principal at Rice College, Westport took a random punt and asked a local taxi driver if he knew of a certain famous grandmother that he had heard lived in the region.
“It was Labour Day and everywhere was closed, you couldn’t even get a cup of coffee,” O’Malley recalls, “so I happened upon a taxi driver and knowing that Barack Obama’s people were from the area somewhere, I chanced my luck asking him if he knew where the Obama homestead was.”
After negotiating a deal on a price they began the 60km trip into the wilderness through bush and scrub, which took over two hours on what Seán describes as shocking roads. The driver didn’t quite know where he was going but was never going to admit that and jeopardise his handsome fare. Eventually, they arrived at a land holding, with high fences and heavily armed security guards.
“There are huge security risks with Al Qaeda, and nobody was getting into the farm on Labour Day the guard said, so I told him that I’d come all the way from Ireland to see Mama Sarah Obama, and explained her famous grandson’s Irish connections. He went to speak to her and came back to tell me that she would meet me.”
The grandmother of the most powerful man on earth turns 91 on her next birthday, but is very sharp and aware of what is going on in the world, according to O’Malley.
“I sat down on the lawn with the driver and Mama Sarah and her daughter. There were policemen around us as threats have been made against the family in the past. I was surprised by her knowledge of Ireland and she knew all about the Obamas’ trip here in 2011, which she watched on TV, and about the Irish Democratic support in the USA. She also told us all about how Barack had visited her in 2006 when he was a Senator.”
The lifestyle of the Obamas has not changed, and except for the security, is a million miles removed from that of their American relations. They still live a simple, self-sustaining life, with farm animals loose on their holding, and a bore hole for water. Greenpeace have installed solar power on their house, which gives them some hours of power each day.
“We discussed my work with the Lions Club and the ‘Give a Goat’ campaign and she knew about it and asked if we could donate to her widows’ lady group. She also looks after orphans.
“It is a very tranquil and peaceful place and the whole village is proud of Barack Obama,” he said. “The local school is named after him and they are now developing a new road there, though having the Kenyan President from the same area is no harm in that regard. In anticipation of a visit from Obama, they have also built a huge new runway at Kisumu airport.”
As darkness began to fall, Seán called time on his 40 minute audience with Mama Sarah. Kenya can be dangerous and fundamentalist groups operate there. Outside of the secure walls of the Obama farm – away from any urban centre - is not somewhere you would want to be at night.
Barack Obama has said in his memoirs that Mama Sarah is his favourite relation, and the President remains a cult figure in the country. As such, his grandmother is a celebrity, and regularly travels around Kenya and abroad to perform ceremonial duties or receive honorary degrees. She has not been to the USA since her grandson was elected President.

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