Travelogue: My encounter with Obama’s grandmother in Kenya

Travelogue: My encounter with Obama’s grandmother in Kenya

Thursday, May 19, 2016 2:29 pm


Raphael James (right photo) with Mama Sarah the grandmother of American President Obama (in the left photo with the woman)

Raphael James (right photo) with Mama Sarah the grandmother of American President Obama (in the left photo with the woman)

Here is the narrative of my visit to Kenya which also makes me to become the first Nigerian journalist to interview Mama Sarah Obama, grandmother of the American President Barack Obama

By Raphael James

Kenya’s economy depends on tourism. For first time visitors, there are many attractions to see and appreciate and I took full advantage of my visit to move around the country.

On arrival at Jomo Kenyata International Airport in Nairobi, the capital, I was given a VIP reception. Two cops were waiting to receive me, accompanied by my host, Professor George Luchiri Wajackoyah. I first met Prof Wajackoyah in 2012 when he was contesting for the Presidency of Kenya under the ‘ROOT Party’. He had visited my daughter, Ambassador Oluebubechi James, Africa’s youngest published author and he engaged me as his Director of Press while in Nigeria. He is the first Kenyan to be awarded the highest honor by The Royal Government of  His Majesty, Sultan Muhammad Fuad Abdulla Kiram the First, The Sultan of Sulu and The Sultan of Sabah, Head of Islam and Head of Sultanate. I was driven straight to his palatial home, a stone throw to the government house in Nairobi.

After my breakfast, Prof commenced calls and started linking me with people that would make my stay pleasurable. Pascal Tabu Obama was the first on the line, the cousin of the President of the United States of America, who was also to act as my tour guide. Pascal is good with Kenya history and the tourist sites. We had a deal sealed and the journey commenced.

Gravesides Obama's father and grandfather

Gravesides Obama’s father and grandfather

Pascal lined up a whole lot of activities and places to visit. He made sure that they were of interest to me. He educated me about Kenya. In addition to giving me introductory briefings upon arrival, he provided information relevant to my locations throughout the course of the safari. He answered my questions, gave explanations, and thought me a little African History and Folklore as we moved along.

I visited several places, including the Kenya Wildlife Game Parks, Kenya Museums and Heritage, Museums and Archaeological sites, inside and around Lake Victoria.

I was at the ‘Uhuru Gardens’ on Lang’ata Road, Nairobi, Kenya. The largest memorial park in Kenya. The inaugural ceremony for Kenya’s first president, President Jomo Kenyatta, was conducted at this park on December 12, 1963 when Kenya gained its independence. A 24-metre high monument commemorating Kenyas’ struggle for independence is the centrepiece of attractions at Uhuru Gardens. To one side of this monument is a statue of freedom fighters raising the Kenyan flag. Most of the trees in the garden are planted by prominent Kenyan citizens. While there, I prayed under the Uhruru tree, planted by The Hon Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, M.P. Prime Minister of Kenya. It was at the site that the Kenyan National Flag was first raised on December 12, 1963.

I visited the Nairobi Animal Orphanage, located inside the Nairobi National Park. It serves as treatments and rehabilitation centre for wild animals. The Orphanage hosts lions, cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, gazelles, warthogs, leopards, various monkeys, baboons and buffalo. Various birds can also be viewed including parrots, guinea fowls, crowned cranes and ostriches.

I am standing under the Uhuru tree planted by The Hon Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, M.P. Prime Minister of Kenya at the site where the Kenyan National Flag was first raised on December 12, 1963

I am standing under the Uhuru tree planted by The Hon Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, M.P. Prime Minister of Kenya at the site where the Kenyan National Flag was first raised on December 12, 1963

I also visited the ‘Karura Forest,’ gazetted in 1932 and managed by the ’Kenya Forest Service,’ in conjunction with the ‘Friends of Karura Forest Community Forest Association’. It has an area of 1 063.0 ha, making it the largest of three main gazetted forests in Nairobi. It is located North of Central Nairobi and is bordered by the suburbs of Muthaiga, Gigiri, Runda, Ridgeways, Mathare North, Peponi and New Muthaiga. The Western part of the forest is also known as Sigiria Forest. The forest is made up of a waterfall, bamboo forest, marshland, Mau Mau caves and an old church among many others. The Forest is located in the city, thus many people in government, rich persons and businesses had made attempts to build housing estates within it. However, conservationists like Wangari Maathai, the leader of ’Green Belt Movement’ who later became a ’Nobel Peace Prize winner’, stood firm and campaigned for the preservation of the forest, not minding her being beaten and sentenced to prisons several times.

I visited ‘Kariokor’ Market, a former colonial prison turned to market. It is a huge open-air market where you can find everything from traditional fabrics and souvenirs to food items such as vegetables, fish, fruit etc. At lunchtime, you will find many local workers from the area, who are taking advantage of the many affordable and good eateries. I was surprised to find out that I can buy one banana from a bunch for 10 Kenyan Shillings. It looks more like Ariaria Market in Aba, Abia State, Nigeria.

I was also at the ‘Nairobi National Park’, established in 1946. It is located approximately seven kilometres South of the centre of Nairobi. It has an electric fence separating its wildlife from the metropolis; the animals before now roamed freely and sometimes walked into people’s houses. I was told of a nearby hotel where a Lion walked in- don’t ask me what happened after. Mervyn Cowie was the Conservationist that started it all after his return to Kenya after a nine-year absence in 1932 and was alarmed to see that animals there had reduced in number. He fought for the creation of the game reserve and in 1946 it was officially opened. Thank God for the foresight of Mervyin and today Kenya is making much money from the park

It was a delight to me to visit ‘Lake Victoria’. It is the world largest tropical lake, world’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area, world’s ninth largest continental lake and obviously Africa’s largest lake by area. Its surface area is 68,800 km2 (26,600 sq mi) and it contains about 2,750 cubic kilometres (2.23×109 acre·ft) of water. It occupies a shallow depression in Africa and has a maximum depth of 84 m (276 ft) and an average depth of 40 m (130 ft). Its catchment area covers 184,000 km2 (71,000 sq mi). It has a shoreline of 4,828 km (3,000 mi), with islands constituting 3.7 percent of this length and is divided among three countries: Kenya (6 percent or 4,100 km2 or 1,600 sq mi), Uganda (45 percent or 31,000 km2 or 12,000 sq mi), and Tanzania (49 percent or 33,700 km2 or 13,000 sq mi).

It is named after Queen Victoria by the explorer John Hanning Speke, the first Briton to document it in 1858, while on an expedition with Richard Francis Burton to locate the source of the Nile River. The Lake receives its water primarily from direct rainfall and thousands of small streams. The Kagera River is the largest stream flowing into this lake, with its mouth on the lake’s western shore and it is drained solely by the Nile River near Jinja in Uganda. I had a plate of fish garnished with pepper and vegetable there.

I visited the “Nairobi National Museum” which I was told was initiated in 1910 by a group of enthusiastic naturalists under the then ‘East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society’. When the first site, ‘Nyayo House’, became too small, a larger building was put up in 1922 where the Nairobi Serena Hotel stands today. In 1929, the British colonial government set aside land for a museum construction at Museum Hill which was officially opened in September 22nd 1930 and named ‘Coryndon Museum’ in honour of Sir Robert Coryndon, one time Governor of Kenya.

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria

In 1963 after independence, it was re-named the ‘National Museum of Kenya’. On October 15 2005, the ‘National Museum of Kenya’ was closed down to the public for an extensive modernization, expansion and repair work for fund generation and promotion of tourism. Today, it is an impressive piece of architectural site, a world- class museum. It was re-opened in June 2008 as the ‘Nairobi National Museum’, and continues to draw visitors from all walks of life including my humble self, in appreciation of Kenya’s rich heritage.

Before my visit, I had read so much about Kenya tea and the British Colonial master exclusive dominations of the tea farms until Kenyan independence in 1963. So I set out to Kericho – the land of TEA. Kericho hosts most of the tea plantations since the beginning of large-scale tea production in the 1930s. Acres of land are used for its production. The once dense forest was cut down by the British colonial masters to make way for the rolling tea plantations and today the tea plantations are helping the economy of Kenya in the international market. I visited Mau Tea Multi-Purpose Co-op Society Ltd., In Kericho. The tea landscape is a beauty to behold, it looks like a giant green carpet from a distance. Among the indigenous Kipsigis smallholding growing tea farmers, one will notice smaller patches of tea gardens popping up amongst farmlands and forests, the people make most of their living from tea production. Kericho also plants maize, beans, and coffee but tea is their major products. Kenyan tea is world renowned.

Mama Sarah attended Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Her home is located some 60 km from Kisumu town, in Alego. She overwhelmed me with her exceptional reception and love, describing me as the first Nigerian journalist to ever interview her. She is humble, loving and caring. I told her my mission which was to interview her and she gladly accepted, at the end of the interview, she insisted that I must spend the night under her roof, despite all my appeal to move into a nearby hotel. She slaughtered a chicken and ordered that her domestic assistant should prepare a special “Ugali na kuku meal” for me. She is awesome and she is a pride to humanity.

While in Kenya, I was adorned in Maasai Warrior Commander regalia and led a group of Maasai warriors in a battle dance. The Maasai are East Africa’s most celebrated indigenous peoples. They are tall, dark, slender, fearless, proud, and freedom loving people. They are a pastoral group, native to Southern Kenya and North-Central Tanzania, along the Great Rift Valley plains. They are great herders of cattle, who live in the open wild, sharing their habitat with wildlife. They deem themselves as sons of Enkai –a monotheistic God, who gifted them with cattle – in fact all the cattle in the world! They migrated Southward sometimes between the 14th and 16th centuries, probably in search of greener pastures for their beloved cattle. Along the way, they fiercely fought and displaced tribes they encountered. Around the 18th and 19th centuries, these nomadic Maa speaking Nilotes settled in their present domains in Kenya and Tanzania.

After Barack Obama 2006 visit as Senator to Kegelo the home town of his father , the village’s two schools were renamed after him, ‘Senator Obama Secondary School and Senator Obama Primary School.’ Both educate children referred by her Mama Sarah Foundation. Obama family members donated land to expand the schools and international donors have helped them operate. I took time off to visit both schools and the grave sides of President Obama’s father and grandfather respectively. Written on the grave side is “Ibed gi kwe” which means “Rest in Peace”.

I took a ride in the ‘Matatu’, privately owned minibuses decorated with portraits of leaders, music stars or and even football stars. The vehicles blare famous slogans and loud music to attract passengers. It is like the Nigeria ‘Molue’ bus, only that Matatus are neat and beautifully decorated to attract you inside them. I enjoyed my ride.

Receiving a gift from Pascal Obama, a cousin of president Obama

Receiving a gift from Pascal Obama, a cousin of president Obama

I took time off my busy tours to pay a courtesy visit to the Nigerian High Commissioner in Kenya – Mr. Friday Okai in his office at Lenana Road. He is a nice fellow. I asked him about his challenges as Chief Representative of Nigerians in Kenya and how he is handling issues concerning them and he assured me that all is fine.

A day to my departure back to Nigeria, I was honoured with a “Friend of Kenya” stone carved work of the map of Africa with an opening door to Kenya, by a group of Barristers led, by Prof Wajackoya.

James adorned in Maasai Warrior Commander regalia, leading a group of Maasai warriors in a battle dance

James adorned in Maasai Warrior Commander regalia, leading a group of Maasai warriors in a battle dance

On the eve of my departure, my new found friend and able tour guide, Pascal Obama, presented me with a copy of the biography of Wangari Muta Maathai – the Kenyan environmental and political activist, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

I met with Ambassador (Dr) Sarah Hussein Obama aka Mama Sarah, the 96-old Kenyan educator and philanthropist. She is the World’s Most Famous Granny. In other words, she is the only African and black woman ever to be a grandmother of an American president, the most powerful man on earth. She is the second wife of the paternal grandfather of U.S. President Barack Obama. President Obama referred to her as “Granny” in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” and described meeting her during his 1988 trip to his father’s homeland. He spoke about his “grandmother” again in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

Professor George Luchiri Wajackoyah, right, Raphael's great host

Professor George Luchiri Wajackoyah, right, Raphael’s great host

Mama Sarah attended Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Her home is located some 60 km from Kisumu town, in Alego. She overwhelmed me with her exceptional reception and love, describing me as the first Nigerian journalist to ever interview her. She is humble, loving and caring. I told her my mission which was to interview her and she gladly accepted, at the end of the interview, she insisted that I must spend the night under her roof, despite all my appeal to move into a nearby hotel. She killed a chicken and ordered that her domestic assistant should prepare a special “Ugali na kuku meal” for me. She is awesome and she is a pride to humanity.

Senator Obama Secondary school

Senator Obama Secondary school

Honestly it was a great pleasure to meet a woman held in such high esteem across Kenya and internationally. She speaks the local language – “Dholuo” so I got an interpreter, Naomi, who is a Director of the Mama Sarah Foundation. From Mama’s body language, I knew I was welcomed, she was at home with me and treated me like a grandson too. Mama Sarah loves to talk and she was willing to take all my questions even when I felt it was late for her to catch some rest. She has a lot of stamina for someone of her age. I appreciate the fact that not minding Mama Sara’s privacy as an elderly granny of 96 and the tight security within her compound, I was awesomely received and accepted and got my interview.

I thank God for a mission accomplished and I thank all those who contributed to the success of the trip but financially and morally in no particular order. I wish to thank Gen Jones Arogbofa, Omobola Fashaola, Prof George Wajackoya, Mama Sarah for granting the interview, Pascal Obama – my tour guide, Aunty Massart, Naomi Oketchhctek, Swedi Obama, Jane Longe, Nnenna Oti, my wife Folashade James and my children who gave me permission for the journey.

Dr. Raphael James is the Director General at Center for Research, Information Management and Media Development, Lagos

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