Nairobi, Kenya — Sarah Obama, the matriarch of former President Obama's Kenyan family has died, relatives and officials confirmed Monday. She was at least 99 years old.
Mama Sarah, as Mr. Obama's step-grandmother was fondly called, promoted education for girls and orphans in her rural Kogelo village. She passed away around 4 a.m. local time while being treated at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral hospital in Kisumu, Kenya's third-largest city, according to her daughter, Marsat Onyango.
"She died this morning. We are devastated," Onyango told The Associated Press on a phone call.
"Mama was sick with normal diseases. She did not die of COVID-19," family spokesman Sheik Musa Ismail said, adding that she had tested negative for the disease. He said she had been ill for a week before being taken to the hospital.
Mr. Obama was informed of the death and sent his condolences, Ismail said.
She will be buried Tuesday before midday and the funeral will be held under Islamic rites.
"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," President Uhuru Kenyatta said.
She will be remembered for her work to promote education to empower orphans, Kisumu Governor Anyang Nyong'o said while offering his condolences to the people of Kogelo village for losing a matriarch.
"She was a philanthropist who mobilized funds to pay school fees for the orphans," he said.
Sarah Obama was the second wife of President Obama's grandfather and helped raise his father, Barack Obama, Sr. The family is part of Kenya's Luo ethnic group.
President Obama often showed affection toward her and referred to her as "Granny" in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father." He described meeting her during his 1988 trip to his father's homeland and their initial awkwardness as they struggled to communicate, but said they developed a warm bond. She attended his first inauguration as president in 2009. Later, Mr. Obama spoke about his grandmother again in his September 2014 speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
"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," the former president said in a statement Monday.
His statement continued:
"Although not his birth mother, Granny would raise my father as her own, and it was in part thanks to her love and encouragement that he was able to defy the odds and do well enough in school to get a scholarship to attend an American university. When our family had difficulties, her homestead was a refuge for her children and grandchildren, and her presence was a constant, stabilizing force. When I first traveled to Kenya to learn more about my heritage and father, who had passed away by then, it was Granny who served as a bridge to the past, and it was her stories that helped fill a void in my heart. ...
"We will miss her dearly, but celebrate with gratitude her long and remarkable life."
For decades, Sarah Obama helped orphans, raising some in her home. The Mama Sara Obama Foundation helped provide food and education to children who lost their parents - providing school supplies, uniforms, basic medical needs, and school fees.
In a 2014 interview with the AP, she said that even as an adult, letters would arrive but she couldn't read them. She said she didn't want her children to be illiterate, so she saw to it that all her family's children went to school.
She recalled pedaling the president's father six miles to school on the back of her bicycle every day from the family's home village of Kogelo to the bigger town of Ngiya to make sure he got the education that she never had.
"I love education," Sarah Obama said, because children "learn they can be self-sufficient," especially girls who too often had no opportunity to go to school.
"If a woman gets an education she will not only educate her family but educate the entire village," she said.
In recognition of her work to support education, she was honored by the United Nations in 2014, receiving the inaugural Women's Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award.