For former US First Lady Michelle Obama, the first time she met Mama Sarah Obama, it was love at first sight.
In her “Becoming” memoir, former Michelle Obama describes her first encounter with Mama Sarah in detail, concluding how safe and confident she felt in her presence.
The year was 1991 in the heat of multiparty clamour, and Michelle and Barrack Obama, with new jobs each, had just engaged. They had taken a vacation to Kenya. They arrived in Nairobi in the morning and found Barrack’s sister, Auma, waiting with her rickety Volkswagen bug. They later took a train to Kisumu and a matatu to Kogelo.
Sweaty and thirsty, Michelle and Obama arrived in Mama Sarah’s “well-kept concrete home” and find her steeped in her daily chores, but also waiting for them. A typical granny, easy but tough, funny but circumspect.
“Granny Sarah, they called her. She was a short, wide-built lady with wise eyes and a crinkling smile. She spoke no English, only Luo and expressed delight that we had come all this way to see her,” she writes.
Standing next to stocky Mama Sarah, Michelle writes, she felt very tall.
“She studied me with an extra, bemused curiosity, as if trying to place where I came from and how precisely I’d landed on her doorstep,” Michelle writes.
Mama Sarah’s first question to her, she wrote, was; “Which one of your parents is white?”
With Auma’s help, she tried explaining they were both black but Mama Sarah found it all funny, given she looked a bit of white.
“She seemed to find everything funny, teasing Barrack for not being able to speak her language. I was bowled over by her easy joy, she recalls.
When the night fell, Mama Sarah slaughtered – Michelle says “butchered” – a chicken and made them a stew which she served with ugali. Neighbours and relatives also flocked the homestead to see them.
“I gobbled the food gratefully as the sun dropped and night settled over the village, which had no electricity, leaving a bright spray of stars overhead,” she writes.
Michelle says it all seemed a miracle to be in Kogelo, sharing a rudimentary bedroom with Barrack, and listening to the stereo sound of crickets and rustle of animals they couldn’t see.
She remembers feeling awed by the scope of land and sky around them and at the same time feeling protected inside Mama Sarah’s home.
“I had a new job, a fiancé and an expanded family, an approving Kenyan granny even. It was true: I’d been flung out of my world, and for the moment, it was all good.”
The following year, Barrack and Michelle got married.