Obama's Extended Family Deals With New Fame


For Obama’s family in Kenya there are benefits and drawbacks to being related to the most powerful man in the world.

The Washington Post reports that since the election, Barack Obama’s 87-year-old grandmother, Sarah Ogwel Onyango, has been struggling to adjust to media attention, bodyguards, and crowds around her home in Kogelo, Kenya. “Mama Sarah,” stepmother to Obama’s late father, has had her home outfitted with new trim, running water, and electricity by the Kenyan government, which has designated the house part of a new Presidential Heritage Tourist Circuit.

But while her new fame has brought some improvements, she has also had her movement restricted. After an attempted burglary last year, an eight-foot wire-mesh fence was put up around her house and security guards were posted 24 hours a day. While her day is now filled with visits from groups of tourists and Kenyan officials, she rarely leaves her house and some of her friends have stopped visited due to the increased security. “Before, Mama Sarah used to move about freely,” said her neighbor Mark Ogola. “These days she is confined at home — she can rarely be seen . . . If you have been used to mixing with people and all of a sudden everything changes, I suppose that can make you feel miserable.”

Even Obama’s second and third cousins, nephews and half uncles and aunts have had to adjust to being related to the future President. Many of them are peasant farmers who now take breaks from their work to talk to journalists and visitors. Obama’s cousin Hussein Onyango offers tours of a mat on the dirt floor that marks where Obama slept when he visited Kenya in 1987. Jimmy Hays Obama, 18, a distant relation of the President-elect, says that his teachers now expect him to be more capable and his classmates expect him to buy them Fanta soft drinks. His grandfather, Charles Oluoch, said he tells people, “Look at me, do I look like someone who has money?” and points out his frayed pants and chronic unemployment. “The African way is that if your relative rises, he’s supposed to help all his family. I try to explain to people that in America, it’s not that way. In America, you can’t give your relatives jobs. There are laws. But they are not convinced,” he said.

Obama’s closest living relative, his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng is also dealing with newfound celebrity status, according to another Washington Post report, though she is clearly more familiar with what being famous in America entails. On Saturday, she attended the Asia Society’s inaugural reception in D.C. and was calm and steady as she addressed the room packed with people snapping pictures of her on cellphone cameras. She came prepared with a funny quip, remained unflustered when her cell phone rang while she was speaking, and coyly deflected questions as to whether the rumors that she’s moving to Washington are true, saying, “It’s a beautiful city. I’d love to spend more time here.” Somehow we think she will be pretty soon.

A Kenyan Transition To Power [The Washington Post]
Obama’s Sister Maya Is Early Inaugural Star [The Washington Post]

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin