President Obama’s angry granny stared impassively into the distance, as her rabbits relentlessly fucked each other around us. One ventured near her ankle, as if wondering whether to hump it. “Should I hump it?” the rabbit asked, and it dawned on me that sleep deprivation and whatever sickness had begun to take root in my gut were beginning to affect my brain in unexpected and disturbing ways. This was already very different to the experience of one Greenpeace worker, whose blog post I had read the night before:
“Oyawore, Mama Sarah” was my first attempt to speak Luo, the local dialect of US President Obama’s family’s village in Nyang’oma Kogelo. This greeting got me a warm smile and a hug from Mama Sarah Obama, the President’s grandmother, when I met her under a mango tree in front of her home. At 87 years old, she exudes a strong warm presence. She’s definitely a lovable grandmother that you don’t want to fool around with.
We had flown out west to Kisumu, a large town built halfway between Nairobi and Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria, in the Nyanza province. This was a poorer, rural corner of Kenya, which we would spend two brutally-scheduled but rewarding days touring with the CDC. A stereotypically American convoy of five bright white trucks greeted us at the airport and whisked us off to local clinics and homesteads, where we watched bright young health workers perform HIV tests, and demonstrate to village elders the correct way to put condoms on giant wooden phalluses.
A health worker demonstrates the correct use of a condom, with the aid of a frankly rather small phallus (Photo by Charlott Schönwetter)
The second day ended, inexplicably, with a visit to Sarah Onyango Obama in the nearby village of Nyang’oma Kogelo. Famous only for marrying a president’s grandfather, the woman a young Barack called ‘Granny’ has become embedded in Kenya’s national mythology in much the same way that Pippa Middleton has become embedded in the pages of Heat magazine. Described by some as “a new voice of rural women,” she was appointed a goodwill ambassador by one NGO, and had solar power installed at her home by volunteers from Greenpeace.
While Greenpeace busied themselves upgrading Mama Obama’s power to solar in 2009, her neighbours struggled to get electricity of any kind. The village was only connected to the national grid after Obama became President, and local police were deployed to keep the solar cells out of the hands of Obama’s less fortunate neighbours – presumably not at Greenpeace’s expense. The new wattage was swiftly followed by a new police station, a museum, and improvements to the nearest international airport. While much of the country struggled with chronically bad roads, new tarmac was bulldozed across Nyanza to connect one old lady to the West. Now aged ninety, and as formidable as ever, it was clear that Obama was a living propaganda coup for the Kenyan government, a way to attract the attention of America’s wealthy tourists and donors.
We arrived shortly after lunch on a warm, sunny day, to find a green and pleasant compound, its bustling gardens filled with birdsong and populated by rabbits, turkeys, and assorted humans – mostly staff and police officers. A few short rows of plastic chairs had been set out for the journalists in the shade of a mango tree where our host sat facing us, surveying her land with an expression of grumpy authority. She had become irritated when a member of the group decided to put a video camera in front of her to record the interview without introducing themselves first, and the start of the interview was tetchy and a little fraught as the IRP leader attempted to break the ice with a series of awkward compliments about her “beautiful dress.”
Obama only speaks the language of the Luo people, Dholuo, and our questions had to be put through a convenient government translator. This quickly became a problem. A question about whether life was better under British rule was met with the response that, “she doesn’t talk about politics,” and although Obama herself seemed perfectly willing to answer (in the affirmative), it was clear that political discussion of any sort was frowned upon. It seemed we were expected to ask only soft questions about her charity work, the animals sharing her compound, and her famous step-grandson.
The road to Obama’s compound is paved with lucrative contracts.
Half an hour passed, and I was becoming dangerously bored. I didn’t give a fuck about how often she talked to President Obama, or whether President Obama sent her a card at Christmas, or whether she was proud of President Obama, or any of the other five hundred questions with the words ‘President Obama’ in them, so I decided to ignore the protestations of the government translator and veer off-message. The Kenyan constitution had been rewritten recently, triggering a huge debate over abortion rights: elective abortion is prohibited in Kenya, fueling an industrial-scale trade in illegal – often dangerous – alternatives. Aha! I thought. What better subject could there be to ask this great supporter of Kenyan women about!
“Can I ask…? There’s been a considerable amount of debate in Kenya recently about changes to the Kenyan constitution, particularly around family planning and abortion. Do you have any views on access to abortion services and to family planning in Kenya?”
The twin microphones of my Zoom recorder picked up five long seconds of birdsong, but not the visible distress of the government translator. Eventually, on Mama’s prompting, she reluctantly translated the question. It was left to our CDC guide to relay the reply: “So she’s against abortion.”
“She’s against abortion.” I echoed, half-expecting to be corrected.
“And she’s against family planning.”
“She’s against family planning.”
“And her reason… She says that if God gives you the reproductive ability, just reproduce, because in our circumstances the mortality rate is very high. If you limit, you lower the number that will remain. So the more the better.”
… Unless of course your country’s population is expanding at the rate of a million people a year, and many of them can’t find jobs.
Of course, it’s rarely God who decides such matters in the bedroom: more than a tenth of Kenyan women report being raped by their partners, and Kenya’s male-dominated parliament blocked legislation protecting women from marital rape in 2006, making it clear they didn’t take the issue seriously. BBC reports from the time quote MP Kenneth Marende welcoming the dropping of the marital rape clause, celebrating the fact that: “Kenyans can still have sex with their partners even when they are asleep so long as they are married.” Another MP, “told parliament that women usually say ‘No’ to sex, even if they mean ‘Yes’, unless they were prostitutes.”
Anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and opposed to inheritance rights for women; Sarah Obama is not a natural Democrat voter.
I was still digesting this response when Julia Manning, a pleasantly moderate blogger from the Daily Mail – asked Obama about initiatives to stop wife-beating: “There’s been a program in the last few years, called ‘Real Men Don’t Beat Their Wives.’ Has she heard of it, and has she had to counsel any men in the area on treating their wives better?”
The response, rather unexpectedly, was raucous laughter. The translation was left again to our CDC guide – by this point the government translator had pointedly asked not to be photographed, and seemed to have decided that if she couldn’t stop the more controversial questions, she could at least avoid any involvement with the answers.
“The disobedient wives should be beaten.”
“Sorry?” replied Manning, as I fished in my camera bag for some imaginary popcorn.
“The wives that are disobedient, they should be beaten.”
“They should be beaten?”
“Yeah, they should be beaten.”
“Can you ask her,” replied the admirably unruffled blogger, “what about disobedient husbands?”
More laughter. “So as far as our culture is concerned, women should not beat as much. The major reason… we marry the women, we pay dowry, they come to our compounds, you give them land, so that gives some element of superiority over the woman.” In the case of President Obama’s step-grandmother, the dowry was apparently ten cows – well above the average of four.
The interview came to an end after an hour or so, and I wandered the green, well-tended compound on an increasingly urgent mission to find a toilet. I thought about my own family: we’ve all been embarrassed at Christmas dinner by relatives with unfortunate views and perhaps that’s why President Obama doesn’t visit her more often – that and the whole running the country deal – but why on Earth does it matter?
The truth is, it doesn’t: there is no reason for any journalist to visit Barack Obama’s grandmother, and yet dozens of them are dumped on her lawn every month by organizations like the CDC, the IRP, or any of a hundred others drawn to her celebrity like a moth to a television. Her views on abortion, contraception or local politics aren’t particularly representative of Kenyans should be no more relevant than those of anyone else in the village she dominates; and yet her voice is broadcast across continents, drowning out the many neighbours living quietly in her shadow. Still, everyone who matters is happy: the NGOs and aid agencies are pleased to get some coverage, journalists leave with some soft easy copy, and Sarah Obama sits happily under her Mango tree watching the rabbits and turkeys and policemen that occupy her lawn.
A turkey lurks behind Mama Obama. I’m sure this would be metaphorical if I could only figure out how. (Photo by Irin Carmon)
If you bother to look behind the myth of Barack Obama’s step-grandmother, the reality is a sad reminder of the patriarchal, deeply misogynistic society that progressive Kenyans have fought against for decades. With her large government house, translator, police escort, and the unearned role as a sort of national elder that gains her lavish attention from NGOs and journalists, she is symbolic of the corruption that riddles the country and holds back progress.
It’s not really surprising that a ninety-year-old rural Kenyan woman holds these views, but it’s troubling that NGOs are happy to gloss over them for the sake of attaching a famous name to their brands. Greenpeace will argue that their high-profile solar energy project here included workshops for local kids and power for a nearby school, but its visible impact was to put a solar panels on the house of a rich lady while dozens of her poorer neighbours went without power of any kind, creating an inordinate amount of hassle for local police in the process. Faced with stunts like these, Kenyans are entitled to question the real motives of other foreign NGOs; and faced with an unelected celebrity spokeswoman attacking women’s rights, they are entitled to ask the West to listen to somebody more suitable.
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We couldn’t have left without asking one last question, a question that could have far-reaching consequences for global politics. “In the United States there’s a group of people who believe that the President was born in Kenya,” Salon’s Irin Carmon explained: “Do they ever contact her, or ask her for help?”
Suddenly the rabbits ceased their rampant rogering and ran for the hills, causing chaos to erupt. Police officers scattered in all directions as the furry fuckers darted under nearby vehicles and bushes. Mama Obama stood and took charge, waving her arms and barking instructions at the hapless men making futile efforts to chase after or reason with the erratic little creatures darting back and forth across the lawns. Minutes passed until order was restored, but despite this obviously CIA-orchestrated attempt to disrupt the press conference and prevent Obama from revealing The Truth, Carmon stuck doggedly to her question: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get an answer.”
“She’s saying Barack wasn’t born in Kenya, Barack was born in America,” came the response.
“But many people, they think that he was born in Kenya because they…” Irin paused, as if searching for the most polite term to use, “…are crazy. I wonder if those crazy people ever bother her?”
“No, they don’t bother her anymore.”
We could leave satisfied that at least one important issue had been settled. Whatever the Birthers claim, it’s clear that Barack Hussein Obama was born in America, not Kenya; and if you can’t trust a ninety year old woman who believes in wife-beating and thinks God is the best form of contraception, well then who the hell can you trust?