Disobedient Wives Should be Beaten: What Obama’s Step Grandmother Has to Say About Women’s Rights

| October 2, 2012

(Read the full text at The Root) — No visit to Kenya is complete without calling on Sarah Obama, President Obama’s remarkably sharp 90-year-old step-grandmother, the woman who raised his father, Barack Obama Sr.

Since the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Westerners have trooped to her door, eager to learn about the president’s African heritage from the woman he calls “Granny.” Obama used her accounts of the family history extensively in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father. Thrust into the spotlight by improbable circumstances, Mama Sarah, as Kenyans call her, graciously receives these many visitors.

I first met Sarah Obama in March 2009, shortly after her step-grandson took office. In those days you could just show up.

I headed back to Kenya in June 2009 with an editors’ delegation. I looked forward to introducing them to the “other” Obama community organizer, to have them see life in Nyanza through her eyes.

In June 2012, I returned with a group of international bloggers who were looking at women’s reproductive-health issues in Kenya. Once again we visited Nyanza province and Mama Sarah.

We sat under the mango tree, and again, the conversation did not go as I had envisioned. Mama Sarah was somewhat irritable, still recovering from a bout of malaria two days prior. Delegation members asked her about women’s reproductive-health issues but didn’t approve of the answers they got. She opposes abortion and objects to family planning for practical reasons.

“In our circumstances the [child] mortality rate is very high,” she said. “If you limit [births], you lower the number that will remain. So the more, the better.” She repeated what she told the young Barack Obama Jr., as described in Dreams From My Father: that she believes disobedient wives should be beaten.

Her thoughts on beating disobedient wives may seem shocking, but it’s complicated. She herself was an abused wife. Her husband, Hussein Onyango Obama, President Obama’s paternal grandfather, was known as “the Terror.” He beat his wives (polygamy is widespread in Nyanza), children and even dinner guests, often for no apparent reason. According to Mama Sarah’s account in Dreams From My Father, several wives who predated her couldn’t take the abuse and returned to their parents’ compounds, a radical act in Luo society that shames the woman’s family.

Akumu, Sarah Obama’s co-wife and the biological mother of Barack Obama Sr., repeatedly tried to flee but was always returned to Onyango Obama’s house by her parents. When Barack Obama Sr. was 9 years old, Akumu finally escaped, abandoning her son to be raised by Mama Sarah, Onyango Obama’s third or fourth wife, who was barely more than a teenager herself.

Mama Sarah’s experience may explain why, in 2009 and 2012, she spoke repeatedly about the importance of educating girls. “During my day, women were not allowed to go to school,” she told us during the visit this year. “We had to take care of the garden, cook and take care of the children. Now it is better.” If a woman is educated, “she can take care of herself.”

To live to age 90 in a place like Kogelo, to survive an abusive marriage, is not only good fortune. It is also a triumph of tenacity and willpower. Mama Sarah — complex, evolving — is beginning to see and help foster some of the changes taking place in her country.

I wish more people who visit Mama Sarah would say, “Tell us about your life,” and then listen.

Written by Louise Lief is the former deputy director of the International Reporting Project. She traveled to Kenya in 2009 and 2012. For the full text, visit TheRoot.com.

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