As far ahead as we can see, there are children, walking hand in hand on both sides of the tarmac road. Small groups of boys and girls in bright blue, clean uniforms- girls in modest jumpers to below the knee, boys in blue trousers and white shirts. School has just let out at the Mama Sarah Obama Elementary School in the Kenyan village of Kogelo and they walk lightly in the afternoon sunshine. They look up at us in the open windows of our van, their large liquid eyes shining, waiting to see if we are friendly. When we wave and yell, “Jambo!” they light up, wave, and return the greeting.
On our drive here, every ¼ mile or so, there have been wooden signs announcing yet another school. Many of them have religious names, the result of Christian missionaries coming in to do good. In this area alone, 70 kilometers from Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya, thirty-seven schools each serve approximately 1,000 children. That is 37,000 children attending school in this area alone.
A lot of good seems to be happening in this part of Kenya, where the most educated people can be found and if the prolific amount of schools is any indication for the future of Kenya, then a brighter one is on the way.
Mama Sarah Obama is the step grandmother of President Obama and she has made a life out of helping orphaned children and educating them, many who are the result of the AIDS epidemic on this continent. Once their parents pass, their elderly grandparents are left with the task and it is daunting.We have called ahead of time to see if Mama Sarah would accept us for a visit.
Long white buildings sit back from the road, with a cow or two grazing in the foreground. We turn down a lane and approach a metal gate. The guard tells us to park and walk up to Mama Sarah’s home. Chickens strut around the grass and peck absent mindedly while a small girl in oversized flip-flops smiles and waves shyly…evidently one of the orphans that Mama Sarah keeps in her private home.
From down the gravel drive, I can see a large painted mural of America’s First Family and Mama Sarah standing behind them. How very strange yet how welcoming this makes me feel in this foreign country so far from my home. When my children were home-schooling teens, for their political science class, they canvassed for the then Senator Obama. In New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, they went door to door, spreading the word of this Presidential hopeful. We are a Democratic family who voted for and supports our President and it is thrilling to me to be here in his family’s Kenyan home.
We interrupt a woman who is preparing greens, who then escorts us up to where Mama Sarah will receive us. A row of plastic lawn chairs are lined up on the front porch and the elegant woman has positioned herself in the middle. She smiles as we approach her. Her modest block home was recently built for her where she personally cares for a few orphaned children. One small girl carrying a hen in her arms, shows us a basket of peeps inside the door of a clay covered shed.
We ask Mama Sarah questions about the ongoing projects she has in the works of building an Early Childhood Center, etc. When I ask the spokesperson, Marsat how many children Mama Sarah has birthed personally, she says eight and they are all right here involved. I ask Marset if she is related in any way she laughs and says, “She is my Mum.”
“What would that make you to President Obama?”
“He is my nephew.”
Wow. How wonderfully strange. The whole Barrack Obama family visited in 2009 and then again this past year meeting in Nairobi. The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation has a headquarters in California and Marsat travels to America on a regular basis. When we request Marsat to ask her mother how she keeps herself so young and strong at the age of 94, she translates,
“By serving God and supporting those less fortunate.” We quietly nod our heads in approval.
I feel so very privileged and proud to be here in this moment.
I am at a loss of words and questions to ask her. She is the type of larger than life person that makes you just want to sit in her presence, bask in her light, drape an arm around her shoulder. She is the kind of exceptional human being we should all strive to be- willing to work at lifting up our fellow-man, to share what we have and spread around the love. Mama Sarah receives guests every day all day long sometimes, from all over the world. Before we depart, we visit her husband’s grave, Barrack’s father.
As we move down the driveway, I think of the work I have done my whole life, writing about how important and necessary it is to disconnect our children from technology and reconnect them to the natural world and suddenly it feels so absurd. These Kenyan children just want to learn. They spend their free time in the villages, outdoors- jumping rope, playing ball, rolling narrow bike tires with sticks, all in the company of one another; not alone indoors using their thumbs to type texts in an attempt to connect and communicate. These Kenyan children live in the jungle, witness firsthand the sweeping thunderstorms that green up the land and turn their paths to mud; they know the bird songs, and the animals roaming everywhere and nature is a part of the very fabric of their lives. How far our American children have come from this- a place they once lived and thrived also- the outdoors. And this is called “progress?”
Nature- deficit disorder is the phrase coined to describe this condition which can contribute to childhood depression and ADD. If I could share this information with these Kenyan children, they would find it completely absurd and here in Africa, so do I. What have we done to our children? As I wave to them and yell out “Jambo!” with their bright innocent eyes and openness, I wonder who is the better off.