I met President Barak Obama's grandmother in a village in Kenya. She is a gracious 86 year-old woman who says that she loves receiving the visitors that her grandson's fame brings her way. My Kenyan friends met her several years ago and wanted to take me to meet her. Realizing how unique this opportunity was I readily agreed.
While pulling up to the front gate of her home, I did not know what to expect. On the one hand it seemed that she should have a better situation than most for this area of Kenya but on the other maybe it was fitting that her humble home and life fit so naturally into her local context. A large group of Norwegians awaited her arrival as we sat down. I split my attention between trying to think of insightful questions to ask and observing the ordinary African life around Grandma Obama's home. Children pumped water and played toward the backside of the house. Tombstones stood as the typical landmarks of African family property. Two turkeys including one show-off male joined us for awhile before being chased away. The only signs of a presidential mark on the place were the visitors gathered and several Obama stickers in the windows of her home.
Taking her seat at the head of the circle, the first thing Grandma Obama asked was for each one to share their name and where they were from. Through eavesdropping on their nearby conversation, I learned that the President has visited her several times, once as a college student for a few months and later as a young adult introducing his serious girlfriend Michelle to his grandmother. She seemed genuinely interested in her visitors as people and made her first impression on me as a very gracious woman.
The first question I asked her was if it surprised her when her grandson became the President of the United States. Like a proud grandmother, she answered through our interpreter that it did not surprise her at all because she had always known that he would do great things. This made me smile. It is endearing how grandmothers around the world believe in their grandchildren now matter how unlikely their success would seem to others.
When I asked how she felt about receiving so many visitors, she indicated that she relishes her role as the "international grandma" that her son's position has granted. In the true spirit of African connectedness, she said that even I was her grandson and she was very happy to meet me. Imagine having open visiting hours from 8-5 Monday through Friday and yet treating unknown visitors as welcomed guests. No matter how one feels about politics, it is impossible not to love this woman.
Asking her what advice she would give to President Obama if he were to ask, she stated that she asks him to bring development and to work for peace. "Has he done anything here for development," I asked. "No, not yet," she replied. Visiting Grandma Obama made me reflect on foreign aid and responsibility in Africa. Should President Obama help to develop his hometown area of Kenya or is this simply not his responsibility? My Kenyan friends held differing opinions on the matter, one thinking yes and the other that his job is to take care of the American people, not Kenya.
While still processing what our role is in the West to help support Africa development, I don't purport to have the answer. I do know this much though, Grandma Obama is a lovely old woman and I am glad that I had a chance to meet and share conversation with the woman who symbolizes the United States' multicultural connection with Africa.