Several days ago, I promised my companions a story about Mama Sara and our spontaneous visit to meet her. After thinking about it for sometime, I find that, for me, this is not a story about Mama Sara, or us, or President Obama, but a story about Ochogo Omondi John.
Mama Sara is the now famous Kenya grandmother of the current US president. It is easy to forget in the US that the world watches our presidential elections with keen attention. Given the President’s concentrated powers in matters of foreign policy, as opposed to the more limited power over domestic policy, those who are not US citizens sometimes have more at stake in our elections than we do ourselves.
The election of a black American president and more specifically an African American president with Kenyan relations was enough to make the people of Kenya believe that their country had finally won a bigger place on the world stage. During the first elections, news channels from all over the world, including CNN, AlJazeera, and BBC, crowded the front of Mama Sara’s home with cameras, lights and trucks. As a result, the Kenyan government made a great show of improving her compound and funneling money into a road project that would finally pave the long road to her village. Mama Sara now has a permanent assistant, a small staff of guards, electricity, and an honorary title.
As I was to learn later, Mama Sara also has a life-long passion. Well before her famous grandson was born, Mama Sara was rescuing local orphans and supporting them in school. She does this quietly, receiving help from her government when a food or supply donation makes for a good photo opportunity. We were happy to have her meet Godfrey and receive his business card so that she has another possibility for her secondary school girls.
Mama Sara still lives in a modest cottage with a small garden and chickens and rabbits that supplement the household’s food supply. Because she is Kenyan, Mama Sara receives drop in visits. But the visits became so frequent that arrangements were made for limiting the hours. And because visitors are more varied (and not always as benign) as they once were, the guards now send guests to the district police office for screening before they are allowed access to Mama Sara.
It so happened that our journey from Nyanza Province to Kisumu was taking us past the village where Mama Sara lives. So our Western coordinator, Godfrey, suggested we stop and visit.
We have at least one very enthusiastic Obama supporter in our group, and the group in general agreed to get up very early on our travel day for the sake of this visit (full disclosure: I voted against the visit). But when we arrived at Mama Sara’s front gate, we had neither clearance nor timing- we were two hours early. As had happened so often in our journey, John stepped in to rescue us. While our party looked helplessly at the guards, John was calling Mama Sara’s assistant for us and vouching for us. He even talked Massets, the assistant, into allowing an early visit. It was not the first or last time John would coax our plans (and us) back into some sort of order.
Ochogo Omondi John, or John as we know him, is a man of many talents and even more knowledge. His business card lists his specialty in wildlife safaris, cultural tourism, and van hires. He is indeed an expert. He spots wildlife deep in the bushes that no one else sees and maneuvers footpaths and traffic in his van with equal ease (and if you have seen Nairobi traffic or rural African dirt roads, you know what a feat that is). But these are the least of John’s skills.
I can only imagine how many languages he speaks. His English and Swahili are as fluent as first languages. His native tongue is Luo, and I have heard him speak Masai.
With us, he is confident and friendly, but not is equally content to bury his attention in the newspapers he reads daily or to stay focused on his own thoughts as we weave our way across Kenya. He notices when we forget cameras in the car, teases us back onAndrew schedule when we get distracted, and jokes with us about our foibles as we spend day after day on the road together.
When we stop to meet with principals or coordinators over “tea” we often invite John to join us. He usually stays quiet at first but joins in to share his experience of issues in village schools, the role of girls in Kenyan communities, the need for changes.
John is eloquent on the subject of education in Kenya, and he has given the subject a lot of thought. He sacrifices to send his own son to a private school in Nairobi, but he continues to advocate for the schools in his home village near Kisumu, where others must send their children. He asks whether I have an extra copy of the periodic table of elements- not for his son’s school, as they have what they need, but for the poorer kids in his village.
Change rarely starts from above, and it needs more than discussion-it requires a particular willingness to listen. When we are touring schools or meeting with students, John sits talking with anyone who lingers outside. School staff, teachers, gardeners or principals, he is equally at home with anyone from anywhere. On the day we are brought to a remote village to meet with a widowed mother, we find John outside helping a small boy shuck maize.
John is a man who cares deeply about his home village and the people there, but he is also a man capable of engaging with whomever and whatever circumstances bring into his path. And he does this surprising humor and patience. As impressed as I was by Mama Sara, and as impressive has her grandson has become, I find myself more impressed by Ochogo Omondi John. Maybe our best chance for improvement does not rest on the power and charisma of those who lead, but in the capable hands of those who guide.
Email us if you want John’s number in Kenya.