Obama's Africa trip has been equal parts political and personal

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 28, 2006 

NAIROBI, Kenya—At the midpoint of a two-week swing through Africa that's been equal parts political and personal, Sen. Barack Obama on Monday had some critical words for Kenya, the country where his father was born.

In his first visit here since joining the Senate last year, the Illinois Democrat assailed Kenya's ethnic-based politics and culture of corruption as obstacles to economic development. And he condemned the Kenyan government's raid earlier this year on a private newspaper and television station, calling it a breach of press freedoms.

Kenyans had heard all this before, but this time it was coming from Obama, a man they see as one of their own. His speech to a packed university lecture hall, with hundreds listening outside on large speakers and many more watching on television, often drew applause.

"If the people cannot trust the government to do the job for which it exists, to protect them and to promote the common welfare, then all else is lost," Obama said. "The struggle against corruption is one of the great struggles of our time."

Throughout Obama's four-day visit to Kenya, he's been greeted like a head of state or a sports legend, not like a freshman U.S. senator. Obama was raised in Hawaii, and his last visit to Kenya was 14 years ago.

He's been quick to downplay expectations that he'll be able to help Kenya, or the rest of Africa, lift itself up from systemic poverty and conflict.

"I don't pretend to have all the solutions or think that it'll be easy," he said Monday. "I've got enough on my hands trying to work in the United States."

Kenyans have eagerly embraced Obama since he was elected in 2004 as the Senate's only African-American. Speculation since has grown that he'll one day run for president.

Children here have been named for him—in Swahili his first name means "blessing"—as have countless schools and businesses in the rural western region from where his family hails. The locally brewed Senator beer is now better known as "Obama"—a high honor in this land of big drinkers.

Obama, 45, is the son of a Kansan woman and a Kenyan man who separated when he was young. His father, a goat herder who became an economist, returned to Kenya, where he died in a car accident in 1982. Obama's grandmother and about 30 other family members still live in the village of Kogelo, which Obama first visited in 1987 before he entered Harvard Law School.

He returned on Saturday with his wife and two young daughters to the village of his father's humble beginnings. A carnival atmosphere prevailed. Onlookers climbed trees and lampposts or balanced atop bicycles to glimpse Obama. Vendors hawked T-shirts with his image and the message "We are proud you are a Kenyan."

Obama didn't disappoint, issuing a brief greeting in the language of his father's Luo tribe, which sent the crowd of thousands into wild cheers.

He also shared brief memories of his father, whom he has said he didn't know well.

"Whenever I see a young boy 5 or 6 or 7 or 10, I think about my father," Obama said. "I think about the journey he traveled so many miles over such a great distance. I think of those young boys and I think there is no reason why they can't do the same."

Obama shared a tight embrace with his 80-year-old grandmother, Sarah Hussein Obama, who held him by the waist as she took him on a tour of his cousins' houses.

"I am very happy especially seeing his children," said his grandmother, wearing a yellow floral-print African dress and headscarf. "He is a kid who belongs to this homestead."

Before coming to Kenya, Obama visited South Africa, where the reception wasn't nearly as warm, and he made headlines for criticizing the government's policy on HIV/AIDS. In Kenya, although Obama has been critical of President Mwai Kibaki's administration for its failure to rein in corruption, the news coverage generally has been glowing.

Last week Obama was scheduled to visit Congo, but the trip was canceled due to post-election violence. Later this week he's expected to travel to the tiny coastal nation of Djibouti, headquarters of the U.S. military's counterterrorism operation in the Horn of Africa, and to the central African nation of Chad.

(Bengali reported from Nairobi; McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Kilongi reported from Kogelo.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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