NAIROBI, Kenya — When Michelle Nzaumi's communications professor at the University of Nairobi asked students recently to bring to class a favorite speech by a world leader, their choices were remarkably predictable.
"Out of 50 students, half of us came with Obama speeches," said Nzaumi, a 20-year-old studying actuarial sciences. "He's that great to us."
Nzaumi, who said she watched all three presidential debates between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain live, at 4 a.m. Kenyan time, admits to a serious case of Obama fever — and in Kenya, the East African nation where Obama's father was born, she's far from alone.
With Obama leading in the polls in the closing days of the U.S. presidential race, his name is featured daily on talk shows and in newspaper columns in Kenya. In Kisumu, the lakeside town in western Kenya which his father's family hails, seemingly every resident brags of being an Obama cousin.
Even Senator beer, a local brew, has been popularly renamed "Obama."
Kenya in recent years has celebrated world champions in distance running and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, environmentalist Wangari Maathai. But no Kenyan hero has been as universally admired — or as ubiquitous — as Obama, whose most recent visit, in 2006, drew adoring crowds.
Posters of a smiling Obama adorn the backs of Nairobi's psychedelic-colored minibus taxis, known as matatus, and radios blare songs praising him as a "homeboy" who would lead the world's most powerful nation.
If most people in this fast-growing but still largely poor country of some 38 million have come to grips with the fact that an Obama victory won't necessarily change their fortunes, the prospect still inspires hope, national pride — and a little bit of mania.
George Muiruri, 41, a garment shop employee, watched the first two presidential debates live but was warned by his boss when he dozed off at work afterward. He skipped the final debate but, on Thursday, stood alongside a group of Kenyans watching a replay outside a DVD shop in downtown Nairobi.
"If I miss this, my day is going to be bad," Muiruri said.
In most of Kenya's traditional communities, a child is believed to belong first to the father, so to many people here Obama is at least as much a Kenyan as he is an American. Obama, however, hardly knew his father. Barack Obama Sr. rose from a humble goat-herding village to study at Harvard and become one of Kenya's brightest economists, but he struggled with alcohol abuse and died in a car crash in Kenya in 1982, at age 46.
The younger Obama wrote eloquently about traveling to Kenya for the first time and confronting his father's troubled past in his 1995 memoir, "Dreams from My Father."
These days, even daring to criticize Obama publically can bring trouble. Earlier this month, conservative American author Jerome Corsi was in Nairobi to promote his controversial book "The Obama Nation" — which portrays Obama as an angry radical and has been sharply criticized for factual errors — when Kenyan authorities got wind of his plans and detained him on an immigration violation.
Corsi was deported hours later. Kenyan officials reportedly were angered by Corsi's plans to allege "secret ties" between Obama's campaign and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who, like Obama's father, is of the Luo tribe.
Earlier this year, a disputed presidential election in Kenya fractured the country along ethnic lines, pitting Luos against the Kikuyu, the tribe of most of Kenya's ruling elite. While Kikuyus might not be supporting Obama as vociferously, Evans Juma, who works at a print shop in Nairobi, said that customers of all ethnic groups are bringing in designs for personalized Obama T-shirts.
One T-shirt order featured Obama alongside slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. above the caption: "The dream has been fulfilled."
"Kenyans of all ages are coming here," said Juma, who sells the shirts for about $15. And, he said, everyone wants their shirts to be ready before Nov. 4, Election Day.
(Kilongi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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