What Barack Obama Can Do For Africa — and Vice Versa

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Senator Barack Obama holds his grandmother Sarah Hussein Obama as they walk alongside family members while visiting his ancestral home in Nyangoma village in Kenya on Saturday, August 26, 2006.

The first time Barack Obama came home to his father's village of Kogelo in western Kenya, it was as a 26-year-old backpacker exploring his family roots. In 1987, he and half-sister Auma rode a dilapidated old bus from Kisumu, the provincial capital, 60 miles away. As they lurched along dirt roads, a couple of chickens nestled in Obama's lap and mothers passed wet babies back and forth to the two young visitors. Obama spent his time in Kogelo, a small rural village where people grow maize and raise cows, getting to know his grandmother Sarah Hussein Obama and wandering the fields and dirt lanes his late father had walked as a boy and had returned to after separating from Obama's mother, an American, when their son was just two.

This trip to Kenya has been very different. The junior senator from Illinois, a man talked about as a future U.S. President, is a celebrity in his father's homeland. His visit has been front-page news for days, and at each stop crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, gather to cheer him, a stark contrast to South Africa, which he toured earlier in this trip and where most people have never heard the name Obama. After a ceremony to remember the more than 200 people who were killed during the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, a crowd on the street outside chanted "Obama, come to us" and waved banners bearing his likeness. And when he arrived in Kogelo last Saturday in a motorcade followed by camera crews and reporters, screaming crowds chanted his name, a praise singer catalogued his strengths and children sang songs about him they had written especially for the occasion.

But it was more than just a homecoming. Obama is using his Africa trip — after South Africa he will visit Darfurian refugees in camps in Chad — to strengthen his foreign policy credentials. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has spoken out against the South African government's confused response to the HIV/AIDS crisis and urged Kenya's government to be more transparent and end corruption.

On his one-day swing through western Kenya, a mostly rural area along the shores of Lake Victoria, Obama and his wife, Michelle, were both tested for HIV, a powerful statement in a country whose leaders often talk about the need for regular testing but rarely lead the way. "You need to know your status," Obama told a surging crowd of hundreds of locals. "If a U.S. Senator can get tested and his wife can get tested, then everybody in this crowd can get tested. Everybody in this city can get tested." "It is good he did this, it shows people how important it is," says Kisumu resident Bernard Otieno, 22, who took an AIDS test last month for the first time. "I found it so good to know my status. It gives you power."

Kenyans hope Obama's rise in the U.S. will help their own country, but he and his minders have been careful to try and dampen expectations of what Obama can do for this poor East African nation, and the Senator often remarks in speeches that his constituents are in Illinois and that his first loyalty is to them. The Nation newspaper editorialized that such worries were overblown and "should not be used as the basis to block the Senator from mixing freely with all the people who merely want to share in his homecoming."

At another stop, Obama toured a research facility run by the Centers for Disease Control and the Kenya Medical Research Institute, and learned about the thousands of people in Kenya, and millions across the world, killed by malaria every year. He also visited a project run by non-governmental agency CARE, which helps grandmothers caring for children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. The program, which Obama has personally helped finance with a donation of some $13,000, gives loans to grandmothers who can use the money to run small small businesses — selling soap, for instance — and then pay the capital back with interest. The revolving funds, known as voluntary savings and loan, should keep growing and help more and more people.

There is no doubt that Obama's popularity here helps the U.S. Many Kenyans dream about America as a place of opportunity and wealth. But in the past few years it has also gained a reputation as a bully. George Okoth, 36, a manager in a newspaper printing plant in Nairobi, says Obama has reminded Kenyans of all the good the U.S. does. "Who hates America is not our concern," says Okoth, who journeyed to Kisumu to see Obama take his AIDS test. "We need to know what good has America done for us and what we can do for America."

Some parts of his return voyage to his father's hometown were not that different from his maiden one. In a modest, tin-roofed house in a nearby clearing dotted with mango trees, Obama, 45, and his wife and daughters, Malia and Sasha, visited Sarah — "Granny" — and other relatives and shared a quick meal of chicken, porridge and cabbage. Obama told reporters gathered outside the house that he had apologized to his grandmother for all the attention she had received "because of me." "He's gone a long way," says Auma Obama, a social worker in London, who accompanied her brother on his latest trip. "He's grown a lot."

It showed in the eloquent words he spoke. After opening a new science laboratory in the Senator Obama-Kogelo Secondary School, Obama addressed a gathered crowd and recalled his first trip. "Even though I had grown up on the other side of the world and even though I did not have a day-to-day connection, when I came here I felt the spirit among the people who told me that I belonged." Obama clearly feels that same sense of belonging to this small Kenyan village, even if so many more people, both in Africa and back home in the U.S., consider him one of their own.