Welcome to OBamako: Africa Awaits Obama's Return

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Simon Maina / AFP / Getty

A Kenyan man calls on commuters for a matatu, or minibus, bearing a poster of Barack Obama in Nairobi

Hamid Diarra is not a man who hides his passions — and these days one consuming love inspires him as he drives his taxi through the clogged streets of Mali's capital. He's crazy about Barack Obama.

During the final stretch of the presidential election last fall — when Diarra's fantasy of an African American in the White House began to seem probable — he downloaded a new ringtone onto his phone, of Obama chanting "Yes we can! Yes we can!" As the election results rolled in, Diarra joined the celebrations on Bamako's streets, and changed his ringtone again, to Obama's victory song by Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," which he has kept ever since. His taxi's dashboard is decorated with stickers of Obama's face. And during the hours he spends chugging through Bamako's streets, he has created his own jingles, which he belts out — windows rolled down, fist pumping the air to the rhythm — with a grin on his face: "O-bama! O-bama! Nôtre frère! Nôtre ami!"

Diarra is hardly alone among Africans in thinking of Obama as his brother and friend. On a continent sorely in need of political role models, the U.S. President is a huge icon these days, not to mention a lucrative marketing tool. Vendors in Bamako's markets do a brisk trade in Obama T-shirts, buttons and posters. Obama love reaches even remote communities with no electricity or television. One day in May, a driver took me 30 miles (50 km) into the Sahara Desert from the northern Mali town of Timbuktu. There in the tiny village of Ber, he unfurled from his trunk a rolled-up poster of Obama smiling under the slogan "Change we can believe in." "It's the most important thing I have," he said, as a group of mostly nomadic Tuareg tribesmen gathered to admire his prized possession.

But nowhere has the mania reached a more fevered pitch than in Ghana, where Obama is due to arrive on July 10 on a one-day trip to Africa — his first as President — direct from this week's G-8 summit in Italy. The market stalls in the capital, Accra, are brimming with souvenirs, including a button with the words "God's Chosen Presidents," showing a montage of Obama and Ghana's new President, John Atta Mills, who took office in January, just two weeks before Obama's Inauguration. "The radio stations continuously mention his visit and play excerpts from his speeches almost nonstop," Ghanaian journalist Ebo Richardson wrote to me in an e-mail on July 6. "There are posters everywhere featuring Barack and Michelle, and everyone I know plans to join the procession to catch a glimpse of one of the most inspirational leaders Africa has ever spawned!"

That last comment might help explain why Obama has opted to deliver his key Africa speech to Ghana's Parliament rather than to a public crowd, which would probably have drawn huge numbers. The news site Politico last weekend speculated that Obama — or his security detail — may also want to avoid the kind of bedlam that greeted Bill Clinton's visit to Accra in 1998, when he was nearly crushed by a crowd that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. On that day, as people surged toward the stage, the visibly terrified Clinton shouted, "Get back! Get back!"

The frenzy over Obama is a lot more intense than the enthusiasm for Clinton during the 1990s, infused as it is with the moving symbolism of a prodigal African son returning as the world's most powerful man. Obama's speech will almost certainly be watched and listened to by millions of Africans, many of whom are struck by the fact that in contrast to that of several of their leaders, Obama's path to power was not paved by family connections or inherited wealth and regard Obama as one of their own. "I have lost count of the number of people I know who have been inspired and mobilized by Obama," Richardson wrote on the website ModernGhana.com in April. "My dear old mother, who previously had little interest in political matters, has been energized to an extent that she now frequently speaks, albeit jokingly, of standing as an MP for her hometown."

Yet for all that, Obama is not likely to carry any dramatic new policies with him to Africa. That's because much of the tough work was done during George W. Bush's tenure. Bush received high praise from Africans and aid organizations for hugely increasing the U.S. commitment to Africa, creating new funding streams for AIDS and malaria treatment and research and sharpening the world's focus on helping the continent. And Obama appears no closer to resolving intractable conflicts in places like Zimbabwe, Somalia and Darfur — all thousands of miles from his destination on Friday.

Still, Obama has achieved some small victories. He has reversed Bush's ban on giving U.S. funds to foreign organizations that also offer abortion services — a law that had hit many family-planning programs in Africa. And he has said he intends to tackle the onerous situation of African farmers, in part by creating a new $1 billion program funded by G-8 countries to boost agriculture in developing nations. He has also said that rather than shipping American-grown produce thousands of miles, he favors easing restrictions on using locally grown crops for U.S. food aid in Africa. However, Congress's approval of that change is not assured.

In the end, the biggest impact Obama makes during his trip to Africa might be the enormous accomplishment he has already achieved — getting elected President. Even though that alone will not be enough to oust dictators and usher in new democracies, it is sure to keep Diarra singing out of the window of his taxi, "O-bama! O-bama!"