On the Road With Bono and O'Neill

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O'Neill (right) and Bono wear traditional Ghanaian outfits in West Africa

As the motorcade pulls up and Secret Service agents fan out, the children of Wamili, a village of mud and grass huts in the north of Ghana, break into song. The tribal chief welcomes Bono, leader of the rock band U2, and his traveling sidekick, Paul O'Neill, the buttoned-down U.S. Treasury secretary. Each is presented a traditional robes and a matching floppy hat. Bono's fits nicely. O'Neill's seems several sizes too small. The chief looks apologetically at the Treasury secretary and says, "I think one of you got a bigger one." To which Bono replies with a smile, "No, just a bigger brain."

Africa hasn't seen a celebrity road show like this one since Stanley met Livingstone. The world's most powerful finance minister and one of the world's biggest rock stars are on a grueling, 10-day race through Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia that will bring them face to face with grinding poverty in a region home to 70% of the world's cases of AIDS as well as controversial development projects designed to alleviate the suffering. Flying on a chartered jet known as "Great Expectations" when George W. Bush used it as a campaign plane, the unlikely pair have an entourage of senior policy wonks and pr advisors as well as representatives from the Financial Times — and Rolling Stone and MTV.

Like heroes in a buddy movie, opposites attract. Striding through Accra's sprawling Makalo market past mounds of fresh pineapple, peppers and salted fish, O'Neill wears black tassel loafers and gray slacks; Bono sports a rumpled safari shirt and his trademark blue wraparound sun glasses. O'Neill, the former head of Alcoa, interrogates vendors on the economics of their business, trying to figure out the impact more U.S. aid might have. Bono walks up to a merchant selling psychedelic tie-died textiles and asks, "Have you ever heard of Jerry Garcia? " When O'Neill's microphone goes awry in Ghana's presidential palace, Bono rushes to adjust it. And the duo gleefully exploit their differences to attract even more attention. The trip was hardly a day old when Bono began taunting the Treasury secretary, a notorious neatnik, to play Oscar to his Felix. "We're the odd couple."

But if the jokes seem impromptu, the serious part of the script is more predictable. Bono hopes to convince O'Neill that wealthy countries should dramatically increase foreign assistance to Africa; O'Neill , a frequent critic of aid money that he claims is wasted, wants to make sure that future US commitments are well-spent. At each stop, Bono presses for more aid, particularly from the US. And at each stop, O'Neill demurs. "I think Paul O'Neill is going to be a very different person going out of this trip than he was coming in," Bono told TIME after a visit to an AIDS clinic in the impoverished South African township of Soweto. "He will take a message back to Washington that much more can be done."

True, there are signs that Bush's "compassionate conservatism" will soon include more money for the world's poor. The President, who met Bono for the first time earlier this year, will visit Africa in 2003 and recently announced his "Millennium Challenge", a $10 billion increase in American aid funding over fiscal years 2004-2006. That is more than his Democratic predecessor put on the table, but would still leave US foreign economic assistance the lowest among major industrial nation as a percentage of output. O'Neill is clearly moved by the human cost of Africa's underdevelopment. But the former Alcoa CEO remains hard-nosed about handing out more cash when billions of dollars in economic aid have frequently failed to produce growth over the last 50 years. As O'Neill puts it, "These problems are solvable . . . and may even be doable with resources that are already available." Translation: there's no guarantee of extra U.S. money.

Still, Bono keeps working. During a visit to a school in an Accra slum, a teenage girl asks him to sing, something he rarely does in public away from the concert stage. But this time he makes an exception. Leading scores of children, his hoarse voice unleashes the chorus of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." And the tour rolls on.