Obama Faces Welcomes, Expectations in Africa

Visit Inspires Obama-Mania

While Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) is seen as a rising star in U.S. politics, the same could be said in Africa. Currently on a two-week visit to the continent, Obama's appearances are meeting with excitement and anticipation. That's especially true of his visit to the Kenyan town where Obama's father was born. Melissa Block talks with Los Angeles Times Nairobi Bureau Chief Edmund Sanders, who detailed the residents' expectations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

U.S. Senator Barak Obama is receiving a very warm welcome in Africa, where he's on a two week tour of four countries. The Illinois Democrat delivered a foreign-policy speech today in Cape Town, South Africa. Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu told Obama he was born to be a very credible presidential candidate. Obama's not even two years into his first Senate term.

He's the only African American Senator. He is a rising political star, and nowhere is he a bigger star than in his father's hometown in western Kenya, which he'll visit this Saturday.

Edmund Sanders calls the anticipatory excitement there Obamamania. He's Nairobi bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, and Edmund Sanders, you went to that village in western Kenya to gauge the mood. What's it like?

Mr. EDMUND SANDERS (Los Angeles Times): They're very excited. People are very much aware of what's going on, coming from as far away as Tanzania and Uganda just to be in the town when he arrives there, and of course his family is very excited.

BLOCK: What signs do you see of Obamamania, as you call it, around the country?

Mr. SANDERS: It's really everywhere. The politicians are lining up to meet with him. There was a play at the national theater this month based on his autobiography. Sales of a beer called Senator Beer, which is actually a beer that has been in Kenya for many years, but after his election people started calling it Obama. In other words, I'll have an Obama, please. Sales of that beer have doubled.

BLOCK: Now it's not just excitement. You describe some fairly big public works improvements going on in the village, too, to get ready.

Mr. SANDERS: There are. This particular village, Kogelo in western Kenya, is a very impoverished part of the country. It's never had electricity or water. Until very recently, the roads were in terrible condition, so bad that taxis and bus drivers wouldn't drive on them anymore. People had complained for years to no avail, but about two weeks ago, suddenly without even warning, the government sent out some tractors to smooth the road and they ended right at the family compound of Obama's father's family.

BLOCK: Now when you were talking to people in this village, it sounds like there are a lot of expectations being pinned on this visit and what Senator Obama might be able to bring this village.

Mr. SANDERS: There is. I mean, I think they're expecting him to come with his checkbook or maybe even a Brinks truck. People are expecting all kinds of improvements. They've named a school after him. It's in terribly shape. There's no glass in the windows, even, not enough desks. At the moment they're trying to finish a science lab before his visit, and they told me the reason they'd like to finish it, they have no equipment for it yet and they're hoping that if he sees this empty science lab, it will motivate him to contribute something.

BLOCK: You know, Senator Obama has this now famous phrase the audacity of hope. I'm not sure he meant it quite this way.

Mr. SANDERS: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, he's coming with his message here of his parlay about African self-reliance, trying to talk to Africans about doing things for themselves. He told me when I spoke to him last week that he feels because of his unique personal connection to Kenya that he can talk to Africans in a way that maybe other American politicians can't.

And he said he wanted to be very frank with them and let them know that the solutions to a lot of Africa's problems must come from within them. But really his message of asking people to consider what they can do for Africa is not catching on, and really what people are thinking about in Kogelo right now is what can Obama do for them specifically.

BLOCK: Is there a risk that if the Senator comes and goes and doesn't fulfill these great expectations that people have that there'll just be rampant disappointment?

Mr. SANDERS: Part of is the cultural difference. In Africa, when a family member returns home, especially one who has gone away and become successful and rich, it's expected that he'll come with gifts for the family and for the tribe and for the clan and for the village. And it will be interesting to see what happens if he doesn't do that, and he's told me he doesn't have any plans to announce any big contributions or donations, and I think that people will accept it. I mean, it's a continent and a country where people are used to disappointments and not getting what they want, unfortunately, so I think they won't hold it against him too much.

BLOCK: Okay, Edmund Sanders, thanks very much.

Mr. SANDERS: Thank you.

BLOCK: Edmund Sanders of the Los Angeles Times talking about the visit of U.S. Senator Barak Obama. He's scheduled to arrive in Kenya on Thursday before going on to Djibouti and Chad.

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