Kenya greets Obama as hero

August 26, 2006|By New York Times News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya -- If Sen. Barack Obama is ever thinking of running for president - or changing careers to rock star - he got excellent practice in Nairobi yesterday.

Thousands of people lined the streets here, waiting hours in the intense sunshine just for a glimpse of him.

Local newspapers overflowed with breathless coverage, including the headline, "Village beats the drums for returning son."

Everywhere he went he had to part seas of shutter-snapping journalists and mobs of ecstatic fans.

A riot nearly broke out when he slipped past his bodyguards at a downtown event and simply smiled at the crowd.

"Obaaammmaaaa!" the people yelled.

Obama, a freshman Democratic senator from Illinois, was in Kenya's capital yesterday as part of a tightly scripted four-country tour in Africa to raise awareness for AIDS and to reconnect with his roots.

His father was a goat herder-turned-economist from western Kenya and, though Obama was never close to him or spent much time in Kenya, many Kenyans claim him as one of their own.

"He's our lion," said George Mimba, a computer consultant, after shaking Obama's hand.

"He will help us," said Bob Osano, a marketing agent stuck behind a metal barricade.

Schools in western Kenya have already been renamed for Obama. Unofficially, so has a popular brand of beer.

All week long, people near Nyangoma-Kogelo, the little village where Obama's father grew up, were scrambling to prepare a welcome fit for royalty, fixing roads, practicing skits and ironing their Obama T-shirts.

Today, Obama planned to visit the village and sit in a tin-roof house with his grandmother, who speaks no English and will be waiting for the senator with an egg, apparently a grandmother-grandson tradition in these parts. He also plans to publicly take an HIV test to help promote awareness of the virus.

Obama seems to be many things to people here: a role model, a black man succeeding in a white man's world (he is the only African-American in the U.S. Senate), a friend in a high place, and the embodiment of American opportunity and multiculturalism (his mother is white and from Kansas). In Kenya, people who are half-white and half-black are called "point fives."

Wycliffe Muga, a local commentator, said the backdrop to the excitement is that many Kenyans are fed up with their own leaders and the country's persistently high levels of corruption and crime. They place their hopes in outsiders like Obama, who they think will help from abroad.

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