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Obama Makes Family Pilgrimage to Kenya


Sudan was supposed to be on the itinerary of Senator Barack Obama, who's on an African tour. He wanted to visit the troubled country, but he won't. The Sudanese government declined to give him a visa.


Obama's shifting travel plans tell you something about Africa's shifting fortunes. He was also planning to visit Congo, but the Illinois senator cancelled that visit, too, at the request of the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy said its personnel were overworked because of three days of violence in the capital.

INSKEEP: Senator Obama is still scheduled to visit another troubled country, Chad. And he was welcomed today in Kenya for a kind of homecoming. He arrived in the country where his late father was born.

MONTAGNE: Ever since Obama won his Illinois Senate seat in 2004, he's been viewed as a favorite son in Kenya. His trip has been widely anticipated and it's being treated as a state visit by the government. Nowhere is the anticipation higher than in the tiny farming village of Kogello, hometown of the Obama family. David McGuffin traveled to Kogello and reports on preparations for the senator's visit.

Unidentified Children: (Singing) This land is my land. This land is your land, from Lake Victoria to the coast of...


An American classic with a Kenyan twist.

(Soundbite of singing This Land Is Your Land)

Unidentified Children: (Singing) (unintelligible) from our own Kenya to the Rift Valley, this land is...

MCGUFFIN: The children at the Senator Obama Secondary School in Kogello, Western Kenya are practicing an appropriate song ahead of the Saturday visit by the school's famous namesake. This small farming community is in full celebration mode. The road down to the Obama family homestead, a half mile from the school, has been cleared of potholes for the first time in years.

(Soundbite of classroom)

At the school, students Alexander Andiyambo(ph) and Stacy Amyango(ph) relish the chance to meet a man many see as a role model.

Mr. ALEXANDER ANDIYAMBO (Student): When he became a prominent person in the USA, so that education that he had is what I can also adopt and follow.

Ms. STACY AMYANGO (Student): (Unintelligible) and I hope I will be like him.

MCGUFFIN: But the hopes in this community go well beyond that. There is an African tradition that when a successful son returns home, he spreads some riches amongst those left behind. At the school, men are working feverishly to complete a building that could be a science lab, with the hope that the Senator will see the empty shell and offer to help fill it with equipment. And the school's principal, Juanita Obieros(ph), says they need so much more.

Ms. JUANITA OBIEROS (Principal, Senator Obama Secondary School): We don't have electricity. There's also a need for housing, a computer lab and computers in the school. So there's even a need to have staff houses. We also need something like a school band or a school bus. Even water is not - is another problem.

MCGUFFIN: Similar wish lists can be heard throughout this desperately poor community, in a region with one Kenya's highest AIDS infection rates.

(Soundbite of child crying)

MCGUFFIN: At the local medical clinic, nurse Mary Ogola(ph) says she needs better storage for drugs, more room for patients, a maternity wing.

Ms. MARY OGOLA: I put the drugs now on the floor, because (unintelligible) he will help, I know.

MCGUFFIN: At the Obama family homestead, relatives from across the country are beginning to gather. A dozen or more are here already. There is even talk of slaughtering a cow to feed the crowds. Family members clearly bask in the glow of their famous cousin, but some are wary of the expectation other locals have in him. Schoolteacher Moses Obama, the senator's first cousin, says villagers have to remember the senator is a visitor.

Mr. MOSES OBAMA (Senator Obama's Cousin): We've always highlighted to people that the senator is basically an American. So we cannot bank all the hopes on him. He can only chip in where he feels he can help us and where our efforts cannot make us accomplish what we want.

MCGUFFIN: In his bestselling memoir, Dreams of My Father, Obama wrote affectionately about his visits to the village. But he told reporters in South Africa Tuesday, ahead of his arrival here, that it needs to be remembered that he is not a Kenyan politician. He plans to speak on the need for African self-reliance.

MAMA SARAH (Senator Obama's Grandmother): (Foreign language spoken) In the family home, Obama's 85-year-old grandmother shows off pictures and election posters of her famous grandson. Affectionately called Mama Sarah in the village, she says people should just be happy to have him visit.

MAMA SARAH: (Foreign language spoken)

MCGUFFIN: I am happy. I am happy he is coming and I welcome him home, she says in her native Luo language. He has the blessing of the village and the people here love him. And I think that inspired him very much.

People in Kogello refer to Obama's two previous visits as the first coming and the second coming. An innocent turn of phrase, perhaps, but there is still the hope that the American senator and bestselling author will produce some minor miracles for this poverty-stricken community.

For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Kogello, Western Kenya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David McGuffin