Published August 17, 2006
WASHINGTON – When Sen. Barack Obama heads to Africa for a five-nation tour this week, he will take with him a credential no other U.S. senator can claim — and one that may make Africans listen to what he has to say.
Obama is a son of the continent. His late father was a goat herder who went on to become a Harvard-educated government economist for his native Kenya. That connection, he hopes, will give a special resonance to his words.
"One of the messages I'm going to send is that, ultimately, Africa is responsible for helping itself," Obama said in an interview Wednesday.
Obama departs Friday on a 15-day tour that will take him not only to his father's homeland, but also to South Africa, Congo, Djibouti and Sudan. While he has visited Africa twice before, this trip is certain to be different.
Now, he not only is a celebrated political figure in the United States, featured on magazine covers and often mentioned by pundits and political activists as a future president or vice president, he is viewed as a hero in parts of Africa.
The freshman Democrat from Illinois, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, said his presence in Africa would not be "an episode of biography," but would revolve around the people he meets, the stories they tell, and what can be learned from them.
The visit to the Congo will come just a few weeks after the nation had its first free legislative and presidential balloting in 46 years, with some 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers deployed to oversee the voting because of concerns that fear and intimidation could affect the results.
Earlier this year, Obama attached an amendment to a pending bill that would provide up to $52 million to the Congo while letting President Bush withdraw the assistance if the Congo makes insufficient progress toward democracy.
Obama said it is too early to gauge the success of the Congolese elections. "What's positive is that there was no major violence," he said.
During his trip, Obama wants to learn more about the spread of AIDS, avian flu and other diseases, the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, the prospects for Africa becoming a terrorist haven, and the impact of climate change on the continent.
He also plans to talk about the responsibility of Africans to take action against "a lack of basic rule of law and accountability that has hampered the ability of countries with enormous natural resources," according to an earlier interview.
"Ultimately, a new generation of Africans have to recognize the international community, the international relief organizations or the United States can't help Africa if its own leaders are undermining the possibilities of progress," Obama said.
In his 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Obama recalled his first trip to Africa, when, in his late 20s, he cried as he sat between the graves of his father and grandfather. Obama hardly knew his father. His parents divorced early in their marriage.
On his next visit, 14 years ago, Obama was a Harvard Law School graduate preparing to start a civil rights law practice in Chicago. He was joined by his future wife, Michelle, so they could meet relatives.
This time, Obama will be returning with a family — his wife and two young daughters.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has visited Africa on four official trips, said people he met there last December told him they had taken a huge interest in Obama and closely followed his senatorial election in 2004.
"They realize that he is truly a son of Africa and his election means something to them personally," Durbin said. "And I think we're going to find that he is going to be wildly received."
Obama plans to visit a group of Kenyan women age 50 and older who have adopted children suffering from AIDS and are making a success of it with the help of a "microcredit" program supported by his personal funds from a children's book deal.
The program, with an initial $14,000 Obama investment, enables the women to obtain small loans so they can buy such items as sewing machines or bicycles or crops at market that might enable them to start small businesses.