Published August 26, 2006
NAIROBI, Kenya – U.S. Senator Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, publicly visited a clinic and took AIDS tests Saturday in Kenya, where fear and social stigmas have slowed progress in fighting the disease.
Thousands of people gathered around the tiny mobile clinic in Kisumu, western Kenya, while Obama was tested in an effort to draw attention to Africa's AIDS epidemic.
"If you know your status, you can prevent illness," said Obama, the only black legislator in the U.S. Senate. "You can avoid passing it to your children and your wives."
Among Kenya's 32 million population, some 1.2 million people were infected with HIV as of 2004. Relief agencies say the national infection rate is 6.7 percent.
Obama and his wife did not make public the results of their test, but said "we probably wouldn't be smiling" if the results were bad.
Police held back crowds anxious to see the U.S. senator and son of one of their own. Local politicians appealed for calm as Obama visited the clinic, run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Some 700 people die each day from AIDS-related illnesses in Kenya, most in the west of the country, though the numbers of infected patients have declined recently.
In the Kisumu area, almost one in five is infected.
Obama said the country's government has done a better job than many others in Africa of acknowledging the problem and discussing solutions. But people's reluctance to be tested has slowed progress.
Earlier Saturday, thousands of well-wishers lined pot-holed roads to greet Obama as he began a journey to his ancestral home, Nyangoma-Kogelo, a tiny village in the rural west where his father grew up herding goats and attending classes in tin-roofed schools.
"I just want to say very quickly that I am so proud to come back home," Obama told the cheering crowds. "It means a lot to me that the people of my father, my grandfather, are here in such huge crowds."
His father, also named Barack Obama, won a scholarship to a university in Hawaii, where he met and married Obama's mother. The two soon separated, however, and Obama's father returned to Kenya and worked as a government economist.
His father died in a car crash in 1982, leaving three wives, six sons and a daughter. This was Obama's third visit, but his first since becoming senator of the U.S. state of Illinois in January 2005. His last visit was in 1995.
Obama said he was looking forward to seeing his grandmother and uncle, who still live in the village, but that the trip was more than just a family reunion. Both his grandmother and uncle have visited him in the United States, and will get other chances to see him, he said.
The Democratic Party senator said his relatives "understand that some of this is going to be dominated by spectacle, and they'll roll with it as I will roll with it."
He also planned to visit a project he helps fund, which helps grandmothers find money to take care of children orphaned by AIDS.