The fight against the HIV/Aids scourge and the stigma that follows, more aid to slum dwellers and the war against corruption were Senator Barack Obama’s main messages as he made his triumphant entry to Africa for a 15-day visit.
Special focus, however, was going to be his long awaited emotional reunion with his family in the little known Nyang’oma village, Siaya district, which has continued to attract both local and global attention.
In South Africa, Obama was incensed by the perception and belief by the President Thabo Mbeki that ‘poverty rather than HIV causes Aids’.
Mbeki’s hostility towards Western pharmaceutical companies and suspicious Anti-retroviral drugs and the general attitude of South Africa’s government towards the disease gave Obama reason to spread strongly the anti-HIV/Aids programme as he took the lead and promised while there to go for an HIV/Aids test while on his Africa tour.
He began his South Africa tour with a journey to Robben Island prison where South African leader Nelson Mandela was held for most of his 27 years of incarceration.
The senator visited a hospital in SA overflowing with Aids patient as he stressed on the need for attitude change towards the disease in the continent coupled with more US aid.
In Kenya, Obama’s six-day visit targeted the poor population of slum dwellers, victims of HIV/Aids and particularly in Siaya, Kisumu district which is adversely affected by the disease and accounts for one of the largest number of HIV/Aids orphans in the country.
Obama lived to his promise he made to Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town in his South Africa tour, to take an HIV/Aids test to change the minds of many who could be spreading the disease unknowingly and did exactly that in Kenya, leaving a strong message and a changed perception about the disease even as he awaits permission to meet Mbeki face to face, as his Africa tour continues.
Obama defiantly took President Mwai Kibaki head on, on issues of graft particularly terming current anti-graft efforts by the Narc government as ‘below average and insincere’ even as Kibaki tried his best to give the son of an economist whom he worked with in the Ministry of Planning in 1970s (Hussein Obama senior) a warm welcome into the corridors of State House.
Obama took the anti-graft war to President Mwai Kibaki’s door step on his day one in the country as he courageously prevailed upon him to change government policies on democracy and governance if he was to win the trust of foreign investors and the fight against corruption.
“For the government to attract foreign investors, issues of democracy and transparency in government must be addressed. I told this to the President when he raised issues of foreign investors,” he told an international press conference at the Grand Regency hotel on Friday shortly after meeting Kibaki who was the first in his itinerary.
On the same Friday, he also held talks with President Kibaki, Foreign Affairs Minister Raphael Tuju and Leader of the Official Opposition Uhuru Kenyatta. As his visit elicited excitement across Kenya and the continent and further attracted global interest, Obama’s emotional family re-union at his father’s home in Nyang’oma village, and his strong message on the fight against HIV/Aids as he offered himself for a public HIV/Aids test at a mobile Voluntary Test Centre (VCT) clinic outside the Nyanza Provincial hospital test alongside his wife Michelle, where both of them tested Negative, was a major challenge to victims of HIV/Aids stigma and even those who shy away from voluntary tests across the continent.
A down to earth person who mingled freely with Kenyans, who jostled at every opportunity to catch a glimpse of him as he defied the presence of his heavy security detail, demonstrated in his short public life that he is a man of an uncommon grace, intelligence and compassion.
A carnival mood engulfed Siaya town and its environs as Obama visited his district for a family re-union where he was served with a steaming Pilau dish (Swahili staple food) inside his grandmother’s house before addressing villagers.
It was a rousing welcome for the US politician in an emotional journey to the land of his father.
Villagers thronged various trading center at which the senator convoys that also included her wife Michelle passed.
Siaya town was in the morning a beehive of activity as people thronged the KCB Siaya to withdraw more cash for their transport as fares shot up.
Around midday the town was deserted as all the people had left to the senators village, while those who could not make it were forced to wave for him at various market centers he was passing.
The senator started his journey from Ondere village in Central Ugenya location where he is financing a multi-million aids orphan care project through Care Kenya.
The visit enabled him to pass through the worst poverty stricken areas of the province and areas with high HIV/AIDS infections such as Ambira, Ngunya, Ndere, Siaya town, Dond Koki, Nur Ngiya, Pap Nyadiel upto his grandmothers’ home in Nyang’oma Kogelo village in Aleggo. The convoy to his grandmother’s home included the US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger.
During his visit, the senator called for concentrated efforts to fight the HIV/Aids pandemic which he termed dangerous.
At Ondero village, the senator came to face with reality of the disease when he met the 2,306 children orphaned through Aids that he is supporting. Obama had personally committed some Sh1.2 million for the four years project through his initiative.
The project started in 2002, is geared towards economically empowering the older women who take care of the orphaned children.
Funded through the World renowned non-governmental organization Care Kenya, the women aged over 50 years are assisted with micro-credit finance revolving fund which enables them to purchase several income generating inputs such as sewing machines.
The senator mingled and danced with the children who narrated moving songs, poems and skits as the senator held his cheeks.
Child after child thanked the senator for the move but asked for more to be able to continue with their lives.
The songs and others forced the Obama to explain that he would prevail upon the US Government to increase its funding of Aids related activities.
The senator challenged all stakeholders to support the elderly who had been left with the task of caring for the young orphaned children.
“When I look at these young children, I think of my father and the great people of Kenya. That time there was no Aids”, he told the gathering which had converged under a baobab tree.
Though he did not commit himself to extending the funding of the programme, the senator said that he would explore ways of seeing that the project sustains itself.
It was at his ancestral home that the great son of the village received a hero’s welcome led by key opposition chief in Kenya, Raila Odinga.
He lamented that most of the orphaned children, had no opportunity since they were under the care of elder mothers whose economic condition did not allow them to do much for the children.
The senator promised to ensure that both the primary and the secondary schools named after his father were improved.
Obama directed the world’s attention on the poverty in Africa when he toured Kibera, the largest slums in the continent.
His actions and pronouncements unearthed behind a Senator, a man who cares deeply about the poor, the marginalized and those who are despised by the society.
As he addressed issues of poverty in Kenya and South Africa which he first visited, Obama brought out a strong message that poverty was not about failure of personal morality but largely failure of the society to create an enabling and empowering environment in which all can grow and flourish.
At Kibera, he toured alongside his wife, Mchanganyiko women self help group at the heart of the Slum before proceeding to Carolina for Kibera, an HIV/Aids project.
And he declared that it was not his first visit to Kibera and neither would it be the last.
Obama declared as he addressed thousands of excited residents, close co-operation between the US government and the government of Kenya to bring more opportunities to the slums.
Obama and his wife took time after a tour of the slums to listen to the youth and women on their efforts through several community based organizations and personal initiatives to fight HIV/Aids.
On Monday, the senator visited Standard Group head office in Nairobi as a show of solidarity in relation to the recent attack on the group’s Standard and KTN offices by government agents.
The senator was still in Africa as this edition of Mshale went to press. His next stop was Djibouti and Chad. He was also expected to tour Rwanda and Congo where gun battles erupted in the capital after a preliminary vote tally in that nation’s first election in nearly a half century produced a winner.