In Africa, Obama was both VIP and persona non grata

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – Illinois Senator Barack Obama (D), who completed a four-nation trip to Africa last week, received a rock star’s welcome in his father’s native Kenya, but was shut out of Sudan.

The Khartoum government would not issue Obama a visa in time to visit a refugee camp. It “continued to delay, delay, delay,” Obama told reporters of a government he has accused of committing genocide.

“They made a public statement that I was biased against them and they granted our visas a day before we left. But we will still meet and talk with some of the refugees.”

Obama’s intended trip coincided with the arrest for alleged spying of Chicago Tribune Reporter Paul Salopek, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, who entered the country from Chad without a visa. If convicted, he could face years in prison.

Obama had also intended to visit Congo and Rwanda, but cancelled those plans in light of intensifying violence following Congo’s first democratic election in 46 years. The United Nations has over 17,000 peacekeepers there and Obama hoped to spotlight his Senate bill aiming to increase aid there by 25 percent.

In South Africa, Obama drew media attention only when he clashed with the country’s leaders. Shortly after arriving in Cape Town, he scuttled any chance of holding a meeting with President Thabo Mbeki when he criticized the country’s efforts to fight its massive HIV-AIDS crisis.

After the South African health minister’s suggested HIV-positive people try lemons, garlic and beets instead of anti-retroviral drugs, Obama said, “The information being provided by the Ministry of Health is not accurate. It’s not scientifically correct.” Mbeki has entertained the theory that HIV does not cause AIDS and has stood by his health minister.

Obama also called on Pretoria to alleviate the political and economic crisis in bordering Zimbabwe, which under President Robert Mugabe suffers the world’s highest inflation, plus food and oil shortages, and has contributed to a massive influx of refugees into South Africa.

Mbeki does not suffer criticism lightly and did not meet Obama during the Senator’s 3-day visit.

But Obama had reason to judge his trip a success. If he ran for president of Kenya, he would win without ever having to touch a rubber chicken, or a bowl of cornmeal porridge, Kenya’s national dish. Cheering crowds of thousands swarmed his every public appearance and the country’s press heralded his visit in almost biblical terms.

Speaking to inhabitants of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Obama said through a bullhorn, “I love all of you, my brothers, all of you, my sisters. I want to make sure everybody in American knows Kibera. That’s why we have all the news crews.” Obama also visited the site of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi.

In Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, visited Soweto, the black township of about 4 million people where social unrest boiled under apartheid. Immediately afterwards, he traveled 20 minutes to Melrose Arch, a smart new dining and shopping complex patronized by Johannesburg’s upper crust, to a lunch with business leaders hosted by the Illinois Africa Office of Trade and Investment.

At the Hector Peterson Museum, named for a 13 year-old black boy shot by South African security forces in the 1976 Soweto uprising, Obama remarked that it was the anti-apartheid movement that sparked his interest in politics in 1979 as a college student. “If it wasn’t for some of the activities here I might not have been involved in politics,” he said at the memorial outside the museum.

Obama traveled to Soweto’s Rosa Parks Library, where photographs of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice looked down from the walls.

Obama sat with a group of young men when someone handed him a copy of American Libraries with him on the cover. “The only embarrassing thing is that I’m wearing the same suit and tie which shows you I don’t have a lot of money,” he chided, indicating his sartorial selection for the day. When Thembe Nkabihde, 37, of Soweto told Obama that he hoped to become a filmmaker, Obama replied, “I’ll tell Spike that there’s a future filmmaker here.”

Earlier, Obama visited a furniture company supported through investments by USAID. Settling into one of the factory’s chairs he said, “We should replace the Senate chairs with these. They’re very soft and cuddly.” He later told reporters, “I’m glad I didn’t bring my wife. We’d have to revamp the whole house.” Obama’s wife did join him later for the Kenya leg of his trip, along with his two daughters Malia and Natasha.

Stressing South Africa’s AIDS problem, Obama asked the factory owner how many workers he had lost to AIDS: three in the last four months alone. In Cape Town, Obama announced that he and his wife would take an AIDS test in Kenya in hopes of reducing the fear and stigma that is associated with discovering one’s HIV status. The couple tested negative. Obama received support in his criticism of South Africa’s AIDS policy by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who told him, “You are going to be a very credible presidential candidate.”

James Kirchick is a Boston-based writer traveling in Southern Africa.