JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Barack Obama, the United States’ first African-American president, has captured the imagination of people across the continent, where his face shows up on billboards, backpacks, T-shirts and restaurants.
Obama departs Friday for Kenya for a summit on entrepreneurship. Then he will travel to Ethiopia to address leaders at the African Union headquarters. Wherever he goes, large crowds are expected to gather and cheer him.
With his African ancestry, locals have been quick to claim the president as one of their own and his name turns up in surprising places, such as emblazoned across mobile phones in Bujumbura, Burundi.
In the Kenyan town where his step-grandmother still lives, near Lake Victoria, the local high school has been named “Senator Obama,” a legacy of his visit there in 2006 before he became president.
In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, some buses are adorned with Obama’s image — along with those of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.
At a beach in Conakry, Guinea, in West Africa, a thatched hut boasts that it is the Obama Restaurant. Not to be outdone, Accra, the capital of Ghana, has a hotel restaurant named for the president.
In perhaps one of the greatest honors Africa can bestow, Obama’s picture is side by side with that of former South African president and renowned statesman Nelson Mandela outside a Pretoria clinic where the South African leader was treated.
Obama’s trip will largely focus on economic issues, but he also is expected to address the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Kenya, which might not make his host happy.
Earlier this week, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta called those topics a “nonissue;” that’s “not on our agenda at all.”
The president “needs to earn the Obama mania a little,” Brian Dooley, a human rights activist, said on a conference call with reporters. “He can’t just turn up and expect to be welcomed like a prodigal son.”
Kogelo, the Kenyan village that is Obama’s ancestral home, is waiting eagerly to see if he will visit. So far, a trip there is not on his schedule.