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Obama Inspires Hope in Father's Homeland

At the Camel's Joint Hotel in Kenya, Kevin Omondi watches Barack Obama.
At the Camel's Joint Hotel in Kenya, Kevin Omondi watches Barack Obama. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 30, 2008

KISUMU, Kenya, Aug. 29 -- The few people awake before sunrise here Friday all seemed to be at the Camel's Joint Hotel, a low-ceilinged 24-hour cafe with neon lights, an open-pit grill and two posters of Sen. Barack Obama smiling down on rows of white Formica tables.

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The early crowd included a couple of waiters, a couple of cooks and a couple of customers -- an electrician and a union official who had both just arrived from Nairobi on a big orange bus that was still idling in the dark streets outside. They sipped their morning tea.

Kevin Omondi, a 20-year-old waiter, wiped the previous night's chicken grease off the other tables, and around 5 a.m. (10 p.m. in Washington), they all began half-watching the restaurant's three televisions. Each set was tuned to live coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where Obama, whose late father was from Kenya, was about to accept his party's nomination for U.S. president.

With the TV volume off, the red-white-and-blue images from Denver were scored for a moment by merengue-esque traditional music blaring from a cafe radio.

As Obama's biography began airing, Omondi turned the music down and the TV volume up, and soon, a kind of spell seemed to settle over the cafe. He stopped wiping the tables and stood under one of the sets, hands in the pockets of his too-big pants. The cafe went quiet as Obama's voice began narrating his complex life story.

"His mother," Omondi said, pointing to the image of Obama's mother flashing on the screen.

"His father," he said brightening, pointing to a two-second image of Obama's father, who comes from this region of wispy green sugar cane fields along the humid edges of Lake Victoria.

Kisumu is the bustling, struggling provincial capital, a city of two-story buildings with markets under old white archways. It is also the informal capital of Kenya's Luo tribe -- Obama's father was Luo -- a group that has felt politically marginalized for decades.

And so perhaps more than anywhere, Kenyans here have been captivated by Obama's candidacy. It is possible to buy Obama mugs and Obama watches in Kisumu. His name is on a secondary school, and his smiling face hangs where that of the Kenyan president might be.

Many people here have high -- and rather specific -- expectations of a potential Obama presidency. On Omondi's list: scholarships and easier visas for Kenyans, business deals with Kenyan companies, and it wouldn't hurt, he said, if Obama helped promote tourism.

Mostly, though, the senator's appeal here is not unlike his appeal to some in the United States. Among other things, he represents the possibility of a society in which ideas matter more than race.

"The equality people have been talking about, we are seeing it now," said Walter Odum, 36, an engineer. "It would be a historic change to have a black American president."


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