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Democratic Senatorial Candidate Barack Obama Stresses Importance of Roots - 2004-09-15

Two African-Americans in the midwest state of Illinois are competing for a U.S. Senate seat in this November's election. The Republican party candidate is Alan Keyes, a nationally syndicated radio commentator, who has previously run unsuccessfully for the Senate, as well as for the Republican presidential nomination. The Democrat is Barack Obama, an Illinois state legislator from Chicago, who was not as well known on the national scene, until he became the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, in July.

Mr. Obama has written a book about his father, who was from Kenya, and whom he says inspired him to seek public office. Speaking with VOA Swahili reporter Esther Githui in Washington, Mr. Obama talked about the book and about African issues that concern him.

Barack Obama's father was a goat herder, like many in his generation in Kenya. But the senatorial candidate from Illinois says that his father had a drive to excel that took him to Harvard University, in Boston, and eventually to a position as a senior economist with the Kenyan government.

"I think it is important for us to know where we come from, to understand how far we've come and my father is an example of someone who came from very modest beginnings and one who was able to achieve quite a bit," Mr. Obama said. "And there are many parents and grandparents throughout Africa and the African-American community in the U.S. who made great sacrifices so that their children, would have the kinds of opportunities that you and I have."

Mr. Obama, 43, was elected to the Illinois state legislature from a district in Chicago in 1996 and so is deeply involved in local and state issues. But he says he keenly follows issues that affect the African continent, as well. He says Africa is yet to overcome many of its problems, including those that limit efforts to rebuild its economy.

"I have obviously a great interest in Africa," he noted, "and I think that all Americans should have a great interest in Africa; not just African Americans, because it is a continent of great resources and wonderful people, great intelligence and perseverance; but also a continent that is struggling.

Our mutual connection with Kenya also for those of us who have traveled through Kenya or lived in Kenya know that it is a great country," he continued, "but also that there have been very significant problems with corruption, mismanagement of the economy, but on the other hand, we are seeing progress being made in fits and starts in terms of building the economy. We've got to deal with AIDS crises. We have to deal with unemployment rates among the young people and the U.S. government has to recognize that if sub-Saharan African countries fail, that is going to make us less secure."

Mr. Obama says that in the fight against graft, Africa can emulate the United States, by creating a constitution that protects the rights of its citizens.

"One of the things that I've always believed is that the greatest gift of the U.S. is its constitution," he said. "The basic principle of the rule of law. That if you are a rich man or poor man you have to pay your parking tickets or go through the same lines in order to get a visa. I think that is what makes this country great."

The U.S. senatorial candidate, who has served as chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee of the Illinois state senate, says the world must come together in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He emphasizes the need for education so that people can change their habits and protect themselves from the scourge.

"Well, I think that there are two components to it: one is education and prevention and that's the most important component. We also have a more immediate problem and that is access to prescription drugs that can keep persons who are HIV positive in healthy state," he said. "And I think that the U.S. government should be working with multinational pharmaceutical companies to make sure that we have access for those drugs in extraordinarily poor countries that cannot afford a lot of money for those drugs."

Barack Obama's book, Dreams From My Father, was written some time ago, but is now being widely read in the United States, as a result of the national attention he has received. Mr. Obama said he traveled to Kenya to find out more about his father, for the book. He interviewed uncles and close friends to get a better perspective of who his father really was.

"Well, you know I wrote this book after law school and it was really a reflection on my father, and the fact that I did not know him well," Mr. Obama explained. "He moved back to Kenya when I was young and I was raised here and then he died before I got to know him very well. This is a book that I am proud of. I wrote it 10 years ago. But it is was recently reprinted because of the publicity surrounding my election [campaign] and, most recently, it is now on New York Times bestseller list, which is quite an honor."

Mr. Obama says he hopes to visit Africa soon after the election in November and will make Kenya his first stop.