Reporter's Notebook: Ron Claiborne Travels to Kenya

Many Kenyans view Obama as America's first "African" president.

KISUMU, Kenya, Jan. 18, 2009 — -- The gruff-looking customs agent at the Nothing-To-Declare line at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi glared at me and signaled for me to stop my luggage cart by heading toward the exit.

"Where are you coming from?" he barked.

I handed him my U.S. passport.

"London," I said, "and before that New York."

"Is this your first visit to Kenya?" He was now eyeing my three bags with suspicion.

"Yes," I said. "I'm going to Kogelo ..."

I paused to watch his reaction. His face softened.

"I'm going to report on Obama's village."

Now he smiled and half-bowed. I passed on.

That was my first instance of Obama pride in Kenya, the place from which the president-elect's father, Barack Obama, came.

My second would come later in the morning. I, producer Bruno Roeber from London, Dana Hughes, Nairobi-based ABC News digital reporter, and a local Kenyan camera crew, set off immediately for southwestern Kenyan region where Kogelo is located, near Lake Victoria, the fabled source of the Nile River. Our destination on this first day would not be Kogelo but the much larger neighboring city of Kisumu, roughly 250 miles from Nairobi.

We stopped at an overlook on the Nairobi-Kisumu road to take in the spectacular view of the Rift Valley, a kind of geological trench that runs from the Dead Sea through the bed of the Red Sea and onto the African continent, cleaving a valley all the way to Lake Malawi and Mozambique -- more than 3,500 miles long in all.

The vista was spectacular, with verdant agricultural fields below the escarpment where we stopped and a brown, dessicated plain farther away running for miles before rising again to a range of mountains blurred by dust.

One of the dozen or so souvenir stand owners -- a squat, cheery fellow -- offered me his interpretation of the scenery, all the while pressing a cheap soapstone memento into my hand.

I asked him about Obama. He led me to his shop, its shelves crammed with wooden giraffes, and pulled out a photo of Barack Obama.

"What are you going to do with it?"

"I'm going to have it framed," he said. He showed me a second pencil-sketch. It was a portrait of Martin Luther King or, as the man told me, "Martin Luther."

Obama Inauguration Provokes Controversy

As I learned from our camera crew and several letters to the editor in a local newspaper we bought from a vendor, Obama's inauguration has also provoked controversy here. It seems several government ministers and members of parliament are flying to Washington, D.C. for the festivities -- at government expense -- even without any official invitation. Several citizens complained that this was an egregious waste of public money at a time when reportedly 10 million Kenyans are facing starvation.

We drove through green fields and dun-colored rolling hills. Alongside the road we saw some zebras and, later, a family of baboons.

After a while, we saw shacks with roofs missing -- then, just off to the north, a tent encampment.

Our cameraman explained: The tents were where victims of inter-tribal political violence one year ago were being sheltered.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, a member of Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, was re-elected last January in an election widely suspected of being fraudulent.

Luo and Kalenjin Kenyans reacted by attacking and, in some instances, murdering Kikuyus in this area.

The Kikuyus, in turn, turned on Luos and Kalenjins in an ugly, bloody spasm of anger and retribution that wreaked havoc on the nation's tourism industry.

Eventually, a power-sharing deal helped settle things down.

We stopped at a tent refugee camp where small children gaped at us and laughed.

A man named Titus, a Kikuyu, showed me the squalid UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)-supplied tent that he, his wife and four children have shared with another family since last May.

Titus said Kalenjins, some neighbors he had lived alongside peacefully for years, had attacked his home and those of other Kikukus and burned them to the ground. He said bitterly that the Kenyan government kept promising to relocate them to new homes, but that still hasn't happened.

I asked him about Obama. He said he only hoped that Obama, as American president, would somehow persaude the government to find them better housing.

Obama: A Dream Come True

An hour later, we were passing through very different scenery. On both sides of the road lay vast fields of a lush, light green vegetation: tea.

From a distance, the leaf pickers looked like waders in some kind of verdant ocean. Only their heads, chests and arms could be seen as they plucked tea leaves and stuffed them into sacks or baskets.

We stopped to talk to some of the pickers. A man named James explained that they work 14 straight days -- from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- then take a break to allow the leaves to re-grow.

James said he would be off and watching the American presidential inauguration next week. He paused from picking tea leaves. He said he never imagined a black person, much less one with ancestral roots in Kenya could be America's president.

"It is a dream come to life," he said, then resumed his labors.

On the road, we found ourselves following a small truck. On the rear window was plastered the image of Barack Obama, this son of a Luo Kenyan who is now a source of enormous pride and hope -- maybe even unreasonable hopes -- for so many Kenyans.