South Africa might physically lie 3,000 miles from Ghana, the site of President Obama's visit this weekend, but—as a fellow sub-Saharan African country that, not too long ago, suddenly molted off its mantle of despotic misrule and metamorphosed into a doggedly chugging little democracy—it is Ghana's emotional next-door neighbor. Their miracle status gives South Africans a lot of swagger, but a lot of frustration, too. It can be tough to see your country constantly offered as a good example when there's still so much fixing left to do. So I expect Ghanaians to receive Obama as I've seen South Africans respond to him here: overwhelmingly, as a symbol of what there already is to be proud of, and simultaneously as the figure who might soon release them from their frustrations and make the rest of their dreams substantively real. (Already, a Hotel Obama has opened in an upscale residential Accra neighborhood.)
Obama's name is powerful fuel here. At the Confederations Cup soccer final held in Johannesburg three weeks ago, a friend of mine who couldn't find a souvenir American flag in the stadium fretted to a lethargic volunteer that Obama "would be sad" if he flipped to the match on TV and didn't see any red, white, and blue in the crowd—and bam, the volunteer was off like a rocket, ardently combing the stadium for half an hour until he turned up a half-dozen American flags for Obama's sake. In Johannesburg, Obama's campaign phrases function as talismans. Inside a crowded bar in an up-and-coming neighborhood, I watched the South African soccer team try to beat Brazil. The spectators—all South African—were lobbing shouts of "Yes, we can!" at the big-screen TV with as much urgent faith as a sorcerer delivering an incantation. (Unfortunately, no, the team couldn't this year, but there's still the World Cup.)
But how he'll be received in Accra isn't the question. After all, Ghana has already shown it can mount an outrageous presidential spectacle. When Bill Clinton came in 1998, half a million people turned out for his speech—the biggest crowd Clinton had drawn, ever—and some even rushed the security barricades in what the Rev. Jesse Jackson memorably described as a "love surge." ("He's the second Jesus," one attendee informed the Los Angeles Times.) On the flipside, Accra has also already shown that the degree of adoration bestowed doesn't necessarily accord to what the recipient deserves: Clinton's main Africa legacy, after all, was inaction during the Rwandan genocide. For all the other failings of Clinton's successor, George W. Bush was the continent's much, much greater friend, pouring billions annually into the fight against AIDS. What did Bush get when he visited Accra? A smaller crowd and a suspicious question from the Ghanaian president about whether he intended to build a military base in the country like the ones in Iraq.
So what will be worth noticing about Obama's appearance, his first in sub-Saharan Africa as president? A lot, actually—even if a fawning public reception is a foregone conclusion. There are Ghanaians' wider views about the U.S. that lie beneath their legitimate pride in hosting the first African-American president's first trip to Africa. I can't be in Accra tomorrow, but if I could, I'd ask ordinary Ghanaians how they judge Bush now and what they tangibly want from Obama going forward.
I'd ask the experts—the heads of Ghanaian nongovernmental organizations and the global policy gurus—how Obama can handle the challenges to Bush Africa policy: the recession and a renewal of aid skepticism among conservative American politicians, whom Bush at least could woo as a friend.
And I'd save the biggest questions for Obama himself. As in many areas, the new president's Africa goals remain something of a mystery. In a preview interview three days ago worth reading in full, he told the news Web site AllAfrica.com that he is "a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa." Does he think Bush extended too much of a hand out, instead of a hand up?
Boosting Africa's collective self-esteem—partly by the sheer power of his example—is the goal Obama has already explicitly embraced. When the AllAfrica.com interviewer asked him to describe what he hoped would be his presidency's Africa legacy, he replied, "That a young person growing up in Johannesburg or Lagos or Nairobi or Djibouti can say to themselves, I can stay here in Africa, I can stay in my country and succeed, and through my success, my country and my people will get stronger." But in a very real way, his work on that front is already done. He gave Africa an immeasurable jolt of inspiration merely by getting himself elected, merely by coining "Yes, we can." In his speech from Accra's Parliament, I'll be listening for a few more details—for a clearer vision of how a presidency's policies, and not just its esthetics, can encourage a young person growing up in Johannesburg to say to himself, I can stay in my country and succeed.