Obama in Kenya: implications of a presidential visit

22 September 2015 | Natasha Pearce

Resolution:Possible intern Natasha Pearce recently returned from a research trip in Kenya for her Masters degree and will be sharing some of her observations with us over the next few weeks. This is the first of Natasha’s Kenya blogs.

2015; Obama; visit; Kenya; state visit; Barack Obama

“Kenya looks to reap big from Obama’s visit” – Excitement and criticism were rife in the run up to President Obama’s official visit to Kenya in July 2015.

I spent a little over three weeks in Kenya in June and for many people, as well as the national media, the visit of President Barack Obama returning to his ancestral country was a favoured topic of conversation. The visit took place in the wake of the April attack on Garissa University which left 147 students dead and was claimed by the militant group Al-Shabab who come from neighbouring Somalia. Controversy arose after American news channel CNN referred to Kenya as a ‘hotbed of terrorism’, a statement that Kenyans vehemently deny and have taken offence to.

For most countries, the visit of one of the most powerful men in the world is exciting, but Kenyans have the added claim that President Obama hails from their country. His father was Kenyan and travelled to the United States as part of a group of graduate students, funded by the KANU leadership of the independence era, with the hope that these students would return to assist with the running of the newly independent Kenya. President Obama’s step-grandmother still lives in the country, and in his ancestral village, a new generation of ‘Barack Obamas’ has developed since his election as US President.

Yet, as Obama’s arrival approached, more and more rumours erupted across the country with news of his visit. One rumour was that the President was flying in for a mere eight hours, and would not leave Nairobi. Another rumour was that the American government would be monitoring the country for the day, and that the international airport in Nairobi would be closed during his stay. All flights from Somalia would supposedly be cancelled, with extra forces placed along the Kenya-Somali border. Whether or not this happened is yet to be confirmed. Another rumour was that the telephone and internet lines would be shut down for the duration of the visit. This rumour was supposedly based on a similar experience in Tanzania when President Kennedy visited.

A greater source of tension was the amount of money the Kenyan government spent on the visit. Whilst official figures are hard to find, the numbers I heard thrown about on just one Matatu ride out of Nairobi varied from $2 million to $20 million. Although the figures may not be known, Nairobi has most certainly become a focus of improvement works in the weeks leading up to the visit. As I sat in gridlock traffic along Waiyaki Way, I saw flowerbeds being pulled up and replanted with grass and new flowers. Pavements were being repainted. The potholes that litter the roads however, didn’t seem to be such a focus on the improvement works.

Kiberia; Nairobi; Kenya; Obama; presidential visit

Kiberia is the largest slum in Africa and sits on the edge of Nairobi. Whilst the slum is growing bigger by the day, conditions are poor and cramped. (Photography – Natasha Pearce)

Whilst a visit from the US President is certainly not something to take for granted, is it really as positive as we are being encouraged to believe? My time in Kenya was spent largely in an internally displaced persons camp, a settlement which was created in the aftermath of the 2007 post election violence in which more than 1200 people were killed and over 300,000 people were displaced. Eight years later, I met families who still live under tents and tarpaulin, who can go for days without food if they cannot get any casual work, who can’t afford the £2 a term to send their children to the local school near the camp, and who can’t afford the matatu (bus) fares or school uniforms to send their children to the free government school in the nearest town. Families who cannot afford medical care and who rely on seasonal farming work to make a living. Whilst these families receive no support from the government, millions of dollars have been found to give Nairobi a makeover for the sake of President Obama’s limited hours in the country.

The second reason that I struggled to understand the true elation the country seemed to feel at Obama’s visit, was, although his father was Kenyan, he didn’t ever return to assist the country as he had been expected to. In the later years of the independence struggle, the KANU leadership (Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga) chose to send a substantial group of university aged men and women to institutions arounds the world to receive the education they would need to one day return and help run the newly independent Kenya. Obama’s father was one of these graduates. He was funded to study in the USA with the belief that he would then help to run the country. Instead, like the vast majority of the other graduates, he stayed in the USA and made a new life there. This left Kenya, at the time of independence, with only a handful of graduates and educated men to run the country.

I read a headline recently that said ‘Kenya should milk the Obama visit as much as possible.’ Whilst I don’t think Kenya should ‘milk’ anything, I do think that state visits, such as that of President Obama to Kenya, should be used to highlight the reality of life in the host country. Whilst CNN has labelled Kenya a ‘hotbed of terrorism’ the reality is simply not true, and Obama should be using his high profile to make this clear. He should be using his influence to highlight the growth of Kenya’s economy, the overall stability of the country. He should be using his platform to dispel these negative assumptions so many in the West are quick to jump to. I also think that he should be aware of just how much money the government has poured into his visit. How much has been done for him, when so little is being done for those who need it. Obama can use his platform to encourage the country to better itself. The focus of these kinds of visits shouldn’t merely be Obama’s feet on Kenyan soil, but what Obama can do to better Kenyan soil.

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