Kenya ecstatic about the great “homecoming”

When I first moved to Kenya in 2002, the then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama was already a name in the news, before 90% of Americans had even heard about him.  To most Kenyans, the historic night in November 2008 was more of an apotheosis than an election.

Today, every Kenyan knows the village of K’Ogelo, birthplace of Barack Obama Sr., father to the US President.  In anticipation of Obama jr’s great “homecoming” on the weekend of July 24th-26th, Siaya County has invested heavily in an ambitious beautification program, while small-scale business people are making a killing from selling t-shirts, caps and basically any item imaginable featuring the US President.  I have also heard several stories of people from Siaya taking leave from their jobs in Nairobi to go home and celebrate. Too bad Obama isn’t even visiting Siaya this time..

He is visiting Nairobi, though, a fact one can hardly fail to notice:  Most of the main roads and roundabouts have undergone a massive beautification programme, with mid-sections being turned into lawns and flowerbeds, with nice nature stone edges.  Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero came up with the idea of planting that grass a bit late, though, but it will certainly look pretty a week or two after Obama has left.

In my neighbourhood, immediately next to State House, the mud trenches along most of the local streets have suddenly been upgraded to proper sidewalks with nicely painted edges.  All over the city, street lights that went dark years ago are suddenly brightening up the roads again.  I actually cannot remember having seen Nairobi this well lit ever before.  Should Obama decide to go for an evening walk in the State House area, he would be thrilled (Secret Service probably wouldn’t though).

Security of course is paramount. So is the perception of security, so all street families have been removed from the Nairobi city centre, and hawkers have been chased away.

If you switch on Kenyan TV news, brace yourself for 20-30 minutes of Obama footage, accompanied by “welcome home” songs.  Not since the dictatorship days of former kleptocrat Daniel arap Moi have so much of the news been dedicated to one person. In fact, I am sure Moi is pretty jealous as he watches the spectacle from his his retirement.  In addition to Barack himself, other members of the Obama family in Kenya also feature prominently in the news. Grandma Sarah Obama in particular.

Political factions in Kenya like to argue over whom among them is better liked by President Obama.  Former prime minister and presidential runner-up Raila Odinga, who, like Barack Obama Sr.  hails from Luo community, has previously made unsubstantiated claims of family ties to the US commander-in-chief.  Much to Raila’s disliking, it is undoubtedly President Uhuru Kenyatta who will get to spend the most time with the near-deified guest, though.

The official main reason for Obama’s visit is to speak at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES).  To beef up his experience, the Government of Kenya threw in USD 3 million on a quick facelift of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre where the summit is being held.

Most Nairobians will have to wait until after the weekend before they get to enjoy the facelift of their city, though.  The major roads are sealed off, meaning that the few ones that remain open will be at a standstill.  The city centre is likely to be a no-go-zone.

Since I’ll be on a business trip to Kinshasa over the weekend, I will be observing the whole event from a safe a distance, i.e the best way to experience it unless you happen to be the president of the US or of Kenya!

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