Thoughts on Obama’s Visit: Kenya’s Aspiration

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Approaching the city from Kenyatta Road, Nairobi’s skyline begins to emerge: a distant cluster of towers partially obscured by the dust churned up by the dense rush hour traffic. The sun struggles to pierce the dusty sky, casting the city in a soft orange light. As I get closer – looking out from the window of a beaten-up matatu – I can hear the familiar sounds of people shouting, the constant churn of old diesel engines, and the blare of car horns coming from the approaching congestion.

Living here for six months I soon came to realise that Nairobi was a place of extreme contrast. It is a city well-established as the economic and cosmopolitan heart of East Africa, a coexistence of local Kenyans, NGO expats, and business entrepreneurs. However, it remains blighted by uncontrollable development, unmanageable corruption and deep-set inequality.

Despite the crime, chaos and confusion, many Kenyans remain hopeful for the future. The country as a whole remains aspirational – an extraordinary feat considering the unimaginable events of the last decade. A number of devastating terrorist attacks, and the post-election violence in 2008, have shaken the country’s politics. Kenya’s most recent chapter in history remains one of turmoil, violence and power.

Yet by the beginning of June – the end of my six months living in Kenya – another pandemonium was about to spread across the country. Everyone was awaiting the arrival of Barack Obama. This was a hugely significant event for many as the first official visit from a US President, someone who is also of Kenyan descent.

During the next month, the anticipation grew as Nairobi dusted itself down. Roads were cleared, pavements were painted and flowers were planted – homeless people were removed from the city centre, too – as Nairobi underwent a last minute beautification project. People joked, ‘it isn’t easy growing the city’s grass in one week’. Yet, the real intensity of the city’s preparations showed what Obama’s visit meant to the country as a whole.

Watching this event from such a distance was difficult. I imagined the excitement that would be surging through Nairobi during the coming months. In my minds eye, I could see the Maasai adorning their traditional checked robes to dance in the streets and pictured the great murals of the president painted across the sides of buildings and buses.

Obama’s visit also led me to reflect on the relationship that the two countries had. Kenya’s own aspirations have in some ways gravitated towards an archetype, American dream. In Nairobi it was at times tangible. The lavish shopping malls boasting every luxury you could ask for. Even the yellow shell of Westgate, a haunting reminder of the 2013 terrorist attacks, stood as a strange relic of the US-style consumer culture that the city has embraced. Despite this, the reopening of Westgate ahead of Obama’s visit, sent a strong message to the president: Kenya was a secure, stable country once again.

Kenya certainly has become a place to do business: with a rapidly growing economy, an increasingly literate population, and recently overtaking South Africa as having the largest tech sectors on the continent. Obama’s own rhetoric reflected this. Speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, he called for young Kenyans to “lead the way” for Africa to become “future hub of global growth”, all the time forwarding liberal ambition and individualism as the way forward for the continent’s success.

Yet scratching beneath the surface, the path for Kenya continues to remain uncertain, and it is within the nexus of security where the Kenyan-US relationship becomes most prevalent.

The decision by Kenyatta’s government to intervene and occupy Somalia in 2011 – a decision endorsed and funded by Washington – has thrown the country into the frontline of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, a paradigm which was propagated by the Bush administration and then upheld by Obama’s presidency.

The backlash that this has caused on the country has been devastating, yet any meaningful commitment by the USA to support Kenya’s ongoing security crisis continues to remain unseen.

Obama’s homecoming to Kenya was a visit fraught with paradox. On the one hand, it marked the symbolic return of a US president to his ancestral home, nodding his head towards a continent that has for too long been lost on the US agenda.

Yet on the other, it remained a visit of lost opportunity and unresolved issues. Kenya’s political ties with the USA, entwined in the ‘endless war’ to fight terrorism, will continue to affect the country, and unbridled corruption and inequality will come up against the aspirations of those who really desire change.

Though perhaps Obama’s words hold a salient message for the country’s future: “Kenya is at a crossroads, a moment filled with peril but also enormous promise”.

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