Our Nairobi-based editor-at-large, Jackson Biko, reflects on the visit of ‘POTUS’
There was a time when I would go for a meeting at a local hotel in Nairobi and I could tell something was wrong. There was this dreadful air of defeat. This slackened-jaw feeling that things were hitting rock bottom. The hotel staff, slouched, dragged their long faces on the rich carpets as they trudged about. “Hakuna biashara,” they said, to mean there was no business. The Travel Advisories had dried out all the tourists. Most hotel staff endured salary cuts in order to keep things afloat. There was little cheer and a lot of jeer.
Then Obama said “I’m coming to Kenya.” And it was like the second coming.
So they closed off roads and cleaned the streets, and planted grass the night before he landed. We made t-shirts bearing his face and sold coffee mugs proclaiming him as our own. Old derelict buildings were demolished and trees were cut. For security reasons.
Back in Kisumu, the hometown of the Luos, the tribe Obama’s father came from, it was as if the Pope was visiting. Rumours spread that he would visit his ancestral home in Kogelo even after his team released a statement that he would not be going. They didn’t care. They waited. They willed Barry.
Obama was the best news we had in a long time. We discussed him in bars and in hotels. At dinner tables and in matatus (public transport). The talking heads on television gave their analysis of what the first visit to Kenya of a sitting American president meant for us. Obama had arrived even before he came into our airspace.
A few weeks prior you could tell the Americans had landed. Big hefty guys with thick calves, shades thrust against their face. Unsmiling. Sniffer dogs. Strange men with thick necks appeared in the streets, poking their noses in buildings.
The night the president arrived, Kenyan police poured in the streets, asking for IDs, standing on street corners. You felt safe. You also felt invaded. Then he came. Obama in the flesh, son of Kogelo. One of our own. He practically danced down the stairs of the plane, showing off his fitness. His hair white as a Republican’s teeth. Our leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, met him with a welcoming embrace and we cheered him. It meant we are now open for business, and we are safe, right?
Now things are looking up. You can tell. It is much safer now. Nobody wants to rock this apple cart. The other day I saw a swarm of tourists at my local bar. I knew they were tourists because they were very white and were drinking Tuskers. They looked happy to be here, for the wildebeest migration no doubt. The Masai Mara is upbeat. The hotels in Nairobi are getting their colour back.
There is change, albeit in small numbers, but change nonetheless. We needed this. We needed to be down in order rise again. We are keener to impress now.
You should come. And when you do, you have to try out the meat at The Carnivore restaurant first, because that’s how we welcomed good fortune back in the old days.