The other day you read about how MPA-DP student Amanda Grossi, 2016, applied her education at SIPA to her summer summer internship in Nairobi, Kenya. To conclude Amanda’s mini-series, she decided to write more about her summer abroad, this time focusing on what she learned in the community while completing her Summer Field Placement requirement.
As part of the MDP program’s summer placement requirement, I had the honor of serving as a Policy Innovation Fellow with the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, Kenya. I had an unforgettable experience and was taken into what felt more like a family than a workplace. Many students undertook internships this summer, and stories will abound about all of them, but this blog post is not about my story, but rather Kenya’s story and my brief entry as a character witnessing a transforming nation.
Kenya is a developing nation on a positive trajectory economically, but it is still struggling with widespread corruption and security threats from its neighbor and the Somalia-based militant Islamic group, Al-Shabaab. This mixture of hope and troubles was most palpable during President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya in July 2015. I was fortunate enough to be present in Kenya to witness the historic moment—a moment that began long before he arrived and will continue to last long after—signifying the first time in the 239 years of the U.S.’s independence that a sitting U.S. president visited Kenya.
In the weeks leading up to Obama’s arrival, my friends, co-workers and local media outlets obsessed over the details of his visit: Where would he stay? What kind of food would he eat? Can we turn on the news to see the half-hour special about the exact design of the plane in which Obama will be flying? It was all anyone could talk about. The frenzy and nervous anticipation could even be seen in the actions of Nairobi governor Evans Kidero, who undertook a somewhat last-minute $500,000 public works and city beautification effort ahead of the visit, even seeding grass just days before Obama’s arrival date, leading to jokes like, “If you think you’re under a lot of pressure at work, just remember there’s grass being forced to grow in just three days!”.
In security anticipation, more than 10,000 police officers representing more than one-fourth of the entire national force were deployed in the capital. Nairobian pedestrians, who normally jaywalk and filter nonchalantly through the moving traffic fiasco in a city where regulations are regarded merely as amusing suggestions, were on their best behavior and joked of a police state.
People waved flags, danced, lined the streets, and shouted for the president whose father was born in their beautiful country and whom they consider their son. The visit itself seemed brief in comparison to all of the build-up before and chatter after the visit, though Obama’s positive but realistic messages about Kenya being at a crossroads were ones that stuck. Morning radio shows dissected his words, fashion, and every action both taken and not taken over those three days. And it was truly incredible to have been there.
But I also noticed that the beautiful reality I witnessed as the historic visit progressed was not the one that was projected in the media. CNN reported of Obama visiting a “hotbed of terror,” and as I looked around at my smiling friends going about their daily lives without a care in the world, I wondered if reporters were even looking at the same country, or whether they could not see through their preconceived judgments.
Those judgments are part of what plague and hold back the country. They result in hesitant investors, tourists scared to visit once prosperous coastal areas, and a general reluctance to embrace Kenya. But that “hotbed” is not what I saw last summer (CNN later apologized for using the phrase). The level of hospitality and warmth I received from the Kenyan people was so great that it bordered on hot; so if anything, we should call it a “hotbed of hospitality.”
Kenya has one of the most welcoming and friendly cultures that I have ever come across. I want people to see the beautiful Kenya I saw, and not the one projected by the media outlets. So I have included some pictures for this blog to show you firsthand what it was like. Kenya’s security and corruption are issues that should continue to be discussed, but in these conversations, we should also remember to include what is going right and not categorize an entire country based on the actions of a few.
[Main photo courtesy of Amanda Grossi | Amanda Grossi bikes through the Great Rift Valley at Hell’s Gate. ]