In the workings of modern American democracy, except something really dramatic takes place, the last year of a serving president is decidedly lame-duck. He therefore does not regularly make the #trending list on Twitter. Raphael James, Nigerian journalist, biographer and reading enthusiast on a mission to interview Mama Sarah Obama, the grandmother of incumbent American President, Barack Obama, however discovered that in Kenya, the son-of-the-soil and first-ever White House occupant of African descent is neither lame nor duck!
By Raphael James
The economy of Kenya significantly depends on tourism. As such, for a first time visitor, there is so much to see and appreciate and I took full advantage of my visit to move around the country.
On arrival at the airport, I was given a VIP reception with two police men waiting in attendance to receive me, accompanied by my host Professor George Luchiri Wajackoyah.
A Great Host
I first met Prof Wajackoyah in 2012 when he was contesting for the Presidency of Kenya under the platform of the ‘ROOT Party.’ He had among other engagements, come to Nigeria to see my daughter, Oluebubechi, Africa’s youngest published author and engaged me as his Director of Press while in Nigeria. He is the first Kenyan to be awarded the highest honor by The Royal Government of His Majesty Sultan Muhammad Fuad Abdulla Kiram the First, The Sultan of Sulu & The Sultan of Sabah, Head of Islam & Head of the Sultanate. I was driven from the airport straight to his palatial home, which is a stone throw to the Government House in Nairobi.
After my breakfast, Prof commenced calls and started linking me with people that will make my stay a pleasurable one.
Pascal Tabu Obama was the first on the line. A cousin of the incumbent President of the United States of America, he was also to act as my tour guard. Pascal is quite good with Kenyan history and the tourist sites. We had a deal sealed and the journey commenced.
Pascal lined up a whole lot of activities and places to visit with a wide range of options available, and made sure that there was something at every point to interest me. He educated me very well about Kenya. In addition to giving me introductory briefings upon arrival, he provided information relevant to my locations throughout the course of the safari. He answered my questions, gave explanations, and taught me bits of African History and Folklore as we moved along.
I visited several places, including the Kenya Wildlife Game Parks, Kenya Museums and Heritage Museums and archaeological sites inside and around Lake Victoria.
Memories of the older Kenyatta
I was at the ‘Uhuru Gardens’ on Lang’ata Road, Nairobi, Kenya. The largest memorial park in Kenya, the inaugural ceremony for Kenya’s first president, President Jomo Kenyatta was conducted at this park on December 12, 1963 when Kenya gained its independence. A 24-metre high monument commemorating Kenya’s struggle for independence is the centrepiece attraction at Uhuru Gardens. To one side of this monument is a statue of freedom fighters raising the Kenyan flag. Most of the trees in the garden are planted by prominent Kenyan citizens. While there I prayed under the Uhuru tree planted by The Hon Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, M.P and founding Prime Minister of Kenya at the site where the Kenyan National Flag was first raised on December 12, 1963.
I equally visited the Nairobi Animal Orphanage, located inside the Nairobi National Park. It serves as a treatment and rehabilitation centre for wild animals. The Orphanage hosts lions, cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, gavels, warthogs, leopards, various monkeys, baboons and buffalos. Various birds can also be viewed and these include parrots, guinea fowls, crowned cranes and ostriches.
I also visited the ‘Karura Forest,’ gazetted in 1932 and managed by the ‘Kenya Forest Service’ in conjunction with the ‘Friends of Karura Forest Community Forest Association’. It has an area of 1 063.0 ha, making it the largest of three main gazetted forests in Nairobi. It is located North of Central Nairobi and is bordered by the suburbs of Muthaiga, Gigiri, Runda, Ridgeways, Mathare North, Peponi and New Muthaiga. The Western part of the forest is also known as Sigiria Forest. The forest is made up of a waterfall, bamboo forest, marshland, Mau Mau caves and an old church among many others. The Forest is located in the heart of the city, and as such several government, rich persons and businesses had made attempts to build housing estates within the forest lands but thank God for conservationists like Wangari Maathai, the leader of ‘Green Belt Movement’ who later became a ‘Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.’ She, for many years and even until her death, stood firm and campaigned for the preservation of the forest, not minding her been beaten and sentenced to prisons several times.
I visited ‘Kariokor’ Market, a former colonial-prison-turned-market. It is a huge open-air market where you can find everything from traditional fabrics and souvenirs to food items such as vegetables, fish, fruit etc. At lunchtime you will find many local workers from the area, who are taking advantage of the many affordable and good eateries. I was surprised to find out that I could buy one banana from a bunch for 10 Kenyan Shillings. It looks more like Ariara Market in Aba, South-Eastern Nigeria.
Nairobi Game Park
I also made it to the ‘Nairobi National Park.’ The National Park was established in 1946. It is located approximately 7 kilometres south of the centre of Nairobi with an electric fence separating the park’s wildlife from the metropolis. The animals before now had roamed freely and sometimes walked into people’s houses. I was told of a nearby hotel where a lion walked in and had a hand shake with the occupants! Don’t ask me what happened next. Mervyn Cowie was the conservationist that started it all upon his return to Kenya after a nine-year absence in 1932 and was alarmed to see that the animals had reduced in number. He fought for the creation of the game reserve and in 1946 it was officially opened. Thank God for the foresight and work of Mervyn; today Kenya is making so much money from the park.
Inside Lake Victoria
It was of course a delight to me to visit ‘Lake Victoria’ – the world’s largest tropical lake, the world’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area, the world’s ninth largest continental lake and obviously Africa’s largest lake by area. It’s surface area is 68,800 km2 (26,600 sq mi) and it contains about 2,750 cubic kilometres (2.23×109 acre·ft) of water. It occupies a shallow depression in Africa and has a maximum depth of 84 m (276 ft) and an average depth of 40 m (130 ft). Its catchment area covers 184,000 km2 (71,000 sq mi). It has a shoreline of 4,828 km (3,000 mi), with islands constituting 3.7 percent of this length and is divided among three countries: Kenya (6 percent or 4,100 km2 or 1,600 sq mi), Uganda (45 percent or 31,000 km2 or 12,000 sq mi), and Tanzania (49 percent or 33,700 km2 or 13,000 sq mi). It is named after Queen Victoria by the explorer John Hanning Speke. Incidentally, Speke was also the first Briton to document it in 1858, while on an expedition with Richard Francis Burton to locate the source of the Nile River. The Lake receives its water primarily from direct rainfall and thousands of small streams.
The Kagera River is the largest stream flowing into this lake, with its mouth on the lake’s western shore and it is drained solely by the Nile River near Jinja in Uganda. In such an acquatic terrain, it just came natural for your correspondent to be served a plate of fish garnished with pepper and vegetable.
The National Museum
For my next stop, I visited the “Nairobi National Museum”. Here, I was told that the facility was initiated in 1910 by a group of enthusiastic naturalists under the then ‘East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society’. When the first site, ‘Nyayo House’, became too small, a larger building was put up in 1922 where the Nairobi Serena Hotel stands today. In 1929, the British colonial government set aside land for fresh museum construction at Museum Hill which was officially opened on September 22, 1930 and named ‘Coryndon Museum’ in honour of Sir Robert Coryndon, one time Governor of Kenya. In 1963 after independence, it was re-named the ‘National Museum of Kenya’. On October 15 2005, the ‘National Museum of Kenya’ was closed down to the public for extensive modernization and expansion repair work for fund generation and the promotion of tourism. Today, it is an impressive architectural site, a world- class museum. It was re-opened in June 2008 as the ‘Nairobi National Museum’, and continues to draw visitors from all walks of life in appreciation of Kenya’s rich heritage.
Also before my visit, I had read so much about Kenya tea and the British colonial master’s exclusive domination of the tea farms until Kenya secured independence in 1963, so set I set out to Kericho – the land of TEA.
Kericho hosts most of the tea plantations. Here, since the beginning of large-scale tea production in the 1930s, acres of land are used for the production of tea. The once dense forest was cut down by the British colonial masters to make way for the rolling tea plantations, today the tea plantations are helping the economy of Kenya in the international market. I visited Mau Tea Multi-Purpose Co-op Society Ltd. In Kericho. The tea landscape is a beauty to behold, it looks like a giant green carpet from a distance. Among the indigenous Kipsigis smallholding growing tea farmers, one will notice smaller patches of tea gardens popping up amongst farmlands and forests, they make most of their living from tea production. Kericho also plants maize, beans, and coffee but tea is their major product. Kenyan tea is world renowned.
While in Kenya, I was to be adorned in a Maasai War Commander’s regalia and led a group of Maasai warriors in a battle dance. The Maasai are East Africa’s most celebrated indigenous peoples. Tall, dark, slender, fearless, proud, and freedom loving people, they are a pastoral ethnic-group that is native to Southern Kenya and North-Central Tanzania, along the Great Rift Valley plains. They are great herders of cattle who live in the open wild, sharing their habitat with wildlife. They deem themselves as sons of Enkai – a monotheistic God, who gifted them with cattle – and infact all the cattle in the world! They migrated southward, sometimes between the 14th and 16th centuries, probably in search of greener pastures for their beloved cattle. Along the way, they fiercely fought and displaced the groups they encountered. Around the 18th and 19th centuries, these nomadic Maa speaking Nilotes settled in their present domains in Kenya and Tanzania.
And then I began to get to the other and more formal sides of my business in Kenya. After Barack Obama’s 2006 visit as Senator to Kegelo, the home town of his father , the village’s two schools were renamed after him. They became the ‘Senator Obama Secondary School and Senator Obama Primary School. Both educate children referred to them by by Mama Sarah Obama’s group. Also, Obama family members donated land to expand the schools and international donors have equally helped them with operational support. I took time off to visit both schools and the grave-sides of President Obama’s father and grandfather respectively. Written on the grave side are the words: “Ibed gi kwe” which means “Rest in Peace”
I equally took a ride in the world-famous ‘matatu.’ These are privately owned minibuses in the mould of Lagos’s ‘molue’ or Accra’s ‘tro-tro’ which are decorated with portraits of leaders, music stars or and even football stars and famous slogans with loud music to attract passengers. Unlike the Nigerian ‘molue’ bus however, the matatu are quite neat and beautifully decorated to attract your patronage and I thoroughly enjoyed my ride.
I took time out to pay a courtesy visit to the Nigerian High Commissioner in Kenya – Mr. Friday Okai in his office at Lenana Road. A nice fellow, I asked him about his challenges as Chief Representative of Nigerians in Kenya and how he is handling issues concerning them and he assured me that all is fine.
A day to my departure, I was honoured with a “Friend of Kenya” stone carving of the map of Africa with an opening door to Kenya, by a group of Barristers led by Prof Wajackoyah. Equally, my new friend, Pascal Obama, presented me with a copy of the biography of Wangari Muta Maathai.
Meeting Mama Obama
And then the peak of my visit; my meeting with Ambassador (Dr) Sarah Hussein Obama, aka Mama Sarah – The World’s Most Famous Granny and 96 year-old Kenyan educator and philanthropist. The only African and black woman ever to be a grandmother of an American president, and the second wife of the paternal grandfather of incumbent US leader, the President referred to her as “Granny” in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” and described his meeting her during his 1988 trip to his father’s homeland. He also spoke about his “grandmother” again in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, and then Mama Sarah attended his first inauguration in 2009.
Her home is located some 60 km from Kisumu town, in Alego and she overwhelmed me with her exceptional reception and love, describing me as the first Nigerian journalist to ever interview her. She is humble, loving and caring.
At the end of the interview, she insisted that I must spend the night under her roof. She slaughtered a chicken and ordered that her domestic assistant prepare a special “Ugali na kuku” meal for me. She is awesome and a pride to humanity. Honestly it was a great pleasure to meet a woman held in such high esteem across Kenya and internationally. She speaks the local language – “Dholuo” so I had to depend on my interpreter, Naomi who is a Director of the Mama Sarah Foundation.
From Mama’s body language I knew I was welcomed, she was at home with me and treated me like a grandson. Mama Sarah loves to talk and she was willing to take all my questions even when I felt it was late and time for her to catch some rest. She really does have a lot of stamina for someone her age. Kenya indeed is a pleasant place to visit and I left the country with the confidence that in this place, Obama still rocks.