About the Author: Thomas J. Dowling is the Counselor for Public Affairs at U.S. Embassy Nairobi.
At 7 a.m. Nairobi time, 2,000 Kenyan voices -- including several government (and religious) ministers and 1,000 high school and university students -- erupted in cheers as they heard and saw the historic election of Senator Barack Obama as the next President of the United States of America. By the rejoicing, which mirrored last week's all-Obama, all-the-time news reporting in the Kenyan media, one would have believed Obama had been elected Kenya's President rather than America's. Kenyan Vice President Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka stopped by Embassy Nairobi at the end of the morning to deliver the congratulations of the Government of Kenya personally.
Ambassador Michael Ranneberger invited over 2,500 Kenyans to join embassy staff and resident Americans to monitor the election results at his residence starting from 5:00 a.m. School buses and individuals actually began coming through the gates at 4:45 a.m., unwilling to miss a minute of the election returns as the polls closed in the United States. The Embassy's Public Affairs, General Services and Information Technology staff had put together an exceptional technological layout of Internet connections and TV coverage that left the 2,000 visitors breathless, first in anticipation as the electoral count mounted and then in cheering the election of the son of one of their own.
Ambassador Ranneberger addressed the crowd soon after Senator McCain conceded and Senator Obama spoke to the thousands gathered in Chicago, citing the rigor of the contest, the focus on issues over personality, the diversity of the electorate and, of course, the peaceful transition of power. He also noted the continuing close partnership with Kenya that the morning's events would only deepen. He was joined at the podium by five exceptionally poised secondary students, who read prize-winning letters they had written to Senators McCain and Obama, expressing their impressions and hopes should either be elected.
Virtually covering the residence yard with tents and installing multiple large flat screen TVs and on online projection unit, the embassy team filled the big tops to capacity with politicians, officials, business people and especially students who were mesmerized by the unfolding drama of the electoral count. At one end of the veranda, attendees were able to ask questions in webchats with experts in the U.S. (Kenyan participants' questions were particularly sophisticated), and at the other end, were able to follow the electoral vote count closely, with many an impromptu explanation of the Electoral College by Mission officers, in the individual state races that determine the final -- non-popular -- vote.
Adults and students alike took the opportunity to cast their ballots for president very seriously indeed and queued patiently, just as they saw Americans do on the big screens -- and as they or their parents and elders did in Kenya's last election in December 2007. For all the students, this was their first experience of participatory democracy, and they took full satisfaction in it. They were joined by several government ministers, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, Kenyan and other ambassadors, among others. Embassy officers received compliments from virtually all the adults attending for inviting the students in particular to take part in such an instructive exercise.
Key to the entire day was the presence of so many students. Following up on the Embassy's Pre-Election Outreach program to high schools and colleges, the Public Affairs Section invited more than 40 schools to bring students to monitor the returns on the big screens, interact online with election experts in the United States and witness the post-election events, and they came out in force. Having witnessed the destruction of lives, homes and communities during last January's post-election violence, the students had a chance to see democracy in action, and to take part in it first hand in the straw poll we conducted. Over and over again Kenyans mentioned with surprise and admiration how amazing it was to see how quickly votes were tallied and how quickly and conciliatorily Senator McCain conceded.
All local media covered the event in depth with all six TV and several radio stations running live feeds back to their studios to supplement international coverage. The Ambassador gave dozens of interviews with all media, consistently emphasizing the positive elements of the election process, the common base of democratic principles Americans share with Kenyans and the continued good relations between the two democracies.