About the Author: Thomas J. Dowling serves as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
Via the seeming magic of big screen TVs, U.S. Embassy Nairobi’s Public Affairs Section managed to add another 400 excited participants to the throng on the Mall Tuesday evening at the residence of the Public Affairs Officer. Over 200 students from ten high schools and nine universities joined another 200 educational, cultural, media and civil society contacts in cheering as President Obama took the oath of office and then mentioned in his speech the small village where his father was born. President Obama's pointed references to dealing with the realities of economic crisis in the United States and his calls on the strengths, hopes and ideals of the American people that had brought him to the White House and which would restore America's standing in the world were not lost on the Kenyans. In conversation after conversation, Kenyans old and young alike wondered how they could raise new political leaders like our President.
For the last week, the imminent accession of Kenya’s favorite, if somewhat removed son, to the most visible office in the world had become the news again and the only topic on people’s lips for days. Virtually every footstep of the final journey to and events in Washington were followed avidly, with days of commentary from young and old alike. Today, 36 hours after the big event, the coverage remains high but the headlines carry double meanings for Kenyans: “The Party is Over…..;” “Hard Work Ahead,” because they heard his words as calls to arms to them as well to bring political and financial order to Kenya as well.
In electronic programming, media commentary and purely personal reactions, Kenyans spoke as one in focusing on the way the points of the inaugural address that defined the specific ills America faced and would overcome reflected the economic and political turmoil in Kenya. They wondered where the spirit of Americans from its founders through its immigrants, past and recent, to its newly awakened youth, could be found among Kenyans to deal with its own constitutional reforms and anti-corruption issues. Where, they asked wistfully, were the Kenyan Obama’s who could break the chains of tribalism, party politics, and the culture on impunity and institute a regime of law?
The Embassy program, while a culmination of the programs we had run to educate Kenyans about the U.S. electoral process (with the obvious parallels to their own) prior to the November 4 election, now serves as the starting point for a new embassy speakers program on the peaceful political transition, the realization of the American ideals of equality and the rule of law embodied in the Constitution and brought to fulfillment through the Civil Rights movement that will carry us through Black History Month and Women's History Month.
The Public Affairs Section complemented the Inauguration program with art, song and poetry created specifically for the event in response to a competition to express “Unity Through Diversity.” The performances and the artwork that graced the tents added immeasurably to an incredibly moving and motivating evening.