What Obama will see of his father’s land a few thousand feet from the air


Dear President Barack Obama,

Congratulations on making the long-awaited trip to Africa. It has been quite a while since the 21-hour visit to Ghana.

I am told that by the time you return to Washington, you will have accumulated 200 hours in sub-Saharan Africa. Thank you, Mr President for this extended stay in the continent.

Africans have been wondering what happened to their son. Pardon those who have even been talking of you as the “prodigal son”.

They have seen the Chinese leaders on their continent so frequently now, that they know more about Beijing than Washington.

But now, you have made them proud. By the end of your trip, you will have visited four sub-Saharan African countries since you came to power.

You cannot imagine the nerve of these Chinese leaders — Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. Just over the last five years, the two have visited more than 30 African countries.

Who do they think they are? Don’t they know that this is your territory? What do they see in Africa that you have not seen?

And then there is all this construction going on all over the continent — from superhighways, railways to dams — all by the Chinese.

I have been wondering what happened to American construction companies. Is it true that American firms do not do these things anymore?

But, Mr President, we have a rather serious problem. You see, our colonial masters taught us very good English and French.

But now we have to contend with the Chinese. The world would be a better place if Africans were in a position to negotiate with the Chinese in their own language.

I have this bad feeling that we may be getting short-changed — as Americans would say, screwed — in our natural resource contracts because we do not understand the language.

I say that one aid programme that America should support Africans with is learning the Chinese language.

This is what Africa needs. Forget the many other programmes. All we need is to be proficient in Chinese and we shall not only negotiate better, but we will be able to sell our ‘jua kali’ products to millions in remote villages in China.

This is my plea to you Mr President; some aid to learn the Chinese language.

Oh, and before I forget, just another small matter. I am told that the trip will skip Kenya, the country of your father.

But I realise that these were the words of doomsayers — I checked the flight plan of Air Force One and have confirmed that you will not be skipping Kenya.

You will be flying over the country on your way to Tanzania. This will actually provide you a better view of the country — a bird’s-eye view, so to say.

This is quite strategic. It is the best way to see this beautiful country. Those who say you will be skipping Kenya are just detractors who want to give you a bad name. I say you ignore them as they know not what they say.

Unfortunately, you will not be able to shake hands with millions of your admirers here in Kenya. Let me assure you that these are one happy people.

But I have to tell you one terrible thing about these brothers and sisters of yours. You see, once in a while, they get embroiled into some ugly skirmishes.

When this happens, houses go up in flames and you can tell that all is not well from the smoke. We had such a scenario in 2007 and 2008.

As you fly over this country, Mr President, make your pilot drop a little lower so you can get a good view. You will notice that there are no burning houses.

What you see will be people going on with their business like bees. They are a peaceful and hardworking lot, who have learned to deal with their own problems.

Let no one lie to you about the smoke you will see — those are our informal sector industrialists with their wood-fuelled technologies. And the machine down, that is our Chinese partners’ bulldozer working on our new bypasses.

Mr Kimenyi is a Senior Fellow and director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., USA. (




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