Last week, the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, paid a state visit to Kenya -- the first by a Turkish head of state. He came bearing gifts.
Hot on his heels, Ahmedinejad began his own two-day official visit to Kenya yesterday (Tuesday, February 24th), as the first stop in his two-country African journey, the other being, bafflingly, the Comoros. He also came bearing gifts, and the promise of improved contact.
Kenya has a long historical link with the middle east or Asia Minor as a whole. However, I see no triangular geopolitical connection, or timing, in the Iranian's visit to Turkey, and in the near-simultaneous Turkish and Iranian state-visits to Kenya? Was Kenya discussed in Ankara? I don't think so -- but you never know, Obama being who/what he has become. Was America? Perhaps. Is Kenya growing in stature, given its strategic location? Perhaps not, but it should be. We, another lot, will make it.
What is certain is that there has been no public debate, none at all, in Kenya concerning either visit. One would have thought that Ahmedinejad, in particular, would come in for some heated commentary. There have been private conversations, to be sure, about what Obama (what America) might think about all this. But Iran and Turkey are our long-standing trading contacts. And both leaders have been a study in proper diplomatical protocol and personal humility while here, as far as I can tell.
Most important of all is that Kenyans love and welcome those who, unlike the Artur Brothers, visit them with a clean heart. They love Queen Elizabeth, for example. They didn't care much for Presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, who, while visiting East Africa, avoided Kenya like the plague while they were in office. Obama was here in 2006, as Senator. So was Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt a hundred years ago (in 1909), after he had left the White House. That was just eight years after the Uganda Railway reached Kisumu (that same rail by which, upon arrival in Mombasa, Roosevelt travelled inland to Nairobi), eight years before my own father was born in Seme (some 35 km from Kisumu), and eleven years before Kenya became officially a British colony. In his wonderful and really, really captivating 2008 book, Kenya: A Country in the Making 1880-1940, Nigel Pavitt notes that Roosevelt stayed in Kenya for eleven months, shooting game and doing stuff. He had some wild ideas of his own, but his "relaxed, friendly manner" earned him many settler admirers here. Pavitt's book is proof that seeing is truly believing the magic that's Kenya (click here for a review of the book).Is there, though, any message for Obama in Ahmedinejad's visit to Obama's fatherland? A sort of ugali or pilau diplomacy, perhaps? A possible coffee or chai tete-a-tete? An exploration of contact opportunity in a country of contacts and contrasts?
More to the point, is there any gain to Ahmedinejad in his visit, at this time? I'm still scratching my head. He did come because he was invited -- invited to come at a time of his choosing. What I know is that, while he is here, Tehran is scheduled to commission its first nuclear power plant; built, ostensibly, to generate electric power for the country.
Iran has a historical trade and cultural link with Kenya, particularly the Kenyan coast -- which traces as far back, perhaps, as AD 600 to AD 800. A number of Kiswahili words, in fact, have Persial roots; and there are people, Kenyans, on the Kenyan coast with Iranian roots.
Iran has been a major proponent of "Dialogue among Civilizations" -- a drive which predates Ahmedinejad's Presidency. It was Mohammad Khatami, a former Iranian President, who coined the term to counteract Huttington's more confrontational idea of Clash of Civilizations. Khatami persuaded the UN to declare 2001 the year of Dialogue among Civilizations. There was going to be an "Indian Ocean Rim" component of this dialogue, we had been made to understand. Alas, 2001 was also to become the year of 911, and this really muddied the waters.
May the dialogue begin anew, and perhaps here!