Day out with Obama: Dreams of a traveler

By: JOHN FOX

I had this fantasy. I had the chance of going places here with US President Barack Obama – on a day after his official business in Nairobi. Let me tell you about it.

There were no media guys around, no pressing crowds, no security concerns – because Obama was in a heavy disguise; as good as the bosses in the “Undercover Boss” TV series.

I picked him up after his early breakfast at the hotel where he was staying. And we drove out of town and through the frenetic and traffic-clogged “Diaspora” of Ongata Rongai.

“And many of these people have to face this traffic crawl every day as they go to work in Nairobi?” he asked. “True,” I told him.

But soon we were out on the freedom of the Magadi Road.

We pulled over just beyond the shoulder of the Ngong Hills and Corner Baridi to take in the amazingly broad sweep of the Rift Valley.

“WOW”

“Wow!” Obama said. That’s all. “Wow!”

We took the steep descent and noticed how buildings are sprouting all along the road. Further on, I pointed out the prehistoric site of Olorgasailie – the place of spirits – but stone chips and ancient elephant bones were not on our priority list that day.

After all the greetings, the speeches, and the jostle of people at Kasarani wanting to shake his hand, it must have been something of a relief to be out in the nyika country along the bottom of the Rift. But he wasn’t too turned off meeting people. He asked me to stop when he saw a small group of Maasai women selling curios. They had no idea who he was, of course, but they were very happy with this charming man, with his faded jeans and neat dreadlocks, who bought a beaded necklace for his wife Michelle.

We drove through the neat township of Magadi, built for the workers at the big soda factory. Beyond, we took the narrow pebbled road to Lake Magadi and then followed the wheel tracks across the soda crust to the water’s edge. I found a lone tree that could give us a skeletal shade. We stopped the car. I took the cool box from the boot, poured a couple of glasses of chilled white wine, and we sipped our drinks as we looked out over the shimmering shallow waters, the steam of the hot springs on the far side, the blue cones of distant hills and, much closer, the many wading birds feeding at the lake’s edge.

“Fantastic!” Obama said. “This is real wilderness.”

“Yes,” I said. “And it is reckoned to be the hottest place in Kenya.”

“What? Even hotter than all the talk in the National Assembly?”

So when we had finished our drinks, we got back into the car and headed back along the Magadi Road. But only as far as Olepolos, where we turned into the Country Club for a nyama choma lunch at a shaded trestle table with a view across to the eastern wall of the Rift.

There was a break before we had our after-lunch coffee. Because we drove back to the city a different way – via the road that skirts the eastern slopes of the Ngong Hills to Ngong town.

From there we made our way for the coffee at – where else? – the Tamarind Restaurant at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden along Karen Road.

‘NO VISA FROM MICHELLE’

We had a leg stretch around the Coffee Garden, and then it was time for a dose of history – a pleasant and quirky dose at the Railway Museum, west of the railway station and alongside Uhuru Highway. Appropriate, I think, because so much of the history of colonial Kenya is the history of the railway.

And I put to Obama, if he hadn’t already read it, he might well enjoy what I think is the best and most readable history of pre-Independence Kenya, the book by a fellow American, Charles Miller – The Lunatic Express.

I thought that this might be the end of the tour, but Obama was game for more. We drove out again along the Ngong Road, turned left and skirted Kibera.

It was nearly dusk, so we cut back across the Ngong Road and made for Marcus Garvey Road and the popular Mama Oliech Restaurant.

Obama smiled at the American flags and the sign at the entrance: “Welcoming Obama with live band this Friday and Saturday”. We were too late for that but not too late for a hand wash at the basin in the yard and a welcome sit-down for a plate of ugali aliyah – with salted beef, onions and tomatoes.

“Almost as good as my grandmother makes it,” Obama said.

I asked him whether, after a rest, a shower and a change at his hotel, he would like to taste something of Nairobi’s nightlife. “Oh, no, we can’t! But thank you,” he said. “My head is spinning already. And, anyway, Michelle hasn’t granted me a visa for that.”