Friday, August 20, 2010



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Posted Monday, August 16 2010 at 00:00

Kenya was much on the minds of both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in their remarks at an African youth leaders forum in Washington on Tuesday.


Explaining that he had organised the three-day forum with the aim of “helping to strengthen grassroots networks of young people,” Obama noted with a smile, “As they’re saying in Kenya today — ‘Yes, Youth Can!, Yes, Youth Can!’”

The 115 young Africans attending the president’s “town hall” meeting in the White House erupted in laughter and applause.

The two Kenyans taking part in the forum — Makena Kirima and Benard Akang’o, both 31 — said later they were impressed with Obama’s understanding of African issues and flattered by his frequent references to Kenya.

The US head of state went on to cite his own Kenyan roots.

“We’re going to keep helping empower African youth — supporting education, increasing educational exchanges like the one that brought my father from Kenya in the days when Kenyans were throwing off colonial rule and reaching for a new future,” he declared.

But Obama was not entirely positive in his comments about Kenya, saying the nation had squandered opportunities since independence.

He noted that when his father studied in the United States in the early 1960s, “The GDP of Kenya was actually on par, maybe actually higher than the GDP of South Korea. Think about that,” he urged his youthful listeners as he stood in the centre of a square formed by the seated delegates.

“So when I was born, Kenya per capita might have been wealthier than South Korea. Now it’s not even close. Well, that’s 50 years that was lost in terms of opportunities.

“When it comes to natural resources, when it comes to the talent and potential of the people,” President Obama added, “there’s no reason why Kenya shouldn’t have been on that same trajectory.”

Mr Obama also warned that Kenya faces the threat of violence from militants operating in Somalia.

“If you have extremist organisations taking root in Somalia, ultimately that can threaten the United States as well as Uganda, as well as Kenya, as well as the entire region,” he said.

In a speech at a separate event at the State Department, Mrs Clinton singled out the Ushadidi network “developed by young Kenyans to map reports of violence after the election of 2007.”

“This new network has been used by citizen election monitors to help prevent fraud and violence in Burundi, India, Sudan, Guinea, Namibia,” America’s top diplomat noted. “It’s revolutionising and empowering what citizens can do without permission, just on their own.

“We have seen the way that sophisticated mobile communications tools have also been used in Kenya to educate and empower voters in the lead-up to the referendum on its new constitution tomorrow.”

Mrs Clinton told her audience, “A lot of the young Kenyans we invited were unable to come because they’re staying to vote and to work on behalf of the constitution.”

Ms Kirima and Mr Akang’o were able to take part in the youth leaders forum because they are both studying in the United States at Notre Dame University.

Ms Kirima recently obtained a master’s degree in international conflict resolution, while Mr Akang’o is enrolled in the master’s programme on international human rights law.

The new constitution will act as “an anchor” that will enable Kenya to develop strong institutions, Ms Kirima said, noting that she hopes to work in a government department after returning to Kenya.