Africa

Letter from Africa: Travel tips for Barack Obama

A vendor sells American flags at an event attended by Sarah Obama Image copyright AP

In our series of letters from African journalists, media and communication trainer Joseph Warungu has written his own travel advisory for President Obama as he prepares to visit Kenya this week:

Dear Mr Obama,

So here's how to survive Kenya as a local:

The first thing you'll encounter on arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport is an electronic Ebola screening machine.

You stand a few feet from the monitor and it immediately detects whether your body temperature is OK to proceed.

You'll also be required to complete a form that asks you if you've been to Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea recently and whether you've fallen ill lately. Please be truthful!

You'll then jump into your car and experience the painful Nairobi traffic.

Image copyright AFP

The journey from the airport to the city centre should only take 20 minutes, but normally lasts anything between two and three hours. A bit of defensive driving is required to keep to your appointments.

You'll notice that all the roads you pass through are gleaming in new paint, and the tarmac looks like it's had a generous application of lipstick.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption There has been a big effort to improve some of the main roads in Kenya's capital, Nairobi

The normal potholes that require a driver to have salsa dancing skills, to avoid breaking the vehicle's suspension, are all gone.

There are beautiful green plants that line the entire route you'll take.

But don't be fooled. These have been put in place by teams of people working round the clock in the last few days.

So if the wheels of your bullet-proof, drone-proof, anti-riot and anti-tear gas vehicle as much as gently kiss the kerb, the fresh cement holding the new plants in place will crumble. So drive with care!

Image copyright Reuters

Be careful too at the traffic lights. Many Kenyan drivers seem to be colour blind: Green to them means keep going and red means go even faster!

Where will you be staying? I notice that all the top hotels in Nairobi have been fully booked. My advice: Just let them know who you are at reception, they'll find room.

Now since you'll be in Kenya on a weekend, do try and go out a bit.

Image copyright Reuters

Some African leaders have been known to sneak out of State House, under the cover of darkness, disguised as watchmen or street vendors, in order to pursue certain pleasures which cannot otherwise be carried out under the presidential seal.

So if you can, ditch the secret service for a few hours and head to the Westlands district of Nairobi, near the famous Westgate Mall. There are very lively clubs there.

The central business district too has a great night life, but please avoid Koinange Street.

It's the unofficial red light district, and many a politician has been caught chasing a discreet discount from the ladies of the night.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A lot of children - and schools - have been named after the US president

If your advance security team has not already swept the city clean, the ladies will be in your face, and dazzling you in front of your car headlights.

Please stay focused on the road and politely drive on. It requires a focused mind and determination - but yes you can!

What will you drink? I'd have recommended a taste of chang'aa - the local spirit that has nearly 100% alcohol content, and literally burns the inside, turning black lips into flaming red features.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some in Nairobi are getting ready for the visit with the latest Obama merchandise

But the Kenyan government is currently cracking down hard on such illicit brews.

And besides, America would never forgive us if you did not complete your second term in office, or if you spent the remaining period tethered near a toilet.

So let's just keep it civil, and restrict you to the famous Kenyan Tusker beer.

What should you eat? American fast food influence has taken hold and you'll find many such outlets in Nairobi.

The Kenyan middle class is generally eating badly and obesity is gradually bulging its way through the population.

So I'd say, drop the fries and the fried chicken. Instead go for the road runners.

No, I don't mean the Kenyan athletes.

Image copyright AFP

Road runner is the name we give to free range Kenyan chicken that is largely free of the rapid growth feeds, that are offered to others chicken, so that they grow from chick to chicken in the blink of an eye.

Traditional chickens or road runners wander freely, feeding freely - on anything.

Their meat is tough from their regular gym workouts, but absolutely delicious.

Image copyright AFP

Security is a very big deal for Kenyans. So when you're stopped for a search at the entrance to any building, including supermarkets and churches, please join the queue and cooperate.

Unfortunately we've also lost our sense of personal space, so if you're in a queue, it means standing tummy to bum with the person in front of you. Your bodyguards will need to show some understanding here.

What should you speak? To blend in with the environment and show solidarity with your father's nation, try Sheng.

The official language in Kenya is English, the national language is Kiswahili.

But when you blend the two you get Sheng. It's our street lingo and you'll need it to move smoothly in many of Nairobi's inner suburbs.

When someone says to you "gotea Michelle", it doesn't mean you tear Michelle to pieces.

No, it means "say hello to Michelle" - with a fist bump.

Many people will tell you "tuna shida mob". They simply mean "we have lots of problems".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Just like Mr Obama, Kenya has changed since his last visit in 2006

And when you need to remind them who you are, you can just say "mi ni prezzo" - "I'm the president".

If you do get into trouble in town and can't reach the secret service in a hurry - calling our police lines might be frustrating.

You might not get a quick response or you'll be told to fuel their cars. The best cause of action: Pray. It usually works.

Finally, your visit doesn't come cheap.

When you're gone, someone will need to foot the bill for all these emergency beautifications of Nairobi and disruption of businesses as well as the dollar wreaking havoc on the local economy.

That person is the poor, voiceless tax payer.

This is the person you need to visualize when the mighty and the powerful Kenyans you'll meet begin to confuse you with words of a very different Kenya.

Now fasten your seat belt, put your Airforce One seat in the upright position, stow away the nuclear weapons activation box under the seat in front of you and leave everything American in the hands of Joe Biden.

Mr Obama, karibu Kenya - welcome.

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