Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to the United States, was in Minnesota in June to celebrate Madaraka Day with Kenyan Minnesotans; commemorating forty-eight years since Kenya attained internal self-rule from the British. Odembo assured Kenyans that his office is improving services.
Over the years, Kenyans living in Minnesota and other parts of the country have complained about inadequate services from the embassy; Odembo promises a radical shift in the embassy’s services to Kenyans in the US. To this end his office is engaging with Kenyans around the US in discussion fora as part of an ad hoc Diaspora Advisory Committee. This committee, made up of different Kenyan stakeholders, is charged with reporting on the needs of Kenyans as well as gathering intelligence on the makeup of Kenya’s diaspora.
In a meeting in Hopkins with one such group, Odembo said that he was an ambassador in every form of the word: “my job description is ‘what does Kenya get out of it?’”. The ambassador encouraged Kenyans to lobby the American government in Washington DC particularly on foreign policy and trade issues. On security concerns, Odembo called on the support of the international community in a legitimate government in Somalia that would limit the threat of Al Shabaab to Kenya.
According to Odembo, the Consular section of the embassy which deals with immigration, visas and passports is dealing with unprecedented requests. With the passing of the new Constitution which allows for dual citizenship for the first time, the ambassador reported that his office is inundated: “We are overwhelmed by people requesting passport renewals. There are people who are renewing their passports from the ‘70s.“ His staff, he says, working late hours fields about two hundred and fifty calls a day. A new voicemail system; and new staff are in the works for efficiency.
The ambassador estimates that there are about 100,000 Kenyans in the US eligible to vote in Kenya’s 2012 general elections. The government is interested in serving the Diaspora he said, but urged Kenyans not to engage in tribal politics. “We came close to the brink, I don’t think God will be that kind to us again, so we should be in our best behavior,“he challenged Kenyans.
Instead he called on Kenyans to provide principled advice on issues of governance and to invest in Kenya.
Odembo paid a courtesy call to Minneapolis City Hall where he met with Mayor RT Rybak, the Minneapolis Fire Chief, Alex Jackson and Council Members Gary Schiff, Cam Gordon, Meg Tuthill and Kevin Reich.
Reich asked what the US should do to increase the number of Kenyan students to its universities, whose numbers have declined over the last four years according to the ambassador. The ambassador said, he is in discussion with universities across the state urging them to offer in-state tuition rates for students. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities already has such a provision that allows foreign students, albeit with certain provisions such as specified GPA and community service, to pay in-state tuition.
Also at the meeting was the president of the International Leadership Institute, Judge (Ret.) LaJune Lange, who facilitated a firefighters’ training program between the city of Minneapolis and Eldoret in western Kenya. Lange was instrumental in fostering a sister relationship between the two cities said her organization and the Minneapolis Fire Department were looking at reaching beyond Eldoret firefighters.
Investing in Kenya
In what was his inaugural visit to Minnesota since his appointment a year ago, Odembo also met with local business leaders and politicians making the case for Kenya as an investment and tourist destination. The ambassador touted Kenya’s economic long term goal known as Vision 2030; a continued diversifying of Kenya’s economy and the overhaul of Kenya’s judiciary. He argued that with a new Constitution, Kenya was in a better position to reduce bureaucracy as Nairobi will no longer be the central command of government.
The ambassador urged the American government, via its African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to invest in more than oil on the continent. “Ninety per cent of trade between the US and AGOA countries is oil. I make the case that even without AGOA these trade agreements would still exist.” He urged instead that investments be made in other fields like agriculture, IT infrastructure and energy. “Kenya has the potential to be one of the largest green energy economies,” he said speaking on the potential growth of Kenya’s geothermal, solar and wind energy. The Lake Turkana Wind Power project is expected to add at least thirty per cent to Kenya’s energy output.