Spring Festival in President Obama’s Ancestral Birthplace

Trust me, I didn’t plan it this way. As my kids will attest, the last place I would have chosen to be during the Spring Festival holiday was in the middle of millions of die-hard Obama supporters.

But, the rallies in Germany and Grant Park were nothing compared to where Carleen and I are headed—-Kenya, the ancestral birthplace of President Obama where all 38 million people are celebrating the election of “Obama the Great,” as a headline in a local newspaper referred to him, to the presidency of the United States.

None are more enthusiastic than the residents of the tiny village of Kogelo, home of Obama’s late father. On Inaguration Day, Kogelo hosted a 5,000-strong celebration that included the slaughtering of bulls and goats for food; live viewing of the inauguration on gigantic screens; and dancing in traditional garb to the beat of leather drums.

Carleen and I were planning to spend a nice quiet Spring Festival in Beijing. During the holiday, the capital city becomes a different place. Many businesses close, schools recess, and millions of Beijingers travel to their hometowns, or head for the beaches in Thailand or Sanya. Making travel arrangements and fighting the crowds is always a hassle, so more often than not, we just chill and enjoy the quiet that descends over the city.

In early January, however, I received the following e-mail from the Chairman of the Nairobi chapter of the YPO (Young Presidents Organization):

Dear Jack,

I just put down your book and logged on to your site. Would you be interested in coming to Africa? Your practical approach is exactly what is needed here in an environment that is very similar to China of 20 years ago, apart from the sheer scale.

We would be very happy for you and Carleen to visit and for you to speak to our members.

Kindly do let me know.


It was frankly “an offer that I couldn’t refuse.” The YPO is a great organization, with approximately 20,000 members in 300 chapters in 100 countries around the world. I have spoken at YPO sponsored events in Beijing, Shanghai and Atlanta before, and they are always well organized and provide an opportunity to meet interesting people who are doing interesting things. And, I have always wanted to visit Africa. I hear that it’s a beautiful continent, and the strong connection between China and Africa is something that I have always wanted to understand better and see for myself.

Apart from its newfound notoriety as the ancestral birthplace of the 44th president of the United States, the Republic of Kenya is a country in East Africa that is bordered by Ethiopia to the north, Somalia to the northeast, Tanzania to the south, Uganda to the west, and Sudan to the northwest, with the Indian Ocean running along the southeast border. The country is named after Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain peak in Africa.

Kenya has a population of nearly 38 million people, and in 2007, its economy grew by 7 percent to $29.3 billion. However, growth in East Africa’s biggest economy slowed to 3.5 to 4.0 percent in 2008 as a result of the violence that occurred after the country’s 2007 elections. Kenya’s economy is expected to grow by just over 4 percent in 2009 as it continues its recovery from the post election violence. The risks in 2009 are that prolonged dry weather and a global slowdown may hurt key agricultural export sectors and tourism. Over the next week, I will look a bit closer at Kenya’s economy, and in particular, the country’s links to China.

This series of articles on Kenya is dedicated to Keith Edgar, a close friend of ours from Beijing who left China a number of years ago to settle down on beautiful Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington. Unable to get China out of his blood, Keith set up and now runs an upscale store specializing in Chinese antique furniture.

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