Jean Njeri Kamau, the Kenyan ambassador to the United States, came to Bowling Green State University this week with a simple mission: Encourage more links between the university and her native country.
|Jean Njeri Kamau, Kenyan Ambassador to the United States and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Kenyan Embassy in Washington D.C., addresses a crowd of students, faculty and members of the public September 4, 2013 during a visit to Bowling Green State University. (Photo: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
In particular, she said, was to convince students "to spend some of your study time in Kenya."
To that end she opened her talk with a five-minute video full of lions, elephants and gazelles, open plains, sparkling beaches and clear seas, and native dancers stepping to tribal sounds.
Yet while traveling from Detroit to Bowling Green, Kamau admired the corn fields. This could be rural Kenya, she said, where corn is a major crop.
Her talk served as an economic and political primer on her country, which is roughly the size of Texas with a rapidly growing population of 41 million, more concerned with infrastructure and open borders than safaris.
The ambassador is at the university participating in the sixth annual Kenya Scholars and Studies Association conference which continues through today.
Kamau touted the links with the United States, both through corporations such as Microsoft and through aid agencies.
The country, she said, has lately been making strides in the textile industry, with companies supplying clothing to JC Penney and WalMart. This tie to American companies "makes us bring our products up to the standards of our Asian competitors," such as Bangladesh, she said.
This economic development must lead to social development.
Students have the opportunities to work with both companies and with the aid agencies. Those agencies, Kamau said, promote health, social well-being and good governance.
"We are a democracy and we value the same values as you do here, democratic values, human rights standards," she said.
Travis Chapin, a construction management professor who has traveled and taken students to Kenya, asked Kamau what she would tell the parents who were concerned when their offspring expressed a desire to visit the East African nation.
Kamau said staying out of the largest urban area, Nairobi, is safer. Many smaller urban areas are quiet. If students use common safety measures they will be fine.
Chapin concurred. In his experience, he said, Kenya "is a very safe country to be in."
Jonah Ondieki, a Fulbright scholar who teaches Swahili at the university, also encouraged people to travel to his homeland.
Both Kenya and the United States are English-speaking countries, and many Kenyans come to study in the United States, with some staying. While much is made of Chinese investments in Kenya, Ondieki said, "Kenyans are more receptive to Americans."
Kamau said that while Chinese companies are building major airport and highway projects, those are not aid, but jobs the Chinese won through the bidding process.
Economist Abiye Alamina, a native New Yorker with Nigerian roots, questioned how far Kenya has come.
Recent United Nations figures show little progress, he said. Kenya could be seen as "a poster child for underdevelopment." Some speculate that the influence of tourism hinders development, he said.
Kamau said she couldn't argue the economic data, but could talk about what she has experienced in her life. In the 1980s, the ambassador said, Kenyans emigrated to the West in large numbers. Kenyans are now staying home, with some expatriates returning.