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Lasting memories of President Obama’s 2006 bombing site visit as Senator

By Joe Kiarie | July 25th 2015

US President Barack Obama is today expected to visit the August 7th Memorial Park in downtown Nairobi, the scene of the deadly 1998 terror bombing.

It is a site he is all too familiar with, and not just for the wrong reasons. Obama visited the park during his six-day tour of Kenya in 2006, on a day that saw him memorably breach security protocol; unable to control his emotions following an overwhelming reception from adoring members of the public.

Obama in Kenya in 2006, where he laid a wreath at the bomb blast site (PHOTO: COURTESY)

To the mobs of ecstatic onlookers who lined up the streets to have a glimpse of Kenya’s son who would later become the American president, the afternoon of August 25, 2006 was not an ordinary one. It was a day that presented lasting memories.

The Illinois Democrat, then the only black senator in the US and the fifth in the country’s history, had jetted into the country the previous evening. His comprehensive itinerary-unlike this time round-was not a closely-guarded affair.

Crowds started lining Haile Selassie and Moi avenues from early morning and waited for hours in the intense sunshine just to get a glimpse of him.

When Obama finally arrived at about 2.00p.m., hand-in-hand with his wife Michelle as well as young daughters Malia and Sasha, the elation was one of a kind. The entire zone around the bomb blast site had been packed with surging crowds. From the rooftops, windows and balconies of multiple buildings around Cooperative House, people shoved each other trying to have glimpse of Obama. Business had literally come to a standstill, just as was the case that fateful Friday morning eight years back, when terrorists struck.

“Obaaammmaaaa!” the people yelled in near unison. Others sang, cheered and waved. The Senator waved back, cracking a toothy grin as he walked past dozens of shutter-snapping and equally-elated photographers.

“We will not forget what has happened here,” Obama said after meeting survivors of the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy and laying a wreath in memory of those killed. Raw drama would, however, follow.

The crowds surged nearer and nearer and traditional drumbeats rent the air as songs and chants hit a crescendo. Hundreds of outstretched hands protruded through metallic fence rails desperate for a handshake. One youngster muscled his way to the front of the crowd and waved at Obama a striking painting of the senator. “Warwaki dala” (Welcome home) read an inscription on the painting.

Like a rock star, an excited Obama was overwhelmed by the emotional welcome and did little to hide it.

But tightly circled by a security cordon comprising armed bodyguards, US marines and Kenyan policemen, he seemed helpless; he simply smiled and waved at the crowd. As one of the reporters covering the Senator, I mutely questioned the essence of the heavy security from my vantage point. It was inconceivable that anyone would plot to harm such a beloved and inspiring man.

Then Obama decided enough was enough and in one swift move, slipped past the stunned security detail.

He randomly shook hands with ordinary Kenyans before getting hold of the artwork presented to him by 27-year-old Gregory Ochieng’. The duo exchanged niceties before Obama walked away, admiringly looking at the painting as his bodyguards regained control of the rather chaotic situation.

Some onlookers were left in tears as Obama’s motorcade, mainly US embassy limousines, eventually zoomed off. They just could not have enough of him.

Addressing the press at the end of a busy day, the senator tried much to showcase his fluency in all things Kenyan. “Habari zenu?” he reached out to awed journalists with the Kiswahili greeting. To a journalist, this is exactly what memories are made of. I can’t wait to observe what will be different this time round now that Obama is revisiting the park as the most powerful man on Planet Earth.

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