Saturday, October 30, 2010

Collect friends instead of material things

Excitement...anxiety...nervousness...confusion...fascination! The English language simply does not have enough words to describe the feelings and emotions that characterized the morning of the 23rd July 2010.
Two days earlier i had set foot at Népliget, bus stop of the bus 901, Könyves Kálmán körút, in Budapest, Hungary, under a stifling 36 degrees-Celcius heat; and that after a 16-hour bus ride from Frankfurt, across the Czech republic and Slovakia. Six of my Kenyan friends had already arrived a couple of days earlier-and more efficiently-an Egypt air flight from Nairobi to Budapest, via Cairo. I was visiting Hungary for the second time in 3 years. But i would never have been prepared for what awaited me this time round.
I have been around now, on planet earth, for slightly more than two and a half decades., during which time (before 23/07/2010) the closest i had ever gotten to a high-ranking politician was through television, when i watched political talk shows, or those other shows that people call 'the news'.
President of the Republic of Hungary, Mr. Pál Schmitt
On the eve of the 23rd July, Mercy Thomas, the team leader our Hungarian hosts, announced to my friends and i that we had an appointment the next day with the outgoing Speaker of the Hungarian parliament, who had since been elected the President of the Republic Of Hungary, Mr. Pál Schmitt.  This threw our little Kenyan group into a spin. We argued and debated over what to wear among many other questions. I was supposed to present a fly-whisk, as a gift to President-elect Schmitt. And there-in lay the dilemma. I tried to rewind hours of TV-footage in my head, trying to find those clips where i had seen people meeting and presenting gifts to heads of state. The more i 'rewinded', the more it seemed as if it was all getting erased! So i went to sleep, hoping for divine inspiration to sorting out my 'presidential address' problems for the following morning.
The bus ride from Piliscsaba, to the parliament buildings in Lajos Kossuth square, on the banks of the Danube, cutting across the morning Budapest traffic, seemed very short. Adrenaline was rising.
The group outside the Hungarian parliament, before the grand entrance!
 Delays in getting through security did not help matters. Finally we made it inside the parliament, but first for a guided tour of the imposing historical legislative building, one of Europe's oldest.
As the guide explained away the significance of the fascinating and seemingly strange things we were feasting our eyes on, i kept wondering to myself,probably to distract myself from the impending meeting that i felt ill-prepared for, where they trained guides and cabin crew and others in this kind of profession, to speak the way they do-almost like machines-and always with standard words and smiles.

Inside the parliament chambers
Towards the final part of our tour, just as our guide was explaining the seating arrangements of the cabinet members and members of parliament in the chambers, a presidential aide showed up, half-running, half-walking. "The President is waiting!", she declared.
I am a very poor dancer. So when my group decided they were going to make their grand entrance into the President's-elect office singing and dancing, i gleefully volunteered to take charge of the handy-cam, to record the proceedings. I followed our Hungarian friends as they were ushered through the door in single file, and went ahead to shake the hand of a smiling, tall, athletic-built man standing in the centre of the room. The President-elect, Mr. Pál Schmitt! My friends followed, dancing and singing, while Mr. Schmitt watched seemingly bemused. Then totally unexpectedly, he joined in the dancing! This would hardly happen with President Kibaki, i thought to myself. Finally, the group ended their entertainment session with the popular 'Jambo' song, which has the refrain 'hakuna matata', Kiswahili for 'no problem'.

President Schmitt joins in a dance
 It was finally time to present the gifts. As the leader of the group, i was up first. I stepped forward, my heart racing faster than Hamilton's McLaren. I don't remember exactly what i said, but with the fly-whisk clutched firmly in my hands, i must have said the following, " Mr. President, on behalf on of my friends here today, i would like to present to you this fly-whisk. The first President of our country, Jomo Kenyatta...' at which point he interjected and said "Mzee Jomo Kenyatta!", "Mzee Jomo Kenyatta", i continued, "...would wave his fly-whisk while addressing the Kenyan people. It is a symbol of wisdom and leadership, and i am sure that it represents your wisdom in leading the great Hungarian nation." Then with a handshake, i presented the fly-whisk. Mission accomplished! The rest of my group members then stepped forward to present various other gifts.

Presenting the fly-whisk to President Schmitt
 Before we left, President Schmitt had interesting things to say. That he knew Mombasa (Kenya's second largest city and coastal town); that he is friends with Kipchoge Keino, Kenya's most famous athlete and then followed the bombshell." One thing is not true about that song", he said, "and that is hakuna matata!" He was alluding to that he has visited Kenya and knows that it is not an island of peace and prosperity as we had made it look in the song.While that might be true, i thought it was not a very benevolent thing to say to people who had just entertained him and showered him with gifts from East Africa. But what do i know, the man is a seasoned diplomat!

the Presidential 'address'
 Since then, i have had a chance to do some research about the man. I couldn't find anything about his stay or visit in Kenya. But i was glad to read an interview published by, that apart from being addicted to his new iPod, President Schmitt found India, Kenya and Canada to be among the most fascinating places, of the nearly 100 countries he has traveled to.

President Schmitt proudly displays a gift from the Kenyan group
 One thing i found very inspirational the two-time Olympic and world champion fencer said in the Xpat interview, was that his personal motto is, "Collect friends instead of material things."
Isn't it amazing to have a head of state as a friend!!

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