It is only when you sit down with US ambassador Kyle McCarter that you get to know his attachment to the country and Kenyans in rural areas.
He speaks glowingly about Mukothima — a lone village in the heart of Tharaka-Nithi County — where his father, the Senior McCarter, hobnobbed with locals between 1984 and 1989 as a missionary.
That was before Kyle came on board to run, and expand, the community projects in Tharaka-Nithi — a rural county he considers as his second home.
“We still have a house there,” he tells me. Occasionally, he retreats here to rewind.
Locals call the place “Kwa Makata”, thanks to the ‘Each One Feed One’ charity that had brought the family to Kenya — and Tharaka-Nithi, where Kyle is considered a Tharaka elder.
Our four-hour drive from Nairobi took us to Laikipia and, the next day, to Chuka to get a glimpse of what the ambassador was up to.
It was a small entourage of tight security and embassy officials racing against time to Laikipia’s Tigithi ward water project, which is funded by the Ambassador’s Special Self Help Fund, which matches contributions of the local community.
It’s a grassroots assistance programme that cuts the funding bureaucratic tape to support community projects.
Tigithi is one such small project and locals had come to officially receive the Sh700,000 grant for a project that will provide tap water to 1,400 homes in 10 villages.
“These small projects are what directly impacts on the people. I am much more concerned about the time girls and women waste while looking for water,” he offers outside a Nanyuki mall, where we have made a stopover.
“With water at home, the women and girls are also assured of their safety and security.”
Nanyuki is on the leeward side of Mt Kenya and is punitively dry. During colonial days, ranching was the main economic activity. Only a semblance of it remains at the nearby Ol Pejeta Ranch, and a bit of conservancy.
Most ranches have since been subdivided into small farms and new settlements are slowly mushrooming in the area.
With no piped water in the region, the land remains sparsely populated, sun-baked and harsh. It was this predicament that forced locals to approach the US ambassador for help.
On this day, the locals sit by an open ground next to a water reservoir for a short ceremony that marks completion of the project.
Although a former member of the Illinois State Senate, Mr McCarter makes a three-minute speech — brief by local political standards. He then hands the certificate to an official of Tigithi project and freely mingles with the men and women eager to take selfies.
“My wife once told me; don’t speak for too long, but if you do, you have to be interesting,” he remarks. Before the launch of Tigithi water project, women and girls trekked for several kilometres in search of water in an area teaming with wildlife.
During dry seasons, herders from the outlying counties drive their livestock into these plains in search of grass — creating a conflict with local farmers, which often sparks deadly fights.
By providing water and empowering the youth, the ambassador believes most of the problems in rural areas will be half-solved.
“He loves the countryside. He is usually at home among the people and especially the youth,” an embassy official confides.
It is now apparent that the US government is also shifting its focus to devolved units to complement national projects.
“We are supporting devolution because it is much closer to the people and they get more benefits out of it,” says Mr McCarter during a courtesy call on Laikipia County Commissioner Daniel Nyameti.
“Some people say devolution has devolved corruption. But we shall work with counties that utilise public money wisely. We won’t put our money in counties that cannot account for public money.”
The next stop is at Laikipia Governor Nderitu Muriithi’s office.
“We would like to make Laikipia a perfect tourist destination,” says Mr Muriithi, who is in a buoyant mood. “But more so, the provision of water to residents is a major priority.” Flower farming is Laikipia’s hidden potential, and the governor has tagged along a farmer eager to tap the US market.
It appears there are opportunities that can be unlocked to turn around Laikipia’s economy. The county government hopes to link up its flower farmers with opportunities in the American market.
The ambassador agrees to help and is eager to ensure the bottlenecks that deter Kenyan flowers from getting to the US market faster are removed. “You only get to hear such stories when you get to the ground,” he offers.
Next is a 130 kilometre-drive to Chuka University where Mr McCarter is expected to attend the graduation ceremony.
He cannot miss the ceremony for a single reason: One of the graduands, Alex Kiera, had been sponsored by the ambassador for a Bachelor of Education degree. Mr McCater is to give him a briquette machine, which will hopefully turn him into a community investor.
“If we can equip the youth to make a living by creating jobs after university we would solve the unemployment crisis,” he says. “Kenyan youth have all it takes to make the country great.”
When given an opportunity to speak to the youth at the university, Mr McCarter quotes the late Abraham Lincoln: “Don’t worry when you are not recognised, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”