Western ambassadors have an unofficial uniform: dark suit, white shirt, tie to match and a pin with their country’s flag on the suit lapel.
That’s how Maj-Gen Scott Gration was dressed when he sat down for his final interview before leaving his post as ambassador to Nairobi.
With a twist. The pin on his lapel did not bear the stars and stripes of the United States of America but was decorated with Kenya’s national colours. That little detail probably sums up the man President Obama tapped to be America’s representative in Nairobi.
He is almost as Kenyan as he is American. He grew up in East Africa. His first complete sentence as a baby was in Kiswahili. He went to school here. He came of age in the Rift Valley and served for years as a missionary in Marsabit. His wife Judy’s parents were born in Nairobi and are buried in Kabete.
Gration probably has deeper roots in Kenya than any ambassador sent to the country before him.
But because he did not have the love for the microphone and camera that his predecessors had, he remains an enigma to many Kenyans.
Few know, for example, that the general played a pivotal role in Obama’s surprise victory over the runaway favourite in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton — a win which set Mr Obama on his way to the White House.
Gration was one of the very first senior members of the American establishment to endorse Obama.
Obama faced in the early days of his campaign a major challenge rebutting Clinton’s message to voters that he was too inexperienced to be trusted with America’s security.
Her campaign produced a now famous attack ad showing a telephone ringing in the dead of the night voiced over by retired US General Wesley Clark. Gen Clark told viewers that a crisis could occur any time. Of the two candidates, he said, “(only) Hillary will be ready to act swiftly and decisively,” when disaster strikes.
To help counter this Obama was lucky to have Gration by his side. A Republican, Gration had been so impressed by the young senator when they met in the course of work that he defected to the Democratic party and endorsed Obama in the early stages of his run for president.
It was a crucial development considering the stock Americans place on the words of military veterans. The magazine New Republic called him one of the “campaign’s earliest, most high-profile foreign policy ‘gets’” and Nicholas Lehmann of the New Yorker described him as “The most mystical believer in Obamaism whom I met.”
Gration was drafted to serve as the Obama campaign’s national security adviser and he helped craft many of the team’s foreign policy positions especially, according to reports, the promise by Obama that he would pull American troops out of Iraq once elected.
Gration first met Obama while the general was serving at the Pentagon as Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate, a division of the military which at the time had oversight over 93 countries, including all of Africa.
One of his duties was to give regular briefings to the Senate and, as luck would have it, Obama sat in several committees Gration engaged with, including the Foreign Affairs committee and the European Affairs subcommittee.
“I was very impressed by him,” Gration says. “I liked the way he thought. He didn’t want to know what we were doing around the world but why. He is a deep thinker. I realised that we had many viewpoints that were similar. He believed that relations between nations should be based on respect. He understood that global problems need global solutions and it was a mistake to see terrorism as the only thing that crosses borders without tackling other problems such as poverty and health. We spoke a lot and he said when you go to Africa, we’ll go together.”
This engagement between nations based on respect would later become a subject of contention with articles appearing in the American press claiming he did not take the more abrasive approach of his predecessors in Nairobi, something the State Department was not happy about.
All these controversies would come later.
At the time, before Gration accompanied Senator Obama to the continent in 2006, he was not yet sure if Obama would run for president.
The delegation travelled to South Africa, Chad, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti and Obama left an even bigger impression on the general.
The Kenya part of the tour caused a sensation with Obama’s criticism of corruption in high places.
Gration says the position Obama took was borne out of the Senator’s frustrations over how challenges of governance were holding back Kenya’s vast potential.
“As we came away from meetings it was clear that Kenyans have a great work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. I remember Obama saying to me if those jua kali (hand craftsmen) people can make wealth out of nothing, if somebody can make a living out of selling groundnuts by the roadside, imagine what they could do if they were facilitated. That’s why he spoke out about things like corruption. It wasn’t us banging on the table but we were saying, hey, look at your potential, you can achieve a lot if you remove the anchor around your neck.”
The general was uniquely positioned to advise Obama about Africa because of his deep roots on the continent.
His parents were both teachers and they came to Kenya when he was only one year old, 60 years ago. (One of his earliest memories was being taken for treatment at Gertrude’s hospital, which still has a branch just a stone’s throw-away from the American ambassador’s official residence in Muthaiga).
Serve as missionaries
John and Dorothy Gration were headed to Belgian Congo to serve as missionaries and young Scott spent his early years in that country.
His mother, now 87, narrates a popular family story about Scott’s first complete sentence. He had spoken many monosyllabic Kiswahili words before but one day he heard his mother looking for his dad and Scott walked over to some domestic staff and asked “baba yangu ako wapi? (where is my dad?)”, causing great merriment to all present.
The Grations’ time in Congo ended abruptly. They had been forced to leave the country several times during political disturbances such as the army mutiny of 1961.
When the country descended into war in 1964, the Grations fled Stanleyville (present day Kisangani) and arrived in Kenya through Uganda “with only the clothes on our backs,” he recalls.
“In my youth I learnt to have a deep appreciation of the Kenyan people. We lived in a family friend’s attic and shared other people’s clothes. The generosity of the locals made a deep impression and that’s what makes me feel so at home here,” says Gration.
He recalls a golden childhood filled with adventure in the area he grew up near Nakuru, which he says was mostly forest but is now a wheat farm. After high school at the Rift Valley Academy, he served, like his parents before him, as a missionary.
The first posts he took up were in the remote, sun-baked Northern Frontier District as it was then known, living among the Gabra people of Kalacha in Marsabit and later in the Chalbi desert near Turkana.
The young missionary proved useful because, as you would expect from a man who would eventually train as a mechanical engineer and take a role in developing advanced weaponry for the US military, Gration is incredibly versatile.
He served as a mechanic, carpenter, wood carver, barber and electrician, helping to build an orphanage for the Africa Inland Church.
“My time in the North working with the Rendille, Samburu, Gabra and Borana people taught me to be self reliant. Conditions were harsh. There were no roads, just tracks followed by camels. People were dying from a terrible, treatable eye disease. My job was to try and improve access so other missionaries could travel there. We built a small house, dispensary and runway in the Chalbi desert to give doctors access by air.”
Gration returned to the US as a young adult to study for a degree in Mechanical Engineering at Rutgers University.
He was then drafted into the US air force in October 1974. He was enjoying a typical military career until 1979 when he experienced a near-death experience that changed his life.
“We were flying to San Antonio in a formation of several jets when the pilot of the lead aircraft got disoriented and turned the wrong way. I was just behind and turned sharply to avoid him and by the time I pulled back the plane to elevation, I was very close to the ground. I recovered just before hitting the ground. That made me question what my purpose in life was. I was enjoying quite some success. I had been picked as the junior officer of the year. I was named one of 10 young Americans to watch. I realised that all these achievements were just plaques on a wall. They meant very little in real terms.”
The same year, he decided to take some time off to work as a missionary in Uganda, which was struggling to recover from the ravages of the Idi Amin era.
“There were only 13 mzungus in the country and shortly after I arrived, two left leaving the 11 of us.”
He worked at Mengo Hospital, a facility perched on a hill overlooking Kampala.
Gration has memories of overworked doctors making do with very few supplies but attending to hundreds of patients and on a typical day handling deliveries of up to 30 babies. His role was to help with water supply, electricity and construction but he says the abiding memory was the dignity and generosity of the locals.
“They were going through incredible hardships and they had very little. But every time they brought me my matoke, the food had a flower in it. It was a very moving and humbling experience which helped me understand there is a deeper meaning to life.”
Returning to America, the young officer found himself still tied to East Africa.
One of his main roles was as a flight instructor for the F-5 jets and he trained numerous Kenyan airmen first in Mississippi and later in Nanyuki. Some of the soldiers he instructed are the current head of the National Security Intelligence Services, Maj-Gen Michael Gichangi, and the Kenyan ambassador to Uganda, Maj-Gen Geoffrey Okanga.
Several high-ranking Kenya Airways pilots also went through his hands. Gration happened to have been at the Mt Kenya Safari Club preparing to go back to America on August 1, 1982 when he heard there had been a coup against the Moi regime.
Did it surprise him? “No,” he says, a smile playing on his lips. “I spoke Kiswahili and knew there was a lot of discontent. I had heard grumbling but I didn’t know an attempted coup would actually follow.”
Gration rose through the ranks rapidly in the military, taking positions as a staffer in the National Security Council and flying combat missions in the first Iraq war.
He attained the rank of Colonel and was posted, in 1995, to Saudi Arabia as commander of the US forces there.
On June 25, 1996 he fell victim to what some believe to have been one of Al-Qaeda’s first attacks, the bombing of the Khobar Towers building, which was the headquarters of the US forces in that country.
“The windows were shattered, the glass flying halfway across the room; the air conditioner blew out and the roof was bent eight inches. Eighteen of my men died that day,” says Gration who was slightly injured in the blast.
It was not his last brush with violent extremists. On the morning of September 11, 2001, serving at the time as Deputy Director of Operations for the military in Washington, he was in the Pentagon when the building was hit by Osama bin Laden’s men.
Gration was in a meeting downstairs when the attackers struck and when he scented jet fuel in the air, he immediately knew that a plane had been brought down on the building.
“That event changed the country,” he says. “America became very patriotic. My son-in-law left college to join the military. It was a time of dedicated response.”
Working first as Director of Military Information and later serving as Director of Special Technical Operations, Gration remembers he went for 78 days without a day off following the attacks.
In the history of the war against militant Islam, Gration can claim a small piece of success. The 9/11 report, the official outcome of the investigation into the Twin Tower bombings, notes that Brigadier-General Scott Gration, as he then was, headed a team which was tasked with the job of formulating technology designed to track down Osama bin Laden.
The result was the development of the small, unmanned US air force predator drone which has played a pivotal, if controversial, role in the war against militants.
It has been credited with helping the US kill or capture numerous militants but critics say it has also led to the deaths of civilians. Gration declined to discuss in detail his duties as director of operations at the air force.
After three decades in the military, at the end of which the US magazine Newsweek reported he left with a “résumé bristling with real-world military experience that earned him seven rows of ribbons during a 32-year Air Force career”.
We will come back soon
The phrase “the love of my life” is used all too frequently but Scott Gration can’t be accused of exaggeration when he applies it to his wife, Judy.
The pair has known each other since they were 10. Judy’s parents, like Scott’s, were missionary teachers and her family would visit the Grations in the Congo from their base in Nairobi frequently.
Judy lost both her mother and father when she was very young and she was adopted by Scott’s parents. They lived together, attended Rift Valley Academy together and married in 1974. The couple marked their 38th anniversary on August 3.
Judy, both of whose parents are buried in Kijabe, is as attached to Kenya as Scott is. She has been involved in charity work in the country and has been helping to set up a shelter for orphans in Kajiado.
Scott, who before joining the diplomatic service worked as CEO of a charity known as Millennium Village Safe Water Network, has also been active in coordinating some charity projects in Kibera and hopes to find a role in the country in retirement.
The couple has four grown children and they say they will soon be back in Kenya for the long haul.
“We have been bitten by the Kenya bug. It will always be in our bloodstream. I keep coming back but it’s not because, as my wife says, I love tanga wizi (soda) and nice samosas which we can’t find in the States,” says Mr Gration.