An interview with the Kenyan Ambassador

by Johanna Stiefler Johnson
Patrick Wamoto

Eager summer sunlight streams through the large windows of the Ambassador’s home. We are led through a hallway lined with framed photographs: in one, the Ambassador presents a Kenyan painting to the Crown Princess Sirindhorn; the president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, smiles out of the frame of another; and a third gives us a first glimpse of the Ambassador, his wife, and their two sons. It is evident as we are led through a dining room, with its long stained-wood table and chairs, that the two boys are given freedom to play as children should.

Football goal nets are set up against one wall, and several mini cars and trucks line another. We reach a sitting room decorated with blue and gold chairs circling a coffee table. It is here that we meet H.E. Mr Patrick Wamoto, the Kenya Ambassador to Thailand. Dressed in a dark blue suit and rectangular glasses, Patrick offers us friendly handshakes and gestures for us to sit. His presence invites us to relax and be comfortable. We chat for a bit before a beautiful lady appears in the archway to the dining room, wearing a buttoned jacket and skirt patterned black and white.

We make introductions with Madam Valerie Rugene, the Ambassador’s spouse and an ex foreign service officer herself. The two take their seats in chairs across from us, casual in a way that makes me feel right at home. Valerie teases my supervisor for having a Starbucks cup with him. “The real coffee is Kenyan coffee,” she says. “They sell Kenyan coffee at Starbucks, did you know that?” Between us, the table is beautifully set with a box of Kenyan teas, a pot of coffee, and a spread of samosas and fruit. Valerie fills a cup to the brim with steaming coffee, which I sip gratefully, as Patrick begins to tell us about his diplomatic career.

 

“I am now on my fourth year,” he says, referring to his post in Bangkok. “The last leg. We normally do four years, although my predecessor was here for seven. But I have no intention of staying seven years.” He and his wife laugh. “Bangkok is unique,” continues the Ambassador. “It’s very cosmopolitan. You don’t feel homesick because you meet practically everybody. It’s almost like a UN.” Patrick began his diplomatic career in London. He had spent a year studying Diplomacy and International Relations in Oxford, and travelled to London often, so his country felt it fitting for him to return on business. “They thought I knew London well,” he says, “so it was easy for me to just move in and hit the ground running.”

After London, Patrick was posted in Austria as deputy head of mission, and then in Nigeria in the same position. He returned to Kenya as director of the Africa Department and was later upgraded to Chief Political Director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thereafter he served as Ambassador to South Africa. Thailand then became his first post in Asia. Patrick’s extensive experience is impressive, especially considering his age. At 57 years old, he has been in the diplomatic service serving his country for 34 years.

The conversation then turns to Mrs Wamoto, whose role as the spouse of a head of mission keeps her equally as occupied as her husband. “Sometimes I joke with him and tell him, I’m busier than you are,” she says. This is partly because people often find Ambassadors’ spouses easier to talk to than the Ambassadors themselves. “Some people find it easier to approach us to bring in a project for the Embassy. If someone is interested in doing something on Kenya, they’ll come to me. So I constantly find myself very occupied.” Valerie describes some of the organisations she is involved with. She recently hosted the International Women’s Club of Thailand in their home.

This spurred the organisation’s interest in Kenya, and she supported their thematic annual meeting on the country. She is involved with Spouses of Heads of Mission (SHOM), the association of partners and spouses of Ambassadors accredited in Thailand. Patrick and Valerie are patrons representing their country in a SHOM collaboration with the Young Women’s Christian Association of Thailand (YWCA), and they also champion the Red Cross.

Patrick Wamoto

“The spouses do quite a lot,” says Valerie. “In fact,”– he laughs – “at times we get worried that they might take over our jobs. They’re quite a powerful organisation. Very active.” When they are not busy with diplomatic work, the Ambassador and his wife are occupied with their family life. Their sons, ages 7 and 6, currently attend St Andrews International School. “St Andrews is small and intimate,” says Valerie, “so when the kids come from abroad they don’t go and get overwhelmed at a huge school.”

As their parents describe, the boys are big fans of soccer and support the local Thai team Port FC. “That’s our other life,” says Valerie. Patrick describes how they often travel to other locations around Thailand for away matches, and how their sons will push aside the furniture in their home to make room for a soccer pitch. “If you look around our house you’ll see our walls are fairly soiled and marked but this is a family house,” laughs the Ambassador. “We can’t stop them from playing soccer inside.” That explains the large set of goalposts in the dining room.

In particular, the family enjoys travelling – often, by car. Most recently, they took an 8 hour road trip to Sisaket province. “When you fly,” says Patrick, “it’s over in 40 minutes. You don’t see much. But I believe when you live in a country, it’s also good to drive around, see what it looks like, meet local people – not just in the city but also outside. The best way of doing that is to drive. We stop by the roadside, have some Thai food, meet the local people and then move on.”

As Kenyan Ambassador to Thailand, Patrick’s post is one of the only two diplomatic posts in South East Asia. Therefore, his mission is also responsible for several neighbouring countries: Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Having such a large scope of responsibility, Patrick tries to combine work with a vacation. “Last time we went to Vietnam we went to Halong Bay,” he says. “We were introduced to the motorbikes of Hanoi. I’ve never seen so many motorbikes in a capital city.”

There is a fondness in his voice as he recollects this, as if he can see a swarm of motorbikes billowing out before him. Patrick names Chiang Mai as the family’s favourite place in Thailand. “It reminds me so much of my own country,” he says. He was born and raised in western Kenya, by the border with Uganda. “It’s cooler, green and verdant. It’s just nice, fresh, clean are and very picturesque. I think I like the northern part (of Thailand), because I grew up in rural Kenya and it reminds me of my own early years.”

Kenyan Ambassador

The conversation then turns to the relationship between Thailand and Kenya. Kenya’s population is 45 million, but there are not many Kenyans in Thailand. Because Thailand was never colonised, the two countries were not linked by a historical relation with an outside power. Kenya and Thailand are also slightly disconnected because of language. Thailand has not had a major pull factor for Kenyans because, generally, neither speak foreign languages outside of their native tongues.

“We tend to work vote with our feet and go where, as soon as you land, you can communicate,” says the Ambassador. Therefore, Thailand is quite a recent destination for Kenyans. Although the Thais opened an Embassy for Kenya in 1967, there are now only around 400 Kenyans here, mostly working as teachers.

In a foreign policy orientation called “Look East,” Kenya has attempted to bridge the gap between countries like Thailand and diversify its ties, which have previously been much stronger with the West than the East. “That’s when we opened a couple of missions in Asia,” says Patrick. “We wanted to diversify, so we weren’t dependent on one or two trade partners.” Most importantly, the two countries are linked by trade. Kenya’s middle class is quickly growing, and people are now eating more rice than they did in the past.

Thailand is a “primary source” for rice, making this an important connection between the countries. Kenya also purchases auto components from Thailand. In Kenya, cars keep left, so the auto components are compatible. Meanwhile, Thailand relies on Kenya for imports like soda ash, coffee, and seafood, giant prawns. “We have a lot of gemstones coming in from Kenya,” he says. “Our gemstones all come raw and then the Thais add the value here.” The Embassy is however now working with the Thai government on reversing this so that there is more value addition at home.

Kenyan Ambassador friends

There are many aspects of Thailand’s economy and industries that interest Patrick, and he wishes to introduce these tools to his home country. He admires Thailand’s agriculture system and its effective use of water. He hopes for Kenya to one day follow Thailand’s lead when it comes to agriculture, fishing, sustainability, and even simple things like product packaging. Differences in packaging allow for products to gain value, so improving this industry could only be beneficial for Kenya. Repackaging could increase the value of raw products and bring in a greater profit. Patrick also compliments Thailand’s universal healthcare, which he says the country has handled “wonderfully well.”

According to him, the Kenyan prime minister’s goal is to achieve universal healthcare in Kenya by 2022. Both Patrick and Valerie also express their admiration at Thailand’s ability to market itself and bring in revenue. On a small table set against the wall is a framed photo of Valerie on a catwalk, dressed in a beautiful sunset coloured garment and the Maasai beads of Kenya. She explains that the garment is of traditional Kenyan style but made from Thai silk. The picture is from the Thai Silk Fashion Show, which began in 2012 and is held annually in commemoration of the Queen Sirikit’s birthday.

Kenya Ambassador in Thailand

This year, as many as 34 countries have been invited to participate. Their traditional garments will be designed in Thai silk and modelled on a runway at the spectacular event, which is growing and expanding every year. They are even set to publish the first “Thai Silk Week” magazine. “The Thais are so innovative,” says Patrick admirably. “They use Thai silk to make designs of other countries. When people see her in silk” – he gestures to the photograph – “African attire, but Thai silk, they want to buy it.” Valerie comments that this is also a very good method for Thailand to market itself. Not only do countries like the look of their garments made from silk, but the designers from abroad are also invited on tours throughout Thailand. In this way, Thais market their country by organising creative ways to bring in revenue and encourage foreigners’ interest.

They organise similar trips for Ambassadors and their families, allowing them to learn more about the country they serve and live in. Thus, the Ambassador believes Kenya could learn quite a few things from Thailand. Nonetheless, there is still much to see and experience in Kenya that cannot be found here in Thailand. An obvious attraction is the safari. Unlike some other African countries, whose safaris’ over neat roads will make you feel like you’re in a city, Kenya can offer a true safari experience. “It’s dirty. A very bumpy ride,” says Valerie. “It’s all about nature.”

playing soccer

Patrick agrees: “You come out feeling like, yes, you’ve been on a safari.” Because of Kenya’s efforts in wildlife preservation, it’s very easy to see “the big five” – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and the African buffalo. “You don’t have to stay in the park and should wander around a bit and get a feel for the country,” says Patrick. In some places, the camps are elevated so you can sit in a Jacuzzi and watch the lions roam free down below. These descriptions made me want to hop on a Kenya  bound aeroplane immediately, but the safari is not the only attraction that makes the country worth visiting. Recently,  people have begun travelling to Kenya to train with elite athletes. In Thailand, as well as around the world, the marathon is becoming more popular.

Thais travel to Kenya to “spend a week there,” says the Ambassador, “do some training, meet some of the elite athletes, see the wildlife, and then come back.”For those uninterested in safaris or athletics, Kenya is worth visiting simply for the good weather, food, people, and beaches, which, according to the Ambassador, “are some of the best.”It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Kenyan Ambassador and his family plan to return home after their Bangkok post. They’ve spent years travelling abroad and now long to be homebound.

This is in part so their sons can get used to being in Kenya before going overseas again, and so that Valerie’s mother can spend more time with them. Until then, they will honour their country’s independence on December 12th with their friends and family. They will celebrate Kenya’s beauty, culture, uniqueness, and people in style, perhaps clinking their glasses for a toast to many years to come – years in which the country may thrive, all the while pleasing its residents with comfortable weather, beautiful beaches, awe striking wildlife, and the wonders that its Ambassador to Thailand and his wife speak so  highly of.

kids with a dog

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