As US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Edward Ranneberger, flies out of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Washington this Wednesday, he has one message for Kenyans: “I will be back.”
The outgoing envoy tells Saturday Nation that he fell in love with the East African country for three reasons. The most important — he got a soul mate, Ms Ruth Konchellah, in Kenya, a country he now has a soft spot for and can’t cut links with.
“On a personal level, I have been fortunate to become a king to a certain lady, and she became a queen to me. That, to me, is a very fulfilling experience,” he says.
Although he remains largely non-committal as to when Kenyans would expect something concrete between him and Ms Konchellah, he promises that it would be in due course.
“I will keep everybody posted on that. I don’t want to say much about it at this point. It has been interesting. These things happen. Opportunities come by and one can only be grateful when these things happen that way,” he says.
Mr Ranneberger says he is flying back to Washington since he is remaining in the Foreign Service. Before coming to Kenya, he was the Africa Bureau’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and had served as Special Advisor on Sudan from 2002 to 2004.
“At some point in future, as I have always said in the past, I would be coming back. I, obviously, have both professional and personal roots in Kenya,” he says.
Although diplomatic rules allow him to acquire property in the country of tour of duty with special permission, Mr Ranneberger denies that he has done that.
The ambassador says he does not have another family back home. He is divorced but has two children: Mark who is 24 and Elizabeth, 20.
Mark works for a private company and Elizabeth is at university. Mark spent over a year in Kenya while Elizabeth has lived in the country for four years. They both say they would want to come back at some point.
The other reasons he loves Kenya is the fact that in 2009, the US embassy in Kenya won the award for the best reporting US foreign mission and the same year, the ambassador was promoted to the coveted rank of a Career Minister to join the only 35 other officers in the US’s Foreign Service.
He, ironically, attributed his success to Kenyan MPs’ failure to do what they are supposed to do.
“One weekend, when I learnt that I had been promoted to the rank of a Career Minister, I was called by a senior politician to his office, and before he could say anything, I told him thank you very much,” he explains.
When the MP asked what for, Mr Ranneberger told him he owes his recent promotion to him.
“I told him that I had just learnt that I had been promoted and I went on to explain that if you had been behaving yourself and you were doing what you are supposed to do, I would never have been promoted. This is because I was promoted for pushing for change, reforms and fighting against corruption,” Mr Ranneberger tells Saturday Nation.
The MP remained speechless, the envoy says that, but overall, Kenya is an exciting country inhabited by smart people whom he had fun dealing with.
“Anywhere in this country, you can talk to anybody in the market place and they are pretty sharp. I find that level of awareness exciting,” he says.
His reappointment in 2006, by President Barrack Obama, has made him the longest serving US ambassador in Kenya.
He often tries to keep a good balance between personal and professional work even as he travels to many parts of the country meeting and interacting with Kenyans.
He has great pride in having visited all the national parks and seen every animal in Kenya twice and has been exposed to Kenya’s varied culture.
He has been made a tribal elder by many.
“I work hard but I also like to have fun. Whenever I come home from work, I shut off. I read a book, watch a movie or check my e-mail, but I ensure that I relax. I also believe in getting a good night’s sleep,” he says.
He describes watching elections manipulated at the last minute in 2007 as one of his lowest moments given the measures they had put in place to ensure they are free and fair.
“I knew there would be problems but watching this happen at the last minute was a huge disappointment for me,” he says.
However, the passage of the constitution was to constitute his highest moments as is his support for the youth.
He describes his cultural experiences in Kenya as life changing and confesses to have learnt several things he never knew before coming to Kenya.
“They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It is has been a very enriching experience in every sense. Professionally, it has been wonderful. How many times does someone get an opportunity to play a role in helping to solve a major crisis in a country like the 2008 post-election violence or support a new constitution-making process?” he asks.
The envoy, who represented his country in Mali from 1999 to 2002, says he has always enjoyed the warmth of Kenyans.
“I have been on the side of the people. The people want change and reform,” he says.
Although it is hard to compare his experience in the various stations he has been to, since every place has its unique features, he feels that Kenya has been particularly unique and interesting.
He describes Kenya as a wonderful country, especially given his personal interest. He declined to speculate where in Kenya he would settle given an opportunity and says he is spoilt for choice.
“I have travelled to almost every place in this country. I have always been mesmerised by how beautiful these places are. Kenya has a lot to offer and it is difficult to choose where one can live. I don’t want to speculate,” he says.
Stary-eyed future politicians think highly of him. The coordinator of the National Youth Forum, George Nyongesa, describes him as “a face for the youth.”
“Ranneberger reached out to the grassroots and the youth. He has had success in that line,” said Mr Nyongesa.
But one-time Labour minister, the late Newton Kulundu, thought Ranneberger was a hypocrite. Kulundu, during a run-in with the envoy, accused the US and the United Kingdom of being the greatest violators of human rights.
“We demand that all violators of human rights, be they Africans or otherwise, be taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Otherwise we are talking about hypocrisy,” said then visibly furious Labour minister.
Mr Ranneberger later termed as “utter nonsense” the attack by the minister against the US Government.
And MPs he linked to drug trafficking think he is a rumour monger who spreads malicious allegations. Kilome MP Harun Mwau has sued him for linking him to narcotic drug trafficking.