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The Lasting Value of the Kennedy-Era Africa-to-America Airlifts

Aug 25, 2020

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‘The skilled flute player,’ goes an African proverb, ‘must sometimes stop to wipe his nose’. It’s now the right time to wipe our noses and view the historic 1959-1963 African student airlifts to America from a strategic public diplomacy perspective.

Prior to this, eminent African leaders such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Edward Wilmot Blyden, George Padmore, James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey, Kwame Nkurumah and Hastings Kamuzu Banda had played leading roles on the continent after sojourns in America in what can be studied as a pre-1960s exchange diplomacy.

However, what makes the 1959-63' cohorts worth renewed focus is the timing, high cohort numbers, intrigues in securing the sponsorships and their impact on the continent’s development and perception of America.

Viewed through the lens of  public diplomacy, the airlift program was akin to the biblical parable of the mustard seed that grew into a gigantic tree. Thus, it’s time to go down the memory lane on the seed that was planted in sub-Saharan Africa by the African students’ educational odyssey to North American universities. On return, the more than 800 beneficiaries took up critical post-independence leadership roles. It was a date with destiny; most of the students became early ‘converts’ to American values and ideals.

Their experiences not only profoundly altered the course of their countries, but significantly contributed to the success of later American global public diplomacy. In the words of African novelist Chinua Achebe in In Memorium Across the Globe: Chinua Achebe: “Every generation must recognize and embrace the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform."


These American values not only became a beacon of hope to the students’ home countries but also helped advance US foreign policy goals.

Before the ‘airlifts’ to America, European imperialists across Africa had downplayed higher education in the face of anti-colonialism and struggles for self-determination, according to Robert F. Stephens, one of the program administrators. To address this, pan-Africanist Tom J. Mboya, one of the foremost architects of modern Kenya, spearheaded the efforts to raise funds for African students’ higher education in America and Canada. Although fate saw a key champion of the ‘airlift’, President John F. Kennedy, in the White House for two years and 10 months only, the legacy of that deployment of American soft power lives on.

The concept of soft power was coined three decades ago by American political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. In the book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, he argues that in international diplomacy, military power is used “to do things and control others,” while soft power—non-coercive power—is deployed to cement leadership positions in the world. For Nye, the basis of US soft power is liberal democracy, free market economics, and fundamental values such as human rights—in essence, liberalism. These American values not only became a beacon of hope to the students’ home countries but also helped advance US foreign policy goals.

For a meaningful reflection of the public diplomacy value of the ‘airlifts’, one has to bear in mind the ebb and flow of the events of the sixties. As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said then: ‘The wind of change is blowing through this (African) continent’ with many African countries shaking off the imperialist yoke and in need of friends. One such friend was the US, which was grappling with its own issues, including the Cuban invasion of the ‘Bay of Pigs’, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement aimed at scrapping the Jim Crow segregation laws, and universal voting rights clamor.

Evidently, the airlift brought African students to America at a tempestuous time that laid bare the fragility and contradictions of the "American Dream".

In spite of all the turbulence, the inspirational JFK Inaugural Address that essentially summoned an enthusiastic generation to public service embodied the spirit of the times: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

This timeless summon to energetic Americans soon bore fruit with the launch of the Peace Corps, an instrument that encouraged mutual understanding between Americans and people of other nations. The jury is still out on how the soaring Kennedy-esque exhortation affected the airlift students’ sense of public service on return to their homelands.

Most of the trail-blazing generation and their American benefactors have since hung their career boots, are in their sunset years or have passed away. This certainly calls for taking stock of the public diplomacy value of the initiative and presents a chance to profile their lives.

Across the sub-Saharan Africa, the airlift's luminaries laid a strong foundation in both public and private sectors. This contributed immensely to these countries’ subsequent socio-economic development. Yet it’s mainly Kenya’s airlift beneficiaries who are nominally better known. In fact, Kenya partly owes its regional powerhouse status to its advanced human capital skills base drawn from the strong foundation laid by the airlift. The more famous Kenyan airlift generation includes the first African woman Nobel Peace Prize laurate Professor Wangari Maathai, diplomat Pamela Mboya, veteran journalist Philip Ochieng, leading conservationists Prof Reuben Olembo and Dr. Perez Olindo. Even for these ones, their performance, achievements and broader impact on the society is scantily documented, assessed or publicized. What role did the exposure play in shaping relations between their respective countries and the US?

As children of two worlds embodying double consciousness, living airlift luminaries deserve a chance to reminisce on their encounters with the American Dream and how they navigated around their post-independence challenges and opportunities. As Greek Philosopher Socrates observed: "A life unexamined is not worth living."

Paul is a Kenyan public communication expert and Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow (2017/18), a United States government-sponsored exchange program for leadership and professional development.

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6 COMMENT(S)

Kennedy airlft

That is a legacy is solid. The beneficiaries did so so much to build Kenya. Most of the institutions that had governed Kenya since later 1860s were established by them. I think knowledge and skill transfer has lasting value to a benefiting country than loans.

Kennedy Airlift

True, the legacy will remain for years to come. The role played by Prof Reuben Olembo, one of the airlift beneficiaries, in the establishment of United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi as well as the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) cannot be gainsaid. In the private sector, media mogul SK Macharia of Royal Media Services, another airlift trailblazer has a fascinating story of how he made his way to the American shores. At broad level, Kenya’s independence Lancaster Constitution and the 2010 Constitution had strong American footprints, so has the labor movement, university education, gender equity and environmental conservation efforts. Justice has not been done to this story. It requires a much more systematic retelling.

The student airlifts to America

America needs to start an equivalent airlift to continue the genuine and sustainable soft-power diplomacy

The significance of

The significance of international education and exchange programs are multifaceted and cannot be overemphasized. This article draws us to the international and public diplomacy mutual benefit of educational exchanges, at a time when international education and exchange is under threat, given the emerging restrictive and punitive immigration policies targeting international students abroad. We need to sustain these reflections and advocate for international and cross-cultural education exchanges today more than ever.

The Lasting Value of the Kennedy-Era Africa-to-America Airlifts

Paul, this is illuminating! I had the privilege of working under the editorship of Philip Ochieng and the man has a mind of his own. He is very thorough and broad minded. Under him I learned to stretch my mind very far. I greatly admired Prof Maathai whose GBM still flourishes. Connecting all these names to the American airlifts is indeed very interesting because one sees the influence they still have. And the number is huge. Indeed there is need to examine those lives, extract the lessons and assess the value that can be attributed to them. I would love to have a conversation with each of the living luminaries now that I have this background. Thanks for starting such an insightful conversation.

America vs China

But then came populism! Populism is so simplistic in it’s world view that it lacks capacity to appreciate the power of soft power (sic). It’s encouraging Americans to withdraw from international engagements and instead focus inwards. Unfortunately, nature hates vacuums, and so here comes China to replace America on the world stage in the areas of trade, diplomacy and education. Unfortunately (again) the Chinese affront is devoid of values, is a mere demonstration of raw power, and powered by raw rivalry. It’s hoped that the US will soon realize the vanity of abandoning soft power tactics. In the meantime, the world will have to make do with an aggressive China that has already taken a stranglehold of weaker economies, and is engineering a train reck of the little that was left of good neighborliness.

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