28 January 2014

Africa: Remembering Kenya Scholar Joel Barkin

Washington, DC — The sudden death of Joel Barkin in Mexico City was a shock to Washington's community of Africanists, diplomats and development professionals.

I first met Joel in Windhoek, Namibia in April1992. We were stranded in Windhoek over a holiday weekend and spent two evenings at a small German restaurant discussing a range of topics from land grant universities, Colorado, the academic world's detachment from reality and an endless array of African topics. It was reminiscent of the film "My Dinner with Andre," only with German subtitles.

1992 was a tumultuous year in Kenyan politics. President Daniel Arap Moi was holding on to his political life while the opposition splintered along ethnic and idealogical lines. The Kenyan media was no longer under the thumb of the government, and U.S. ambassador Smith Hempstone became persona non grata to the government but was a hero to the wanach or people of Kenya for his courageous stand against corruption and one-party rule. Joel had been a consultant to one of the political party organizations, and I was an adviser to the Kenyan government on export processing zones. Although I had first been in Kenya in 1976 and had an ongoing afflliation with one the country's leading law firms, Joel schooled me on the realities of Kenyan politics in his inimitable gentle but determined way.

Some years later, Joel and I became reacquainted when he and Sarah moved to Washington from Iowa. We had both become adjunct professors at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and senior associates at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading think tank with an historic Africa program. Joel became the proverbial center of gravity in Washington for all things related to Kenya, Uganda and East Africa. His scholarly contributions and organized symposia kept decisionmakers well informed, and I cannot think of a US Ambassador to Kenya over the past twenty years who did not seek his counsel.

As a result of Joel's efforts, Washington enjoys a mature and multifaceted relationship with Kenya. While activists always saw Kenya on the precipice of state failure, Joel counseled people to take a longer and more objective view of Kenyan affairs.

Joel and I were able to share the classroom on a couple of occasions, and his rapport with students was extraordinary. He was able to let students discover what their passions were, and I am sure that many current diplomats and development professionals were influenced by Joel in their career choices.

Joel maintained a global network of friends and colleagues whom I would connect with from time to time. I was never disappointed.

Joel and I also had the opportunity to spend time together in Cape Town's vineyards and restaurants, which he loved and touted to African neophytes whenever he had the occasion. He and Sarah would visit Cape Town every year, and I am comforted that he was able to spend time with her and his beloved children before his death.

I will miss Joel's impish smile and boisterous laugh, and his ability to be passionate but objective. Mostly, I will miss his friendship and collegiality.

Safari njema marafiki wa Africa.

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