- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

The longest-serving foreign ambassador in Washington remembers how witnessing his first U.S. presidential inauguration sent shivers down his spine, not from the majesty of the ceremony but from the bone-chilling January weather.

Roble Olhaye, the envoy from the tiny African nation of Djibouti, where the climate is hot year-round, said he never imagined Americans would inaugurate their presidents outdoors in winter, so he wore only a business suit. His wife also dressed for an indoor function.

“We learned our lesson bitterly,” he said, recalling the 1989 inauguration of George H.W. Bush. “It’s something very unique to Americans to swear in their leaders in the cold.”

All across the U.S. capital, ambassadors are preparing to represent their presidents or prime ministers, their kings or queens in this quadrennial American spectacle that, for the foreign envoys, will begin with light refreshments Tuesday morning at the State Department.

From there, more than 180 ambassadors and their spouses will board buses and ride to the U.S. Capitol for the inauguration on the West Front. They will be escorted to a reserved section on the platform, where they will be seated in the order in which they presented their diplomatic credentials at the White House.

Mr. Olhaye, the only serving ambassador in Washington who delivered his credentials to President Reagan, is dean of the diplomatic corps and will lead the procession to their seats.

As an African ambassador attending the swearing-in of a president whose father was born in Kenya, Mr. Olhaye says he realizes this will be the most historic inauguration of the five he has witnessed in more than 20 years in the United States.

“It is one of those miracles that do happen,” he said of the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Afterward, the ambassadors and their spouses will reboard the buses and ride to Blair House, the elegant presidential guest quarters, for a buffet lunch. Then they will take their reserved seats in the grandstands across from the White House to watch the inaugural parade.

In the evening, many of them will attend an inaugural ball.

African ambassadors have written a letter to Mr. Obama to ask him to “honor us by your presence” at their inaugural ball at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel in Arlington.

“Your election as the 44th president of the United States has generated enthusiasm around the world and especially in Africa,” Mr. Olhaye wrote on behalf of the African diplomatic corps.

Kenyan Ambassador Peter N.R.O. Ogego, a co-host of the African ball, began three days of celebrations Saturday with a private reception for the organizers of the annual salute to Martin Luther King.

The Kenyan Embassy and the Kenya Christian Fellowship in America hosted a public prayer service Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington.

Mr. Ogego arranged for the Boys Choir of Kenya to perform Saturday evening at an inaugural gala of the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, which supports wildlife programs in Africa.

The choir also is scheduled to sing on Inauguration Day at the embassy’s public reception from 2 to 7 p.m. at the Washington Plaza Hotel at 10 Thomas Circle NW and at a private black-tie ball hosted by the Kenyan Embassy, the African Diplomatic Corps, the Corporate Council on Africa, the African Union Mission and the Young African Professionals D.C.

Mr. Ogego also is hosting the visit of Mr. Obama’s step-grandmother, Sarah, who traveled here with Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula and Tourism Minister Najib Mohamed Balala.

Ambassador Kwame Bawuah Edusei of Ghana said the African envoys are excited that a son of an African will be the next president of the United States.

“It is a euphoric feeling. It’s such a good feeling,” he said. “We want to help and make [the inauguration] memorable.”

Ambassador Chan Heng Chee of Singapore, who arrived in Washington in 1996, is looking forward to attending her fourth inauguration.

“We ambassadors will be sitting there watching this historic moment,” she said. “It will be freezing, but we will enjoy it.”

Ambassadors Husain Haqqani of Pakistan, Nigel Sheinwald of Britain and Michael Wilson of Canada are among those diplomats who planned private receptions.

Mr. Sheinwald on Saturday hosted the official inaugural delegation from Mr. Obama’s adopted home state of Illinois, and Mr. Haqqani is to host what he calls a “pre-inaugural ball” Tuesday before the official balls begin.

“President Obama’s campaign and his handling of the transition have impressed and excited people in Britain and around the world,” Mr. Sheinwald said.

Mr. Wilson invited guests to view the inaugural parade from the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue and others to attend an outdoors “tailgate experience” on the embassy’s plaza.

The invitation for the plaza suggested the appropriate attire in two words: “Bundle up.”

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