Modi interacts with students at the University of Nairobi on Monday. (PTI)
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
Nairobi, July 11: Paul Odoyo had a question for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was a question he never got to ask.
Odoyo was among 1000 students and faculty members at the University of Nairobi who on Monday queued up for three hours to listen to Modi address them at the lush green campus of Kenya's top varsity.
An undergraduate engineering student, Odoyo wanted to know from Modi whether India was safe enough for him and his friends to pursue postgraduate studies there. He had heard about the series of attacks African students have faced in recent months across Indian cities that had triggered an unprecedented diplomatic protest from African nations.
"It's a very, very important issue for us students," Odoyo told this newspaper, as his friends, standing in a circle, nodded. "But will he (Modi) answer? Will he even refer to our concern?"
Modi did not.
Over a 40 minute address that was his first to an African public audience, the Prime Minister steered clear of even oblique references to concerns over the security of African students in India following a spate of attacks in recent months. He did not take questions - the master of ceremonies cited the paucity of time.
In May, a 29-year-old Congolese student and teacher Masonda Ketanda Olivier was bludgeoned to death in New Delhi over a dispute on hiring an auto-rickshaw, prompting African envoys to threaten a boycott a government event. A week later, locals in a South Delhi village thrashed at least half a dozen African students and young professionals.
"You are the pride of this land and represent the Africa of tomorrow," Modi told the university students, the closest he can to assuring them of his respect and support. "I bring to you the warm welcome of 800 million youth of India."
Modi had not spoken at all about the attacks in their immediate aftermath.
But student after student who The Telegraph spoke with before Modi's address said they wanted the Indian PM to reassure them about the safety of Africans, especially students, in India, as he visited the University of Nairobi. This was, after all, his first opportunity to directly address African students, at the fag end of a four-nation tour of the continent where Modi had till then only spoken to government officials, businessmen and the Indian diaspora.
"We want him to address this issue wide and far," 22-year-old Clinton Bill, an undergraduate food science student named after the former US President - which the order of his names inter changed - said. "It shouldn't matter if you are kaala (black) or white, we're students, we're humans, and we deserve that much."
Ismail Odhiambo, 23, a veterinary science student in the audience said the attacks on Africans in India had shaken students at the University of Nairobi who were keen on travelling to India for further studies.
"This is the major issue we want him to address," Odhiambo said.
Dennis Tomoina, an agriculture sciences student, also 22, said Modi needed to "reassure" students that the incidents of the past few months would "never be allowed again".
"I know that Indian ministers have made commitments, but why is the PM silent?" Tomoina asked. "When the leader of a country makes a commitment, it percolates down all the way. When he stays silent, you don't know what to think."
Modi, who garlanded a 60-year-old statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the university campus before he spoke to the students, referred to the diversity of Kenya and India.
"It is the very essence of modern India," he said.
He also drew loud cheers when he cited a Swahili proverb to highlight the importance of education. "Money, on using, ends. Learning, on sharing, grows," he then said, translating the proverb to claps.
But the cheers were more polite than rapturous when he finished. To at least some students, the master orator had not quite delivered.
"He's a politician, and politicians know how to talk well in general terms," Odoyo said. "But he could have addressed our specific concerns with specific solutions. That's what we had expected from him."
It is not only I but the students of Kenya who have started doubting Modi.
Another thing to be marked is in the photograph above, all the students in front of Modi are white.
Where have the African students gone?
Were they not allowed to come in front?
Has Modi again imported students from Gujarat to shout "Modi !", "Modi !".