Kenyan hotelier tells history of Washington Hilton, its yearly event

Thursday May 11 2023
White House Correspondents' Association dinner

Guests attending the White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton on April 29, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


For a foreigner turning up at a hotel in Washington DC, the story may be that of culture shock and lessons.

This is not the feeling you get at Washington Hilton, an iconic hotel where American politicians make humour and history every year. It has an African touch around it too.

Here, Ronald Reagan was shot in an attempted assassination in March 1981. But historians say the incident helped raise his poll ratings believed to be out of public sympathy for surviving John Hinckley’s bullet.

That is only one lesson in history. The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner where Reagan was shot has been an annual event, usually held every last Saturday of April and where presidents come to drop mics and lines jibing journalists as well as political rivals alike. It also hosts annual First Ladies Luncheon which regularly sees about 1,500 attendees.

Furthermore, the National Prayer Breakfast which is hosted by members of US Congress is also held here annually.  Every US president since Dwight Eisenhower has participated in the event, normally held on the first Thursday in February.

Each year, more than 3,000 people attend the event which has inspired other countries like Australia and the UK to host their own versions. Kenya too has its National Prayer Breakfast.


In 2008, George W. Bush conducted the Marine Corps Band at the Correspondents' Dinner. In 2016, Barack Obama had his infamous “Obama out” mic drop moment during his speech. This year, Biden ridiculed Fox News journalists for attending the annual event for “free meals”.

Prominent Kenyans at the event

A number of prominent Kenyans were attending an event at the hotel when I was there between April 10 and 18, 2023. Among them was Dr Atwoli Lukoye, a professor and dean at the Aga Khan University Medical College of Kenya.

“This hotel has a very rich history including where President Reagan was shot,” said Raja Kiprono, the hotel's food and beverage manager, who is also a Kenyan.

“While on my routine duty I met Muhoho Kenyatta, (brother to Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta) and he was very excited to meet us. As you are aware we are at least two Kenyans working here,” Kiprono said, indicating he plans to put up some kind of resort back home in future.

“This year we are fully booked for the event which will be held on 29th this month,” he said as he showed me around the main hall where the events take place.

Kiprono’s journey

Kiprono schooled in Washington. He relocated to the US as a child when his parents migrated to work for an international organisation.

“Thirty years ago, we lived in Eldoret for a while where I schooled at Hill School. We moved with my mother when she came here in 1997,” said Kiprono.

“So, I didn't have a lot of classes when I was going to school. I had more time to even work. As soon as we came here, my mum urged me to get a job. I took it up, became hungry for money and helped my parents to pay the bills until I was good to be on my own,” he said.

His hotel was among those hosting delegates for the annual Spring Meetings (April 10 to 16) of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

While I was at the restaurant taking some English tea, a gentleman approached my table and inquired whether I was comfortable. Little did I not know that he was the manager (Kiprono) then.

He was wearing a Maasai bracelet, hand-made with colourful beads neatly weaved in a Kenyan flag colour.

In May 2009, Kiprono began his life at the hotel where he was employed as a room service attendant until 2015 when he was promoted to the position of bartender.

“At the Washington Hilton, I have worked my way up,” he explained.

Kiprono soon rose through the ranks to position of food and beverage assistant manager in June 2021 and later confirmed as the food and beverage manager in 2022, a position he holds to date.

“A fun fact, this hotel is located on the 1919 Connecticut Avenue and 1919 is the year that it was built. So, we have a really historic hotel,” he said.