I’m assuming that many of you have read the news on the terrorist attack in Nairobi over the weekend. Al Shabaab militants took over a popular shopping mall, using grenades and weapons to murder at least 67 people. There are another 60 or so people still missing, likely killed when part of the mall collapsed over the weekend. You can read more about it here.
I sat blindsided in bed just staring at my phone in shock. Waking up to my 6:30am alarm on Saturday to sell at the market, I saw a message on Facebook asking for blood donations in Nairobi for victims. I was confused. A quick check of the news online, and I saw that the Westgate Mall in Nairobi had been attacked by terrorists. It seemed surreal. While terrorist threats on Western establishments have loomed over Nairobi for a couple of years now, it was hard to grasp the reality of what I was reading. My friend Hannah (co-founder of Stahili and a close friend I know from Kenya) messaged me then and reality sank in. I sent messages to friends in Nairobi to make sure they were okay. Unlike America, malls in Kenya are generally where you can find nice cafes to go for Saturday brunch, grab coffee with friends, or go grocery shopping. Even though I visited many local establishments when I lived in Nairobi, I was at the mall at least once a week for a coffee date or to get out of the house and get some work done. I went to the grocery store at the mall, I used cafe wifi at the mall, I took Fred for his favorite mango juice at the mall when we needed to conduct a business meeting and had grown tired of sitting at my dining room table.
After two days, I tracked down all of my friends and found out that they were okay. I was relieved, but at the same time there were a number of people who weren’t so lucky. My roommate in Kenya couldn’t get ahold of his friend for two days and knew that he had been at the mall. News came Monday morning that he was killed. I ached for my friend but also for all of the victims and their families. I empathized with those that made it out alive, because while they are lucky, they will likely still suffer from the effects of post-trauma. It is difficult to understand how anyone could take a life so senselessly and so violently. With virtually no censorship in the media in Kenya, horrific photos spread quickly online of bloodied and lifeless bodies hanging from the steps of the mall, lying in the parking lot and in the main entrance. The same entrance I had walked through many times before. Hostages holed up in the same grocery store that I had scoured for measuring cups when I first moved to Nairobi. Victims senselessly killed in the same cafe I had gone to for a meeting with a shipping expert. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the mall I once knew as one of the poshest places in Kenya, now being a victim of terrorism.
I think what struck me more than the fact that it could have been me, was the fact that it could have been any of us. This could have been a mall in America. This could have been a cafe, a parking lot, or the front steps of a shopping center anywhere.
I’m afraid that Kenya’s tourism will suffer greatly due to this horrible tragedy. And the truth is, 99% of tourists will probably never set foot in a place that terrorists would target… they won’t hit up the malls, they won’t take public transport, they won’t visit their embassy, and they won’t step into a mosque. These are the places that terrorists have attacked in Nairobi. I also empathize with Somalis living in Kenya. Ironically on Friday, just one day before this attack happened, I was speaking with a Somali refugee here in the U.S. about the difference between South Africa and Kenya. We were discussing that South Africans are typically not welcoming of other Africans and there is a lot of hate crimes against Somalis. Locals in South Africa had burned his friends alive and looted and burnt down local Somali shops. But in Kenya, it is different. Kenyans are generally welcoming of outsiders. While Kenya has tribal differences that have incited violence, natives tend to live peacefully with Indians, Somalis, Ethiopians, Sudanese, and other foreigners. I hope that doesn’t change, and really, I don’t think it will. Kenyans are amazingly welcoming people, and I don’t think that they will try to blame an entire race or religion for the acts of a few radicals.
Mr. Rogers said:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.””
Although I cannot change what happened, I still am taking a message of hope from this horrible event. Kenyans stood in line for hours trying to give blood. Kenya Red Cross had to set up additional days and stations for blood donations because there was such an outpouring of support from Kenyans. After two days, Kenyans had donated $200,000 alone in mobile money donations to the Red Cross. People brought food and supplies to the scene to provide support to medical aids and security personnel at the mall. It’s not hard to see why I love this nation so, and why Kenya will recover from this terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to all the victims and those affected by the Westgate attack.