It is strange to be outside of the United States when something like this happens. Not in the sense that I fear for my life and wish I was back in the states, but in the sense that this sort of attack has an air of familiarity about it. It feels like a distinctly Western sort of act of terrorism. In the past two years alone in the States we have seen the shootings at Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon Bombings, the Aurora Colorado shooting, the shooting at the Sikh temple in the Midwest, the recent Washington Navy Yard shooting, among what I am sure are many others. But things like that just don’t happen in Kenya, or at least not nearly as frequently. The last large scale terror attack in Kenya was in 1998 when the US Embassy in Nairobi was bombed by minions of the late Osama Bin Laden. Not to say that Kenya hasn’t had its own violent troubles since then with the Post-Election violence in 2007-2008, violent struggles over land and resources and other smaller scale acts of terror like recent grenade attacks. They are mostly self-contained, inward facing events.
This most recent incident stands out. The attack itself was focused on a symbol of Nairobi’s, and Kenya’s, increasing westernization and its growth as the largest economy in East Africa. Westgate Mall would not be out of place in any large American, Canadian or European city. It has food courts, jewelry stores, a kids play place, rooftop parking, escalators and fancy cafes. It draws an international crowd and a wealthy crowd. It was targeted by an international group of terrorists that some speculate have connections to the group that was behing the 7/7 attacks in London. This incident, although contained in Kenya, has largely international players, motives and implications.
I was at Westgate a few months ago myself, with students on a Model United Nations trip. We ate pizza and frozen yogurt, bought snacks at the Nakumatt shopping center, perused books and movies and checked out a bizarre Chinese outdoor apparel shop. When I look at the pictures plastered all over the internet, I see a family fleeing in terror in front of the bullet splintered window of the ice cream place we are ate; Armed men from the Kenya Defense Force in front of the iconic Nakumatt Elephant where we shopped; and the colorful play place I noted looked surprisingly like the fast food play places back home that is now reportedly being used as a make shift prison of the few remaining hostages.
This attack reflects Kenya’s stature as an important political entity in the region too. The main logic behind this horrifying act, if indeed one can seek logic in such senseless violence as this, is as retaliation for Kenyan involvement in Somalia. Just last year, Kenya, most likely with strong urging from the US, moved significant amounts of troops into Southern Somalia and took control of one of the biggest cities under the control of Al-Shabaab, Kismayo. Kismayo serves as a significant port for the export of charcoal to other areas in the Indian Ocean. The siege and seizure of this town was a significant blow to Al-Shabaab and, in a way, this attack is a sign that the Kenyan military has done serious harm to the organization, enough, at least, to merit a serious and violent reprisal.
Some Kenyan members of staff at school were remarking at how Kenya seemed very unprepared for an event like this one. Where in the US police are trained extensively on these situations due to their unfortunate frequency, the Kenyan police are more focused on crowd control situations and more casual, less intensive acts of terror. Where the US media immediately swarms to cover the horror and play up the story lines, the Kenyan media was quick to the scene but slow to sensationalize. Where US hospitals are built to handle large-scale trauma situations, the Kenyan hospitals quickly ran out of beds. Its almost a good sign that Kenya isn’t used to responding to these situations, it goes to show that they just don’t happen that often here. But an incident like this might also mark a watershed moment for Kenya, it might indicate their increasingly bigger role in the region and might mean they have to buckle down and train for more events like this in the future.
It’s rare that I get to focus on my own emotions much here at school. Serving as a dorm parent, mentor, advisor, counselor and friend means that I deal with a lot of other people’s emotions and struggles every day, week in and week out, but have very little time to self-reflect and take bearings for myself. But I have found myself reflecting more in the past few days, mostly in regards to how our kids have handled the situation. Once the call went out for blood donations on Sunday, our kids jumped at the chance to contribute. A large number of our older students felt obligated to help out in any way they could. Their determination to help and their sense of empathy and citizenship at their age was truly admirable. In morning assembly today, the standard speeches and announcements were cancelled and a new program substituted in to reflect and take note of the events in Nairobi. The choir stepped up to sing the national anthem, and I wasn’t even remotely prepared for the emotional intensity of their song. The Kenyan national anthem is a beautiful song in and of itself, but when sung with the wavering timbre of deep and painful sorrow, as it was this morning, the haunting mournful overtures of the song were palpable. Next followed a poem written by one of our older students that seemed to be making the rounds on various news websites already after he had posted it the day before. It served as a solemn reminder of mortality and an encouraging call for unity and resilience.
Thanks all for your notes, calls and messages of concern. None of our students or staff were affected directly by the violence but it sounds like some friends of friends might have been caught up in the mayhem. We can only hope for a quick resolution and then quick steps to recovery.
It's been quite a hiatus from my blogging but I am hoping this marks a return. I hope all is well where ever you are in the world.
-Mzungu with one eye on the news and one eye on the courageous acts of our kids