By Grace Lesser; Knowledge Manager, Jacaranda Health
It’s hard to find the words to respond to the acts of horror that took place recently in Nairobi. I am safe, my loved ones are safe, and for that I am thankful. Everyone I know knows someone personally who has been affected by the acts of terror — friends who escaped the attacks, friends who were shot, friends who were killed. For those who haven’t been to Nairobi, Westgate was not your typical African market — it was a “worldclass” shopping mall, with three shiny floors of stores, elevators and escalator between each one. It had a multi-screen movie theatre, a European-style café with double iced cappuccinos and butternut squash prosciutto pizza, a burger joint, a frozen yogurt chain. My office is close by, I used to live right around the corner from it, and I would go there to do my shopping a few times a week. It was a mall commonly frequented by expats and wealthy Kenyans, but also represented development and modernity, a landmark of the direction Kenya is moving. Saturday mornings was generally the busiest time there, and last weekend the mall was hosting a children’s event on the first floor.
I tend to have a pretty high threshold for danger — I feel safe in most situations, I generally trust people, I enjoy pushing the boundaries of my own comfort zone. But I’ve never been so close to such senseless acts of violence and evil, and the aftershocks are deep and intense. When I first heard there was “a hostage situation” in Westgate on Saturday morning I didn’t think much of it – I promised my concerned colleague that I would stay away from malls for the day, but ate french toast for breakfast on my porch and headed to the huge outdoor secondhand market for the morning. There was a slight fever of tension in the city, but I felt pretty much untouched. I’ve never really been one of those people who stopped to stare at car accidents or obsess over trauma, and figured this too would pass. But over the next 24 hours, and in the several days to follow, the magnitude of the attack slowly set in. My phone buzzed constantly with text messages from friends scouting the safety of our community. I found myself glued to the BBC’s constant updates. I refreshed twitter every ten seconds for news about the hostages still inside the building, the extraordinary ongoing violence. A colleague’s ex-boyfriend was missing. A photograph of an American acquaintance running from the mall towards his pregnant wife, gripping his two year old daughter, was plastered all over the news. A friend’s coworker, eight and a half months pregnant, had been found dead, cradling her deceased husband. The stories coming out of the mall from survivors were horrific. And it was ongoing.
Nairobi is not a safe place — commonly called Nairobbery, you wouldn’t be wise to walk 500 meters outside after dusk, and you always lock your doors while driving through the daily hours of traffic. But this has taken danger to a whole new level. The attack feels somehow different than a grenade, or even a building collapsing (though that too, happened at Westgate): This is the story of human beings, adults to toddlers, “face to face,” making the choice to ruthlessly end lives and ruin futures, to act on unspeakably senseless evil. I’m finding the scariest part of an attack like this one is that it can too easily regenerate hate, the saddest part is that it really makes one reconsider the existence of humanity.
I was one of the lucky ones, but I think it’s also wise to remember in a time like this that it seems this kind of horror can happen anywhere — and does. Earlier this year the Boston marathon bombing affected tens of thousands of people; just a couple weeks ago, the Navy Yard shooting killed 13. Even last weekend, as we were deep in the heaviness of the Westgate attack, a bomb in a historic church in Pakistan killed 70 people. This seems to be the world we’re living in, this is the world we’ll raise our children in, and my hope is that we remember that it’s our job to try to slow the deepening of this kind of hate.
I’m not planning on leaving Nairobi because of the Westgate attack, though I think a lot of people will. I am still haunted by the photographs and the stories of death, and I now live in a city haunted by the horror. No one has been untouched. But I’m also reminded in these times of trauma and terror that the human spirit is strong. I’m beginning to hear stories of heroism: A plainclothes police officer was caught on camera rescuing a mother and her two children from underneath a coffee counter inside the mall. Benson, the taxi dispatcher that many Nairobi expats call, sent all his drivers out on Saturday to scour the hospitals for a customer that he’d dropped at Westgate that morning. People used twitter to share real-time information and escape routes during all four days of the attack. Last weekend I stood in line with thousands of Kenyans from all classes, backgrounds, tribes for hours – everyone quiet, with their children in tow, reading the paper – to donate blood. Volunteers passed out donated biscuits and soda at the blood drive, while a male acapella group serenaded the people closest to the front of the line. Of all the countries I’ve visited in Africa, Kenya has a markedly strong spirit – Kenyans have hustle and sass, humor and resilience. The country is broken, no doubt, but there is recovery and unity, too.
This morning, when I passed through the airport on my way to Rwanda, the customs officer asked me what Rwanda is like.
“Oh, it’s niiiice” I said. “Clean, green. Safe.”
He held my eyes for a moment, and asked, almost rhetorically: “They don’t have any Al Shabab there?”
I shook my head, slowly.
“Enjoy your weekend in Rwanda. Forget what you saw here.”
Grace Lesser is Knowledge Manager at Jacaranda Health, a social enterprise that is building a network of high-quality private maternity clinics in East Africa. She previously directed operations at Global Health Builders, a health management organization that serves over two million Rwandans, and worked on women’s health and reproductive rights policy in Washington DC. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University.