Westgate

This is a feature I wrote for an online journalism course at the University of Hong Kong.

October 7, 2013

It was probably just a violent robbery, perhaps in a jewelry store.  There are some jewelry stores in the mall and violent crime in Kenya is common, not really newsworthy.  The robbers would most likely die.  After all, police shoot to kill here.  Hardly anyone ever sees a trial.  This is how things are done.

Elizabeth moved to Nairobi a couple months earlier.  She gave up a decent but frustrating job in Toronto to try a new life in the country where she was born.  Her dream was to start a business in fashion.  She had plenty of relatives in Kenya.  Her parents emigrated to Canada when she was little, but she still understands Kikuyu, their native language.  It would be a challenge, but she would adjust.  She was ready for it.

Elizabeth needs her Toronto experiences. Good pizza, a glass of wine, an evening with her fellow Canadian expats.  It serves as a reality check.  Things are different in Nairobi.  She hates the public transport – it’s uncomfortable and nothing is printed or posted on the internet.  In this oral culture, you always have to ask people how to get to where you’re going.  Street addresses don’t use numbers, so even Google maps are of no help. This lack of independence is annoying.

But life is simpler in Nairobi.  Things are less stressful.  Although Elizabeth misses the cleaner air and cultural life in Toronto, the change has been good.

Elizabeth grew up in a suburb of Toronto.  She used to love to go shopping in one of many suburban malls or perhaps just to sit in a cafe, have an Americano and read her Vogue magazine.  Malls in Nairobi serve a similar social function, perhaps even more effectively.  Coffee shops are huge.  Elizabeth meets up with her expat friends every couple of weeks for coffee or brunch. She has been in Westgate several times since she moved to Kenya.  It’s an important part of her life.

People have an odd relationship with death in Kenya.  During the two months since Elizabeth arrived, there were five funerals in her extended family.  People often die in car accidents.  Health care is quite poor too.  If you go to hospital, you most likely aren’t getting out.  That’s how things are, you just get sick and die.

On September 21st, the day of the terrorist attack on Westgate mall, Elizabeth was watching BBC at home while her aunt was cooking in the kitchen.  When a blurb appeared at the bottom of the screen about a shooting at a Nairobi mall she dismissed it as a violent robbery.  Only after a few hours it became apparent that it was something very different.

Her father called from Canada.  She made sure her family knew she was safe.  She called her friends and relatives.  Thankfully, everybody was safe.

The night before, Elizabeth and her expat friends went to another mall to have their “Toronto experience”.  She felt lucky they hadn’t made plans for a Saturday brunch at Westgate instead.   They could have been caught in the middle of the terrorist attack.  She felt it was quite remarkable that nobody she knew had been caught in it.

Elizabeth didn’t go out the next day. The police surrounded the mall while the terrorists were still inside.  Everybody wanted the siege to end.  She didn’t understand how a hostage taking can last this long.  People just wanted to get back to their lives.

She started following Al-Shabaab on Twitter.  They were actually celebrating!  She thought they were madmen.  It was terrifying. She felt helpless.  She felt that there was absolutely nothing she could do for the people still trapped in the mall.  How can this be the norm?, she wondered.  How do people live in Palestine?  In Afghanistan?

Acts of terror aren’t new in Kenya.  Exactly 15 years ago more than 200 people died when Al Qaida detonated a truck bomb in front of the US embassy.  Al-Shabaab is a relatively new organization and people hadn’t been taking them seriously. They were low-level amateurs.  They had tried terror attacks in Nairobi, but it has never worked.  Half of their bombs didn’t even explode.  When it became known that Al-Shabaab is behind the mall siege, people suddenly realized that the group was better organized than they were giving them credit for.

During the next four days, Elizabeth grew more and more proud of her country.  Kenyans came together, which they normally don’t do.  The terrorists weren’t going to get away with this.  They weren’t going to divide the country.

Once the siege ended, with all terrorists killed, Elizabeth was relieved to be able to go back to her life.  She had a fashion show to go to, another job interview, another night with her expat friends.  But life had changed.

Elizabeth knows now that nothing in life is guaranteed.  Safety to which she had been accustomed is an illusion.  She had just embarked on her life-changing mission with a goal to establish herself as a fashion designer in Kenya, but she could be dead before she even started!

In North America, many people spend so much time wishing and wanting and hoping.  Life would be better if this or that happened.  But that’s not living.  Knowing that tomorrow is not promised lets you see the world more clearly.  It gives you resolve to look every day in the face and know that you are living.  Stop saying “when I get a job I’ll do this …”  No.  Just do it now.  Because life is short.  If life is this meaningless, at least let us live with dignity and pride.  Nobody can stop us from doing what we want to do.

Elizabeth doesn’t want to go back to Toronto. She will keep going, even harder than before.  They win if you live in fear.  They win if you change your life because of them.  She will not let them win.

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