Reflections on Kenya’s 9/21

2013-09-30 10:00

After the September 11 (9/11) 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, and as the editors of The Nation were trying to figure out what should go into that week’s issue, William Greider, the magazine’s national affairs correspondent, offered some wise words that I’ve never forgotten: “Later, there will be time for analysis of who and what was responsible. Right now, it’s time to grieve,” he said.

That’s how I feel about what happened in my adopted nation of Kenya last Saturday. I wasn’t there for the attack, which happened at the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, where I regularly went to buy groceries.

But as I studied pictures of the victims, who included a young Kenyan woman from the media company I used to work for, I felt the same kind of heartsickness that engulfed me 12 years ago.

The young woman was recently married, now pregnant with her first child and, just like many of the victims in the 9/11 attack, so bright and so promising.

The news reports I’ve seen keep describing the mall as an upscale place for Nairobi’s elite, but that’s not the whole story, and not how I remember it.

In the Nakumatt supermarket, the anchor tenant of the centre, Asian and Kenyan grandmothers, and African and Kenyan secretaries on their lunch breaks trolled the aisles with their baskets or carts, just like me.

And yes, there were lots of white expats doing business deals or bemoaning the state of Kenya’s politics over lattes at the overpriced coffee shop, but there were also scores of grocery baggers and shop workers and cleaners just trying to make enough money to keep their families one notch above poverty.

As I think about those workers, I remember reading about the 9/11 victims who had been waiters and bus boys at Windows on the World.

Many of them were immigrants struggling to earn enough to send money home or to help their families establish themselves in their new land. We will hear plenty about the diplomats who perished in the Westgate tragedy, but I keep thinking about all the families who lost their breadwinners, and whose names may never even be recorded.

I heard a news presenter on the BBC on Monday say that the attack had changed Kenya forever. She’s probably too young to remember, but this is hardly Kenya’s first, or worst, experience of terrorism.

In 1998, al-Qaeda bombed the US embassy in Nairobi, then located in the heart of the capital city and surrounded by streets full of shoppers and office workers, leaving several thousand people dead or injured.

Whenever we have visitors from the US, I take them to the small park that has been built on the site of the bombing so they can see pictures of what really happened and reflect on the fact that Americans aren’t the only ones who have been victims of terrorism.

One of the saddest exhibits the last time I went there was of stories written by children of fathers or mothers who had perished in the attack, in which they try hard to conjure up a parent whom they barely knew, or didn’t know at all.

That 1998 attack didn’t change Kenya forever, as far as I have been able to see. It just made Kenyans yet more stoical in the face of hardships that, in a poor nation, are so legion as to be unremarkable.

In Kenya right now, all the talk on Twitter and in the news media is about coming together, forgetting political and religious differences and so on.

Based on what happened in the US after 9/11, however, I think it’s more likely that if the Westgate attack changes anything, it will be to increase Kenyans’ fears rather than their hopes.

There will be plenty of time for the pundits to weigh in on what the Westgate attack means in terms of international security failures, the role played by Washington in encouraging Kenya’s military actions against Somalia, the continued effectiveness of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, or the need for a negotiated peace in Somalia.

But right now, I don’t want to read them or hear them, I’m just feeling sad. – The Nation

»?Rothmyer is a former managing editor of The Nation. She lives in Kenya but is currently a visiting fellow at Cambridge University in the UK

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