On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.
-Poem by Kofi Awonoor who died in the Westgate siege and massacre.
I’ve been lost for words since Westgate happened. Since the name of a place became the name of an event and wrote itself forever not just in space but in time and history and the way we think of ourselves as Kenyans. The way we think of ourselves in relation to our world and our actions. I’ve been lost for words since Westgate. Thankfully Uhuru Kenyatta was not…
I remember needing to hear my president speak and being so proud of what he said, of how he said it. How presidential he seemed in the aftermath of Westgate, doing what we needed him to do and doing it well.
I’ve been lost for words because of how close it was. I could have been at Westgate Saturday morning. I had lost my phone and I needed my sim-card replaced. I wanted to leave the house at 10 in the morning, get to sarit and replace it so I could go to the museum for the story-moja festival. This was not to be, my father sat me down with some work that I slogged at till 1. On Monday I went to sarit and was told that the offices for celtel had moved to Westgate. When they said this I was lost for words.
When things like this happen, things like Westgate, things like my story crop up. Death in large unforeseen numbers seems to exert some kind of gravitational pull. There will be so many stories like this all over the city. Stories of people who would have been there except for this and except for that. Big death has big effects. It has sadder effects than missed connections. The degrees of separation between anyone here and anyone in Westgate doesn’t stretch past 3. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who was there, who was shot, who was killed.
I’ve been lost for words and I still am. There is a need to write through things like this. There is a need to express in words what you feel inside when things like this happen. But I had nothing new or valuable to add to the discourse that has happened about Westgate. There are no fresh insights inside me and there is nothing I can say that can make us feel whole. It’s ultimately a very selfish exercise this post, it’s about me and thinking through things. It’s about doing what I feel I have to do in order to deal with the trauma that Kenya has been dealt.
On Saturday I heard that 100 people had died at Westgate. This was not just an exaggeration but as it turned out almost a prophecy, the changing facts of rumours morphing into the harsh truths of life in just a few days. I was sad when I heard this. A silence came over me, a darkness. I was sure that no one I knew was at Westgate and the day doesn’t pass when I’m not thankful that I haven’t been proved wrong on this assumption. But I felt sad. There was something broken in the air, something not right in knowing that so many people who are my countrymen had died just a few kilometres away from where I was standing. I felt hurt as a Kenyan and I felt it because I was Kenyan, because I was human and because I could feel more for these people than I could for people worlds away going through these issues all the time.
I don’t know why I did but I did. I remember an old episode of the west wing where the president is asked why an American life is more important than any other life in the world. He paused for a moment and considered this, he let out a heavy, hard sigh and said, “I don’t know but it is.” I have no idea why a Kenyan life is more important to me than any other life in the world but it is. An attack like this makes you have to think about things you never would have. It make you question your principles and whether you just held on to them because they were easy.
I didn’t want those terrorists to live. I wanted the Kenya defence forces to open up fire on each and every one of them as soon as they were sighted. I didn’t care about due process or the fact that I am vehemently against the death penalty. What I wanted was death to those who would have visited death on us. Asked then, hell, asked now I would call for a drone program on the people who organised and ordered these attacks. I would want them rooted out and killed. I wouldn’t ask for evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, all I would need would be a reasonable suspicion.
How could they do this to us. What makes them think that a country like mine is open to them to attack, is open to them to come into and kill in the name of misguided interpretations of religion, in the name of a false sense of patriotism, in the name of geo-political consequences that our country walked itself into. I read an article in the guardian by Samar Al-Bulushi . It asked how the world decides which lives are more important. It asked why there was not such a hue and cry over the Kenya Defence Forces and their incursion into Somalia and the subsequent pain and suffering they had visited over there. I read the article past the first line because he did not have a name that marked him as a westerner. Before I began reading it I looked to see who this was who could deem to comment on the actions of Kenya on its neighbouring country. Already discrimination, on my part, had peeked its ugly head, it felt like qualified discrimination but nonetheless there it was.
Once I had established his ethnic bona-fides I read on. He talked about the 700 Somali “militants” who had died at the hands of our army since 2011 and about how it is Somalia that is the epicentre of a war and not the Westgate mall. He had me thinking. He had me thinking about all the feelings I have about America’s drone program and their, sometimes, senseless-seeming war on terror. It had me thinking about the fact that a generation of children in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are growing up thinking that America is represented by a noise in the sky that drops bombs and how radicalised these children could become. It had me thinking of the biblical proverb, “you sow what you reap.”
But a Kenyan life is more important to me and so rationalisations are easier to come by. After all we did not breed terrorists by exporting oppression and democracy for decades in the past. We are not as guilty of as many sins as they are and so our war with its deaths could not possibly be justification. After all we aren’t nearly as bad as they are. Look at Kenya now, look at all the messages bounding up and down social media that remind us we are one country. Look at all the commentary that says Islam is not terrorism and that not all Somalis are al-shabaab. Look at the pictures we quickly circulated of Major Hussein Ali’s son as he went to Westgate gun in hand and saved his fellow Kenyans. Look at how united we all are.
I think of this and then I think I am naïve. Is it horrible of me to say that I see Muslims more than I used to. I make a mental note now and even though it’s the right mental note I still make it. Consciously I seem to have to remind myself that they did not do this. Maybe that’ too harsh on myself, maybe I don’t have to remind myself that they did not do this. I mean, I know they didn’t. but then I see them. I’m no longer relligio-blind. And though it doesn’t make me sit in a different seat on a bus or even have a hateful thought it’s still something that has changed. Perhaps I’m being naïve in thinking that everyone else has gone on in their non-discriminatory ways. Maybe right now there is someone spreading hate speech, maybe right now there is someone not being let into a matatu and maybe right now there is someone being made to feel as if they are not Kenyan. Maybe…but then I think we are better than that. Because we are Kenyans and Kenyans are exceptional and great. Except we have a capacity for hate and revenge that is as unquenchable as that foundanywhere in the world. I just have to cast my eyes back to the last great disaster and I know that Kenya isn’t all peace and unity. I know that we aren’t all one.
Perhaps I shouldn’t write things like this. Perhaps I should only say things that speak to our indomitable spirit, to our tolerance and our capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation but that would not be honest. What would be honest is to say something about our anger. We are angry now, we are angry at everyone. We are angry at al-shabaab for carrying out this terror attack, we should be. We are angry at the government for letting this happen, we are angry at them for not stopping it sooner, we are angry at them for giving us such conflicting pieces of information that it made more sense to look to social media for facts and figures.
But we are also angry at social media, we are angry at all the thumb-tap analyst who would dare say anything against our armed forces, we are angry at the nation media group for printing such a gruesome picture on Sunday, we are angry at the security at the Westgate for not being tighter than it was. We are angry at the NSIS for not warning us about what happened but we are more angry at the police if it turns out that they were warned and did not stop what had happened.
I was angry at a friend of mine who wanted to know how I was doing. I was angry because I told him and he asked me again. I was angry because there was a general current of anger running through the country at that time and I just needed something tangible to be angry at. I saw a post on Facebook telling people from other countries not to condescendingly express sympathy about what had happened. What we forget is that when this angry there sounds like there is a tone of condescension in the most sincere of sympathies. What we forget is we are not alone in all this.
My friend’s father said that these things have happened before in the world. That we only have to think about what Britain went through with the IRA. Urban terrorism is not an invention of la-Qaeda or their jihad. It’s something that has been happening. I don’t have all my emotions in check enough for this to have been logically cohesive but i had an endpoint in mind and this is it.
Norway 2011-car bomb and shooting. Death toll-77 lives.
Kampala 2010-two suicide bombs. Death toll-74 lives.
Mumbai 2008- shootings and bombings. Death toll-168 lives.
London 2005-suicide bombs. Death toll-52 lives.
These too are our brothers and sisters as are the men, women and children in the epicentre of a warzone that life in Somalia can be.