Hope, terror, and change in East Africa

Kenya

This article appeard in The National following the attack on Westgate Mall in Kenya.

As Kenya begins its final day of national mourning and tries to come to terms with the Al Shabab attack on the Westgate mall, there is a strong sense of unease and uncertainty among those who call this region and country home. While many questions are being raised about the incident and its aftermath, it could be the right time to think about the development of Kenya as a nation.

I remember the time when the mall was built. On Saturdays, the mall used to be filled with the smell of roasted coffee and freshly-baked bread. Children dressed in their weekend finery would bounce along to pop music on their way to ice-cream stands or the cinema.

Sounds of chatter in foreign and familiar languages – English, Kiswahili, Hindi, Kikuyu, Chinese and Somali – filled the air at the cafes as they mixed with the pungent smell of tropical soil drifting in from outside. Sometimes they would mix with the sweet aroma of tender mangoes, or a faint smell of spice of an Indian barbecue from down the street.

This is Nairobi. This is Kenya, where everything is thrown together – cultures, identities and beliefs. All of them are claimed, remade and ever reinvented.

This is not the first time that the country has faced such a challenge. Security has been a dominant issue over the past few years. That is evident in the growth of private security firms that are increasingly being hired to guard homes, schools and religious places, replacing a corrupt and often ineffectual police force. On a national level, too, violence has plagued Kenyan society.

In 2007, the disputed elections turned violent and separated the country along ethnic lines, leaving more than 1,000 dead and displacing 600,000, an episode that continues to saturate Kenyan society and politics.

This attack is not the first by Al Shabab, who in a series of bombings have killed dozens of people in a bid to hit back at Kenya for its military role in restoring governance in Somalia. However, it is the first that resonates across Kenya and right into the heart of all of us. Everyone seems to have a relative, or a friend, or a colleague who was at Westgate last weekend, or who came to help afterwards, and this tragedy seems to have brought a normally polarized and divided society together, something which is needed to heal and recover.

Kenya, and the region more widely, have the shoulder of the world to lean on at the moment. Governments in Europe and North America offered their assistance during the attack, and will no doubt continue to do so, particularly in the areas of security and counterterrorism.

President Barack Obama himself, who shunned Kenya during his African tour earlier this year because of its poor record of governance and the fact that its president and deputy president have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity during the post-election violence of 2007, personally called President Uhuru Kenyatta to offer US support.

The ICC, additionally, suspended deputy president William Ruto’s trial in The Hague for him to return to Kenya to help resolve the crisis and move the country toward healing. The world understands that Kenya is a critical regional player and as the country mourns and recovers from this crisis, there is opportunity to break new ground.

That is what I hope for, the breaking of new ground. Kenyans have already shown what is possible, as they helped the injured out of Westgate, lined up to volunteer and donate blood, or to bring food and drink to tired soldiers. These are signs of hope, signs the leaders must heed carefully as they consider how to move forward from this crisis. A real danger is reprisal attacks against Kenya’s Somali community as sadness and shock turn to rage and people look for someone to blame. Kenya’s leaders must rise above this and rise above the ethnic rivalries of the past, to put the rule of law and individual rights first.

My feeling is that this attack by Al Shabab will mark a change in East Africa. For Kenya, this unfortunate event has thrust the country into new regional and global territory, exposing it to the opportunities and repercussions of international involvement, and once this door is open, it cannot be closed. Nor should it. But this also means that the cultures of corruption and impunity that formed the past will no longer do, and Kenya will once again have to reinvent itself. It can do this. It is good at it, and the unity around Westgate shows an example how.

And for individuals, for those who move around Nairobi and will see the remnants and memories of Westgate everyday, the responses will be much more varied. Perhaps we’ll change what we do, where we normally go or how we go there, what we consider safe. Perhaps we won’t. Perhaps we’ll look at each other differently, perhaps with suspicion, maybe with hope. I’ll hope for hope, because it could have been any of us there at Westgate last weekend, and we can’t afford anything less than empathy and care.

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