On Terror in Kenya

The recent attacks in Kenya weigh heavily on my mind.  Partly because the “bad guys” are the same ones I conjured up in my novel.  But, moreover, because I once judged the people who were the attack’s victims.

I was talking with someone this morning about my book and, when I mentioned that much of it is set in Nairobi, she immediately asked about the terrible Westgate mall attacks.

“Yeah,” I said, without thinking, “Those bad guys are actually the bad guys in my book.”

She looked at me with a kind of horrified fascination and I realized it was something that, despite weeks of obsessing over all the horrifying details of what happened, I hadn’t yet been able to say out loud.  And, even then, I kind of wished I could take it back.

This blog-entry is long overdue.  There is so much to say, but it’s all so painful to think about, let alone publish.  I rarely procrastinate, but, in this case, I’ve found about a million things that needed to be done before I would sit down to type these words.

During the years when I was doing the work that became the basis for Reporting Lives, I traveled pretty freely in Kenya and Tanzania, taking various modes of transport from public buses to high-end safari vehicles, and, while I personally never experienced anything more frightening than a slightly dodgy freelance military road block, I was always aware of the violence that seemed to simmer just below the surface.  Especially in Nairobi.

Our embassy there had been bombed, of course.  And then there was the not-quite-random street crime that gave the place its nickname, Nairobbery.  I had good friends who’d been held at gunpoint at their dentist’s office.  I heard stories about car jackings and home invasions with alarming frequency. 

My best protection was my apparent poverty.  I wore no jewelry, carried nothing of any value and looked, to anyone who might be inclined to pay attention, like just another missionary in modest clothes and sensible shoes.  Not like anyone worth robbing.

In general, I stayed away from high-end places like Westgate, staying in a modest guest house and walking and taking public transport whenever possible.  But that, of course, was easy to do when I was traveling alone as a single person, staying there for only a week or two at a time.  I wasn’t living there, wasn’t raising kids there.  I didn’t understand, at the time, why people congregated in the “fancy” restaurants and shops.

I think that’s why I’m so haunted by the details of this attack. 

Because now I get it.  The people at the mall that day weren’t trying to be ostentatious, weren’t lording their relative wealth over the rest of the population.  They were just spending some time in what was supposed to be one of the few truly safe places in the city: enclosed, guarded, contained.  They were taking their kids for ice cream.  Because that’s what you do.  You just try to live your life.  To make things “normal.”

I used to wonder how a person could live with themselves, going shopping, while others so nearby, had nothing to live on.  Now I wonder how they will cope without being able to do it.