Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 26, 2013 - Life in Nairobi

Well, life in Nairobi has certainly changed this week.  For Kenyans, for expats.  For everyone.  Many people have written about the Westgate terrorist attack already, and many more will in the days, weeks, months, years to come.  I don't know that my voice adds anything particularly unique to the discussion...but I do have a perspective to share.

We lived in Nairobi for four years.  Google maps says that our house was 1.4 miles from the Westgate Mall. Surely if we still lived there now, we would have heard the sounds of gunfire and explosions and clearly seen the rising plumes of black smoke from our little garden.  

When we first moved to Nairobi, Westgate was still new-ish; many stores were still vacant or works in progress.  Its biggest attractions were the Nakumatt (large Walmart-like grocery store...I'm sure you remember my love-hate relationship with Nakumatt from previous blogs) and the book store/movie theater...but soon there was Art Cafe and dozens of other popular places.  I think at the time we left their best addition was a "Planet Yogurt" (DIY frozen yogurt bar).  Of all of the malls in Nairobi, maybe tied with the even larger Junction, it felt the most western and we went there all the time.  We bought our TV there - the one we still have.  We went out to eat there.  We took our visitors there.  Because it is truly something to take your visitors to a destitute Kenyan orphanage and then later that day take them to the Westgate mall.  Talk about a dichotomy.  Wow.  Both sides of Africa, in your face.

In our last year, however, we had curtailed most of our Westgate activity.  There was a general warning from the US government that all big malls where westerners tend to gather were targets, but we had  insider information that Westgate was specifically likely to be hit.  And of all the Nairobi malls, and yes there are quite a few, Westgate is partially Israeli owned (or at least Art Cafe is) and is one of the only places where you can just drive right by the front door.  You do have to go through some sort of "security" to get to the inside parking lot, but there is an open road right in front of the mall where a car can pull up and you could just pop out and run up the steps right into the it sounds like some of the terrorists did on Saturday.  How many times did Charles drop me off just like that?

We didn't write about this specific threat so much and we didn't talk about it a great deal, because we certainly hate to make our family and friends back home worry.  And it is sort of hard to explain how you get used to living in a place with that sort of constant terrorist threat.  But it was a concious decision of ours not to go there very much in our last few months.  No more movies.  No more dinners there.  Try to shop elsewhere.  Keep it to a bare minimum.

And I have one example of our mind-set to share, just because it tells you how worried we were.  There was a little shop at Westgate selling beautiful hand-made leather bags called "African Lily."  Amazing bags.  I always wanted one while we lived there but they aren't particularly baby-friendly so I never bought one.  And I decided that I wanted one as a present to myself before we moved. But I was told by one of the other branches of the shop that the specific bag I wanted was only at Westgate.  In hindsight, it is ridiculous that I wanted that bag.  But I did.  

So Kristoffer and I talked about it.  I was afraid of going by myself and getting blown up.  Leaving my family without a wife and mother.  We had a RATIONAL, ADULT conversation about this.  And we decided in the end that if our whole family went together - Kristoffer, Lisa, Grace, and little Baby Noah - then should there be a terrorist attack right at that very moment we would at least all die together.  Literally.  We said those words aloud to each other.  And then we went!  A Friday afternoon when he was off of work a little early.  Drove over to Westgate.  Parked.  Ran inside all of us together, bought the leather bag, and left.  And yes, I realize how absolutely insane that sounds.  And I realize that before this week I don't think I ever told anyone that story.

That's the last time we went there, two years ago this November.

In general, I feel I have a complicated relationship with Nairobi.  We were happy when we lived there, but we were ready to leave when we did.  I miss the friends I had there (and doctors) but there is not much more that I really miss.  I wouldn't say that it is a city I specifically love (not in the way that, for example, I love New York or Boston), but it is a city that occupies a very big piece of my heart.  We were newlyweds there.  Our children were born there. So many big moments and firsts for us and for me in that place. It was a significant period of my life. I am not Kenyan, and will never claim to completely understand or know Kenyans.  But in four years I learned so much about Kenyans and their country. We shared some serious ups and downs.  There is no denying it.  And I took a piece of it/them with me when we left...just as I left a piece of myself there.  I know that is true.  

So with all of that as a backdrop to the Westgate terrorist attack, it has been an emotional week.  Nairobi is now on the list of places I have lived before they were attacked.  That is not a nice list.  New York.  Boston. Nairobi.  On all three occasions, my first thought was "What about {name that friend}?"  Unlike on 9/11, this time around I was able to pretty quickly account for people through Facebook and I remain so grateful that nobody were knew personally was injured or killed.  Although of course, they are all traumatized and not all of their friends and colleauges are okay.  Just as with New York and Boston, my next thought - selfish I know - was how easily it could have been me or us.  I am glad we don't live in Nairobi, especially now.  I am glad I don't have to explain to Grace and Noah what happened or why or how.  There is a little bit of innocence, for all of us, that I can protect a little bit longer.

But I am still grieving.  My heart breaks for the people who lived through those four horrible days, and it mourns for those who did not survive.  I pray for Kenyans and Nairobi residents to somehow find healing and peace in the weeks and months to come, especially knowing that so many questions will remain unanswered.  I hope that Kenya's government, who, if I am being honest, I don't trust in the least, will for once put the needs of their people above their own agendas to help the country process and heal and move forward.  

I have read about and truly been touched by so many acts of kindness and goodness in response to the disaster...truly that is the nature of most people in Kenya and in the world. To come together in times of need and help others.  In the face of such hatred and terror, I hope Kenya and the world will cling to that.


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