For my birthday I just wanted something simple, a trip to the local shopping mall to get a slice of pizza and some frozen yogurt. A simple slice of home. Instead, I got a lockdown.
I wasn’t at Westgate. Village Market is another western style mall I mentioned in a previous post, that’s where I was planning to head to celebrate 24 (which feels exponentially older than 23). I’ve never been to Westgate, but a friend of mine went there the week before the attack and bought me a shirt that says “Mzungu” across the front. I’m not sure how I would have reacted had the mall been Village Market instead. It is located along the only major road between me and the US Embassy.
I had been in Naivasha all day on the 21st, visiting a recovery organization for commercial sex workers. That night, before I headed to a birthday party of a friend, I checked my Facebook. There were a few messages waiting for me from concerned friends. Then I checked my email. It was FULL of security alerts.
To be clear, I get security alerts every day. They come in a list of all major events across the continent of Africa. Usually I skim through, read in detail anything about Kenya, and delete the email. This time it was ALL about Kenya, including messages directly from the Embassy.
I was shaken, more than the other international students I was with. They convinced me that al-Shabaab had no reason to be in Kibuku or Limuru, so I went to the party. I asked if I should go back and get my passport since we were going outside the gates of campus. One friend said jokingly, “Your skin is your passport. Stop worrying.” I called my mom that night so she would know for sure I was safe.
The next morning, the situation was still going on. I ate breakfast alone, watching the news coverage.
Here’s a definite difference between the US and Kenya. I imagine the coverage in the US showed violent images of victims, crowds fleeing the mall and police officers with machine guns (which they all carry, not just “special forces”). In Kenya the coverage on day two of the attacks consisted of a video feed showing the street outside the mall, a list of phone numbers people could call for information about family members, a death count and in the lower right hand corner, gospel music videos. Mind, every Sunday morning they play gospel music videos, but not even a terrorist attack would interrupt the vigor of this country’s Sabbath day. Bet al-Shabaab loved that.
The Kenyan newspaper, the Daily Nation, was highly criticized and fired an editor for use of a violent image as the Sunday front page. Kenya was in mourning, but it would not sensationalize the grief. As Buzzfeed pointed out, the New York Daily News ran the same image with no criticism whatsoever.
The emails from the embassy kept coming. Stay in your houses. Don’t move unnecessarily. Avoid “soft” targets like tourist attractions, transport hubs and shopping malls. Don’t use public transport. Stop calling the Embassy unless it’s truly an emergency. I spent my birthday on lock down, too nervous to even venture out for a queen cake at the bakery across the road until this situation was resolved.
A week before I had told a classroom of 8th grade students about the peaceful origins of Islam, the common misunderstandings of jihad, the specific contexts of Muslim warfare. ”Kenya is a perfectly safe place to be studying Islam,” I’d told them. I’m beginning to wonder if putting my foot in my mouth is one of my spiritual gifts.
But everything about the attack was uncharacteristic for attacks in Kenya. It was in the heart Nairobi, not in a primarily Muslim neighborhood, not near a border, not on the coast. It wasn’t a fully Western target, not an embassy, not a hotel. Most of the victims are Kenyan. This time, Kenya was the target. And there was a WOMAN in some kind of leadership role. The more I learned, the more concerned I became. It feels as if the game has changed.
Monday morning the hostage situation continued. What I couldn’t understand was why it was taking so long to end this. Terrorists do not go into these things planning to come out alive. So why haven’t they just blown it up yet? And how long does it take to get MI6 or the Navy Seals out here to end this thing? Israeli special forces arrived, to answer that question for me. There was so much uncertainty on details and reports, I eventually just stopped following the news asked at meals if it was over yet.
We spent Monday in class debriefing how we felt. Confused. Frustrated. Confirmed in the importance of our work in Christian-Muslim Relations. We each recounted the stories of friends and family calling to make sure we were safe. Four out of six in my cohort are international students. My colleague from Nigeria lamented that this is how he felt every week, not sure if the grenade would fly through the chapel window this service or next. Emotionally, I felt very much the same as hearing reports of mass shootings in the US, but I clearly vocalized my determination that we not allow all of Islam to be grouped in with these maniacs.
We took a break for chapel. The preacher stated during his sermon the absolutely WRONG thing. “This is a Holy War. They are going to try to convince you that it is not, but these attacks are because of Islam.” I almost stood up in my chair and vocally protested. Islamophobia is the LAST thing this country needs, and certainly the last thing frightened Christian students need to be hearing. A decade of watching Islamaphobia play out in my own country and learning about the century of Muslim-American tensions that further fueled it is exactly why I am here. The struggle of convincing American congregations that by supporting Muslim refugees, they are not harboring terrorists. Extremism and greed sent our troops to “the sandbox”, not hijabs and Ramadan. The preacher’s statement had been ignorant, and I am here to help battle this specific ignorance that has led to many hateful and violent actions in my own country.
My classmate from Mombassa was equally as enraged at the remark. Our lecturer encouraged us to open up a dialogue. Thursday afternoons are reserved for public lectures, so we are planning an evening to straighten out all of the questions that students have about Islam, terrorism and al-Shabaab. We are hoping to have a Muslim scholar from the Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh come as well. It feels good to know that we can do something real, even if it’s just here on campus.
But the situation is far from over. The State Department has issued a new travel advisory for Kenya. The places I had hoped to visit to interact with the Muslim community are marked as off limits. Someone mentioned I might want to avoid town for a while as I “slightly resemble that mzungu terrorist.”
My closest friend was scared to take me into town, so I’ve spent the weekend in my room marathoning tv series (you can get them bootleg for 50 ksh a disc) and haphazardly prepping for a paper on the history and influence of Islam in America. Two weekends in a row I’ve felt completely unproductive.
I was just beginning to work up the courage to make short trips alone, but that confidence has been obliterated by everyone else’s fear. Not to say I’m not afraid myself, though not any more than I ever was walking home alone in South Central LA. But until things calm down, I’m stuck here on campus. Feeling a bit frustrated that I’ve come thousands of miles to see the same 20 acres.
I’m beginning to question my choice to be here alone. I am not afraid of being in dangerous places. I am not afraid of correcting misinformation, fighting misconceptions and forcing people into uncomfortable situations of honest conversation. But it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be to do it without an anchor. At least on that walk home in LA, my roommate would do something if I never made it home. But I go days here without anyone checking in on me. The campus empties out on the weekends and now even my friends here are a little scared that being with me creates a greater risk of violence, retaliatory or otherwise. There are already buzzing rumors that the whole thing was a hoax to strengthen Kenya’s relations with the West. I’m simultaneously the aggressor and the victim, depending on who’s looking at me. I can handle awkward or even scary situations, but the isolation I’ve been forced into by these events has been the most frightening thing of all.
The night before I left, a new friend sent me the note to check out Joshua 1:9,
“This is my command- be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
An excellent verse, I have no doubt God has been present with me through every moment of this experience. But His main mode of communication requires me to be introspective and contemplative, and there is only so much quiet time and meditation this extrovert can stand. Here’s praying for someone to be courageous enough to take me on an adventure soon, or even just to Nakumatt to restock my coffee and cookie supply. And please continue to pray for Kenya to be united as they start the difficult process of healing and reconciliation.
Peace and Blessings,