The Audacity of Nairobi

Rachel Pieh Jones reflects on the Kenyan capital, before and after the attack

By / October 2013

I visited Kenya in 2008, just after the American presidential election. People shouted “Obama, Obama” at me. They were cheerful and hope-filled and good-natured. There was the feeling that the president’s victory was also Kenya’s. Obama’s father, after all, had hailed from a Kenyan village. In Uchumi Grocery Store one man asked me to buy him a copy The Audacity of Hope. He spoke of how we had the same president, how we were brother and sister now.

I visited Kenya again in 2009. In the months since my previous visit, post-election violence had shredded the nation and revealed deep fissures across ethnic lines. The chaos had passed but the grief and shock still stung. Music in taxis and radio talk shows and billboards faced the horror head-on, challenging people to forgive, to use words not weapons, to choose the hard path of peace. People were sobered but hope, though shaken, lingered.

In 2013 I visited Kenya again. This time elections had gone peacefully. The Kenyans I met walked proud. They had entered a period of potential violence and come out the other side unscathed, with dignity and courage and peace. Not everyone was happy with the results but the violence of 2009 didn’t repeat and the buoyant Kenyan spirit was revived.

I visited Kenya again in October 2013. I should have landed at the familiar international arrivals terminal. I should have known instinctively where to walk to apply for my visa and find my baggage. But the international terminal had burned down in August. Now the domestic terminal and a series of massive tents make up the airport. The hollowed, haunting, charred structures are under construction.

I almost cried in the taxi. I had already been crying for Kenya for two weeks. Not because of the airport but because of the shopping mall. Hushed conversations had begun in the waiting lounge of the Djibouti airport. The conversations grew more dynamic and louder the closer we got to Nairobi. On the bus from the plane to the makeshift terminal, two Kenyan men recounted stories and seemed to shout the grief-thick word: “Westgate, Westgate.”

My taxi driver described empty parking lots in the week following the violent terror attack. He also told me that Kenyans, at least the newspaper reflection of Kenyans, had moved on and were now consumed with conversations about the International Criminal Court and their sitting President, Uhuru Kenyatta.

While the news gives the impression that Kenyans have moved on, a palpable shift has occurred. The government is more aggressively pursuing the resettlement of Dadaab refugee camp in the northeast, moving people back to Somalia. There are more policemen, now bearing guns, on street corners and in the parking lots of shopping malls. Security checks have increased in frequency and thoroughness. The line of cars outside the church I attended stretched for long minutes while three guards scoured each trunk and glove compartment and ran scanners beneath vehicles.

The friends I stayed with in Nairobi hosted a barbecue and their six-year old daughter had a suggestion. “Wouldn’t it be fun,” she asked, “to check under the cars of our friends when they arrive? Not because they would bring bombs in, but just for fun?”

People adapt. Life alters and continues. Kids playing dollhouse post armed guards outside plastic toy homes, imagining it might be a game to check for explosives. Parents return to grocery stores and kids go back to school, families eat out at restaurants, go to church, see a movie. But they are searched on the way in and they go home with a new thought undergirding the shopping list or movie thrill or the taste of red wine at the restaurant. “I’m alive,” they think and the thought brings subtle relief, and a pang of terror.

Because just a few weeks ago families attended a children’s cooking competition at Westgate or ran an errand for milk and eggs or needed a haircut–and more than seventy people never came home, the bullet-strewn mall crumbling around them. I watched the news and then stepped into a Nakumatt and images of bodies and blood and shattered glass lay like ghosts by the elephant statue, the cashiers, the cereal aisle. A month ago considerations of life and death weren’t part of daily routines.

The headlines in the newspapers change from Obama to elections to airports to terror to the ICC but tragedy and horror do not transition so easily. I think this is how it should be. The world keeps turning and part of healing is waking up, breathing deep, and deciding to turn with it. Because the grief also turns, weaves itself into the fabric of Kenya’s story.

From what I have seen of Kenya, it is a story that will not cower before terrorists but a story that will urge peace and ethnic reconciliation. It may be a precarious narrative. Like the story of every nation, it has not yet arrived at the ever-illusive happy ending, but the Kenyans I know are people who dare to live with the audacity of hope.

 

Rachel Pieh Jones is a writer living in Djibouti. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Running Times. She blogs at djiboutijones.com.

 

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