letters from nairobi

Waiting to Exhale
September 23, 2013, 17:48
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Six months ago, Kenya was prepared for violence.

All across the country, from the savannas of the Rift Valley to the sea-drenched sands of the coast, people were bracing themselves for the possibility of bloodshed following a tense and highly disputed presidential election. Four and a half years earlier, post-election violence left more than a thousand corpses in its wake and hundreds of thousands of families homeless, many of whom still reside in ‘temporary’ resettlement tents that dot the countryside.

In the days leading up to the election, cupboards were stocked, barrels of drinking water tucked away, and emergency supplies inventoried. Countless foreigners and expatriates fled to neighboring countries as a cautionary measure at the same time that international journalists and election observers flooded in. There was a palpable collective inhale of breath as votes were counted, re-counted, and re-counted again. For days, the capital city came to a standstill. The only movement was the sun’s slow arc across the sky and the rustling of acacia leaves in the trees.

And then, slowly, the country exhaled.

The election results were challenged, but instead of machetes and torches, the weapons of protest this time around were courtrooms and ballot boxes. One candidate was chosen. Foreign journalists intent on capturing a political frenzy departed, trying not to be disappointed at the unified, peaceful proceedings. Expats trickled back in. The threat, it seemed, was past.

And now, as I write this just half a year later, Westgate mall is under siege. In the distance, black smoke billows up into the late-afternoon sky, staining the clouds. Inside the mall, approximately a dozen assailants hold sway over an unknown number of hostages who have been trapped for three days as Kenyan military forces battle for control of the area. Reports are vague and contradictory. What we do know is that the death toll is currently 67 and will most likely rise as bodies are recovered. Hundreds have been injured. And the Somali Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack.

As an expat living in Nairobi, I often feel like I inhabit a liminal state – I live here, but not permanently; I empathize with Kenyans, but I am not Kenyan; I love this country, but it isn’t home. And the expat community in Nairobi is in many ways its own, insular little universe; we overlap in strange and comforting ways. But there remains a gentle, subtle buffer between expats and native Kenyans, a cushion that I am always aware of and aim to treat with respect and deference: this is your country; it is not mine.

The siege on Westgate has shifted my perspective, widening the lens. The victims in the attack aren’t strange actors, trapped in some impossibly far away country, tangled in a complex web of politics and violence. They are innocent, ordinary people – mothers and daughters, housewives and poets and bankers and waiters. One of the victims is a regular at the yoga studio I frequent; another is a childhood friend of my best friend here. One of my friends decided at the last minute not to make the turn into the parking lot and make lunch for her kids at home instead; another was trapped for several hours as gunshots echoed through the building. There is no difference between any of us – it could have easily been me at the mall that day. Perhaps it almost was.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, as details emerge and the events of the attack are analyzed, I can only hope that the country remains as united as it has been in the last six months and doesn’t resort to retributive violence against the already marginalized Somali community. Kenyans rose above the expectations that plagued them once when conflict seemed imminent, and I am certain that this too can be overcome.

Now it’s just a matter of time; of waiting to exhale.


54 Comments so far
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Hannah, what a well-written, heart-felt piece. You made me suffer and grieve w/ you. Innocence lost? Perhaps not, just another rude (and painful) awakening. i fell in love w/ Kenya when we visited earlier this year–I’m so sorry this happened.

Comment by Mari Martinez

Thanks for sharing, Hannah. Your piece resonates deeply with me and also with my friends with whom I’ve shared it. Thankful that you weren’t there that day!

Comment by tito travels


Comment by spokenlight

Hannah, thank you for this much needed perspective–an antidote to the analysis from above and outside. In a small way, you’ve brought to our attention just how much violence is what focuses our attention. I hope, as you note, there are other responses worthy of note in the aftermath. –Mara

Comment by M. Schoeny

Very heartfelt!

Comment by Stuart M. Perkins

So sad what is happening in Kenya! Thanks for sharing this blog!

Comment by segmation

There is no way to stop this unless everyone watches everyone who is a stranger and it is severely monitored. Open boarders leads to anyone moving around with good or bad intentions.

Comment by awax1217

What an incredibly well written piece. I read it three times.

I spent 6 months living just outside of Nanyuki town at an all-girls boarding school called the Daraja Academy of Kenya (daraja-academy.org). Ironically, the American in me often felt most comfortable at Westgate. Hey– shopping! Western food! The Nakumatt is almost a Target lol

The Kenyan people…. they are strong. And proud. And brave and connected, despite the divide and conquer mentality many have tried to utilize to oppress them.

It is my hope that this event will not stop tourists from visiting, and expats from making this beautiful country a temporary home, as I did.

Thank you for sharing your insight. I look forward to more pieces about the beautiful country I once called my temporary home.

Comment by ashley nicole.

This is a wonderful piece…Kenya is my country and the siege just brought us together..united us and we forgot completely that we are from different backgrounds,race,tribes…

Comment by galwithfaith

Thanks for the post!! Nice article

Comment by Harsha MP

First, I hope everything will gonna be over and turn to peace situation. Whatever caused it, (just like I copied from yours below) :

“They are innocent, ordinary people – mothers and daughters, housewives and poets and bankers and waiters”

Civilian will be always threatened by political ambition, Africa and everywhere.

Comment by evsetia

I feel helpless, being in Finland, it would be easy to brush off a news headline in a far away country… But I feel sadness, at the situation.. And not knowing if there’s anything I can do but watch on the sideline.

Comment by lauraeflores

Whatever happened in the Westgate Mall was disheartening. It is strange that the accused never realizes that they would achieve nothing killing innocent people. Same thing happened in India in 2011 in Hotel Taj in Mumbai.

Very nicely written.

Comment by A. Mittal

Thank you for this insight Hannah. It is so easy to make distance between ourselves and the catastrophe that happens to others. I have been attempting to explore this in my blog Twice the Speed of Dark. Your lines completely underscore – with real experience – my wish to make the dead real. People with lives, loves, families, ordinary, flawed and beautiful. Though my focus is not specifically recent events in Kenya, I would be really interested in your response (http://twicethespeedofdark.com) as I have felt an awkwardness in engaging with things from the safety of Brighton, knowing that all there is to call on is empathy, not knowledge. But it still is important to me to make the attempt. It doesn’t help anyone in the middle of such dreadful atrocity, but it is necessary to see them as people, not statistics. Too dreadfully sad.

Comment by Lulu Allison

Thank You!

Comment by lizmash

Thank you so much for sharing this. Disheartening, yet so many of us in the USA are unaware. Your article brings awareness…

Comment by debralambers

Beautiful article. Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m not sure how to feel after these attacks and the attacks in Nigeria more recently. I feel despair but I WANT to feel hope and be encouraged because life has gone on after these attacks. Mostly I feel helpless as this is a reminder that it could happen to anyone and there is no way to predict it or prevent it.

Comment by thamimzolo

Reblogged this on edwinkotut and commented:
the modern farming answer to the future hunger threat

Comment by edwinkotut

Reblogged this on Itchy Hand.

Comment by itchyhaands

Couldn’t have put it better – amazing blog and a well presented insight.
Undoubtedly the saddest disaster i have ever had to face. I am a Kenyan in diaspora – and being so far away from my loved ones and my nation when they needed me the most has certainly left me broken – with sleepless nights, loss of appetite… but believe me when i say this – our spirits as Kenyans will rise again
Thank you for sharing this and i hope Kenya has the prayers of my fellow bloggers

Comment by ferozanawab

Reblogged this on WE BLOG ! and commented:
So sad!

Comment by Nicola Nigri

Nothing more violence!

Comment by Nicola Nigri

[…] Waiting to Exhale. […]

Pingback by Waiting to Exhale | Association Of Engineering Students - Technical University of Kenya

Many years ago, when Kenya was a newly independent nation, I met President Jomo Kenyatta on the docks in Mombasa. The occasion was the presentation of a champion American bull to the people of Kenya to cross-breed with the native cattle population and introduce new strains of genes. I reflected on that as I watched the Westgate attack unfold in the news reports. President Jomo Kenyatta had been a leader of the Mau Mau insurgency that hastened the end of colonization, a hero of Kenya but reviled for violence in the Western press during the struggle for independence. Here he was, gracious, friendly, and welcoming at that dockside ceremony. The Westgate attack is horrid. But as I watched the news, I wondered if there is a Jomo Kenyatta among the attackers, or are they all vicious people intent on revenge, psychopaths uncaring about the people and families they devastate? And how would we ever know? The world seems sadder, not better, in the years since I met Jomo Kenyatta on the docks and the new Kenya emerged with so much hope and energy.

Comment by Karl Drobnic

Reblogged this on 1florida.

Comment by 1florida

I was there four and a half years ago, an international journalist writing about Kenya’s great strides in sustainable tourism. The day I left was Election Day, and its crazy violence.
The editor wanted to cancel the story on the grounds that Kenya was too dangerous … We arm-wrestled over it. I had been to Kenya before — the violence was temporary, a political glitch, nothing that involved tourists or tourism, I insisted. I won; the story ran.

I can’t tell you how saddened I am by the terrorism at Westgate Mall. It is so perverse, so pointless, so cowardly. Most bizarrely, Kenyatta and al-Shabab ended up fighting it out on Twitter. Well, at least they were using their words …. I wish Kenya well. Even from very far away, I care.

Comment by Sara Godwin

What this world is coming to is a scary nightmare that will hopefully pass very soon

Comment by katrinaonpaper

This is an amazing read. I quiet literally half a world away from you, I have never know violence in my streets. Never have I seen a seige or riot and I cannot imagine being in a world so close to rupture. You have opened my eyes to your world and my heart goes out to you and the people that surround you. I pray that you and your loved ones stay safe.

Comment by huntingwag

Your post let us see what happened in Kenya. Thank you for sharing and I hope for love and peace for all of us.

Comment by jamharl

The sad part of this tragedy was the fact that so many Nairobians lost someone or something because the city is so small that we all knew someone directly/indirectly who happened to be at the mall and passed on/ got injured or is missing.

Comment by gnovember

Reblogged this on onuuburu's Blog and commented:

Comment by onuuburu

Truly touching! Its almost as if I have lost loved ones there. Lets hop that it stops there.

Comment by hello597

[…] Waiting to Exhale. […]

Pingback by Waiting to Exhale | Beaconhouse Liberty Campus Lahore

So sad what happened in kenya. kenya has always been a peaceful nation and amazing tourist attraction. . May your inner beauty & love rise above this hate and terror. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by emekatalks

Reblogged this on Emekatalks.

Comment by emekatalks

Reblogged this on ystungar's Blog and commented:

Comment by ystungar

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Comment by ystungar

Reblogged this on xortesttesttest's Blog and commented:

Comment by xortesttesttest

How sad for Nairobi and its citizens. I always felt safe there and enjoyed the city with all it had to offer.
Poleni sana watu wote

Comment by The Hopeful Herbalist

As i read this I sit in my comfortable home in the mid west, I last night read the natgeo article about the Congo. I forget to be great full that the insanity is so far away and than I think of 9/11 and it’s not that far away really. well done thank you

Comment by auburngraydesigns

Reblogged this on MUSHENE-254 and commented:
this was really sad as we passed through the situation at hand under painful hearts but thank Gog all is getting to normal

Comment by Mushen 254


Nothing can bring us down. Despite the post-election violence, we rose again. We really prayed; and I for sure was not expecting any violence in the last General Election. I am a hopeful citizen.

The post-Westgate trauma is becoming even more depressing to live with, as if we hadn’t seen enough, too much contradictory information too much pain to deal with the half truths, analysis after another, the blame game..it’s just too much.

Kenya is the land I know, the beautiful sceneries and many tribes; of people who interact peacefully despite a few corrupt leaders trying to separate us.
We have made great strides, and we shall rise above this *Exhales*.

Thank you Hannah.

Comment by queerisme

Reblogged this on contengan nafihan.

Comment by nafihan

Kenyans, you need to exercise restraint because violent reaction will worsen the tensed atmosphere. Be resillient and not restive.

Comment by manny20132013

Thank You So Much, For Sharing This!

Comment by IgorSkyFlyer

Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
— J.W.

Comment by Jackson Williams

Thanks for sharing. Your piece is well written and heartfelt. I pray that God send His spirit of peace to those involved. God bless you!!

Comment by kayallbright

[…] Waiting To Exhale […]

Pingback by Freshly Riffed 51: It’s All Over, And I’m Standin’ Pretty | A VERY STRANGE PLACE

Reblogged this on cheluvsyou78.

Comment by feelinirie420

Distribution of amenities in a country should care for all without any discrimination. A sojourner is obliged to show respect for the life and property of his host

Comment by manny20132013

Beautiful post 🙂 I miss my beloved Kenya.

Comment by Anne

Well done Hannah what a wonderful well written piece,my love for Kenya and the People of Kenya is beyond measure and am sure and so positive this beautiful country will continue to grow together and continue to make Kenya one Great, Great Country.

Comment by fashioncompliments

Really informative article post thanks for sharing.

Comment by indiaflightsfromlondon

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