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.


Terror Threats in the Capital
January 11, 2012, 16:58
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Over the past several days, there has been a heightened state of alert in Nairobi for a threat of possible terror attacks. Initially, I wasn’t going to reference them in this blog, so as not to worry friends and family back home (hi, Dad), but it seems disingenuous to do so. Part of living abroad is experiencing everything that another country and culture has to offer, regardless of the specifics. Life in Nairobi is more than giraffe sightings and Caledonian balls – much more – and it would undermine the intent of this blog to ignore the aspects of life that are less than cheerful.

That being said, please don’t worry. The likelihood of a terror threat that I would be affected by actually occurring is miniscule. But I do think it should be acknowledged.

Mostly what I have been struck by is the chasm between what a “terror threat” signifies in the U.S. and how it is interpreted here. In the U.S., a “possible threat” is manifested by increasing the “terror alert level” color from always-threatened-yellow to really-threatened-orange, or, every so often, Armageddon-is-nigh red; electronic signs on the side of the highway urging individuals to report ambiguously-labeled “suspicious persons” to an unnamed authority; and frantic newscasters walking through subway stations with panicked voices.

In Nairobi, the approach is somewhat different.

The latest “threat” to the city and its surrounding areas is rooted in the escalating conflict between Kenya and Somalia – already, a very different “threat” than that which preoccupies the U.S., since the border is close and porous, and the conflict multifaceted and murky. According to various news organizations, two “most wanted Al-Qaeda terror suspects” have entered the country in recent days, “sparking a state of high alert within security agencies.”

As with most security threats here, the target has been described as “government offices, police stations, U.N. offices and agencies, as well as shopping centers and all areas where crowds gather or move.”

Basically, everywhere.

Particularly insidious is the amount of “threats” that turn out to be hoaxes – or so the police claim. It’s difficult to discern not only what information is reliable, but where it comes from, who it’s intended to reach, what – if anything – alerting the public with such vague details is supposed to accomplish. My post-9/11 cynicism leads me to believe that the procedure is a way of shifting blame away from the government, should an attack occur – a “we warned you” dissolution of responsibility – but the question that keeps coming back to me is: doesn’t that make the Powers That Be more responsible for the consequences of an attack? Ostensibly, they know there are two or more suspects in the country that they believe to be coordinating a large-scale show of violence – already being likened to the game-changing 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing – and yet the projected attitude is one of helplessness.

Whether or not the perceived threats come to fruition, it seems as if much of the damage has already been done merely by the rising tide of panic seeping out from local and foreign news services alike. If the public views an attack as not only imminent, but inevitable, I worry what retaliatory steps will be taken. I remember all too well the “preemptive,” “smoke em out of their holes” days of the Bush era, and fear the consequences of declaring “mission: completed” before the fight has even begun.

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