letters from nairobi


Waiting to Exhale
September 23, 2013, 17:48
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Westgate

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.

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On the Election
February 28, 2013, 11:32
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In Nairobi, four days before the election, the tension is palpable.

The city is blanketed with scrawled graffiti and an endless repetition of low-budget political posters, one stiffly posed smiling man indistinguishable from the next. On street corners and in parking lots, trailer trucks wallpapered with campaign stickers blast deafening music to rally supporters. (The purpose of these so-called rallies remains unclear, as most of the gathered crowd can be seen sitting on the ground, eating ugali and drinking soda, and looking utterly bored.) In shop windows, typed notices inform customers of upcoming closures “due to elections” – some, hopeful, announce closures of only one day to coincide with the official holiday, but many others, less optimistic, announce closures of a week or more.

In coffee shops and mutatus, grocery store queues and board rooms, there is only one topic of conversation – and one question being asked: will there be violence? Or, more pointedly, how bad will it be this time? On this topic, opinions vary widely – no one wants a repetition of the 2007-2008 disaster, when close to a thousand people were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the country plunged into social and economic chaos that continues to reverberate today. But whether or not enough time has passed, and enough change has occurred, to ensure that this election remains peaceful is a contentious debate.

“We Kenyans have learned from our mistakes. What happened last time will not happen again,” my taxi driver assures me. But what about the reports of machetes being bought in droves from supermarkets? A pause. “Better to be prepared this time. Just in case,” he says.

Despite the mounting hysteria, evinced mostly by foreigners, aid workers, and ex-pats who are fleeing the country in advance of the election and following melodramatic “emergency preparedness” decrees (“prepare a ‘go bag’ with emergency supplies including dental records, power of attorney, moist towelettes, and a signaling whistle”) the majority of Kenyans seem cautious but hopeful that this will be a relatively peaceful election.

The world is watching, this time around. But whether or not that will be enough to stop history from repeating itself remains to be seen.




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