Since Saturday, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to my good friend Sachin Gathani about the tragedy at Westgate Mall in Nairobi. This was not only because he is a good friend, a Kenyan citizen, and an insightful analyst of Kenyan affairs. He was also personally affected: his family members escaped from the mall after spending harrowing hours hiding in the parking lot, where they had gone to see a children’s cooking competition. (Sachin currently lives in Kigali, Rwanda, but flew home to Nairobi almost immediately when the attack began.) In light of that, I found particular value in his carefully considered perspectives on the violence, which struck so close to home. We decided to to collaborate on this Q&A so that I could air some of his views.
Q: Your brother, sister-in-law, and 3 year-old nephew escaped Westgate Mall after being trapped for hours during the attack. Can you tell me a little about what happened, and how they got out?
My brother and his family were actually leaving Westgate Mall having taken my nephew to the play area and also to observe a children’s cooking competition. They were in the car park on the top floor when they heard gunshots and instinctively ran with a group of people to a corner where they huddled behind a few cars. They were stuck in this position for a number of hours and witnessed several people who were killed as they tried to escape the indiscriminate hail of bullets and the two grenades that were hurled at others who attempted escape. After about 3 hours, the military personnel managed to fight back the terrorists and formed a protective cordon to enable them to escape through a back entrance of the mall. While I am very thankful that they were unhurt, I know that the searing images of innocent bystanders getting killed in front of them will have left an indelible mark on them. No three year-old should have to witness that.
Q: It is obviously a huge relief that your family escaped, though I am sure they are very shaken up. Four of your acquaintances who were at Westgate on Saturday did not make it out, though. Can you tell me anything about that?
I have a very bittersweet feeling right now. While I am very relieved that my family made it out alive, I know a few friends that did not and were killed immediately during the attacks. I don’t think the details are necessary but as you can imagine it was quite emotional as the news of their deaths slowly trickled in through the course of Saturday and Sunday.
Q: Those of us glued to our computers through this entire episode are seeing a lot of amazing pictures of Kenyans coming together to volunteer, donate blood. I know you’ve been involved in that too. My sense is that you’ve channeled some of the emotional reaction to this tragedy into community action. Do you think the same is true for others?
It has been really humbling to see how the community has come together to volunteer, donate blood, feed the military personnel and medical volunteers, raise money for victims, etc. I can’t recall a similar moment in Kenya’s history whereby I have seen such solidarity except immediately after 1998 US Embassy bombings (which killed at least 212 people), which really shook Kenyans and brought them together as one people. And there are several communities I can refer to here: the Asian community that has mobilized their community volunteer service groups, the Muslim community that has condemned the violence which was purportedly committed in the name of Islam, the broader Nairobian community that responded and waited hours in line to donate blood and our brothers and sisters in cities like Nyeri and Kisumu who also donated blood and money for their fellow Kenyans in the capital. So, yes — and I think it’s an accurate way to frame it – I do think that the Kenyan community has channeled their emotional reaction into community action. My concern is with the aftermath. Once some semblance of normalcy returns to Nairobi after a few harrowing days, how are we then going to channel the lingering emotional reaction of this tragedy? There is a danger of a reactionary response by our government and by our communities.
Q: Kenya has been through so many divisive events in the last few years, among them communal violence linked to the elections in 2007. Do you have a sense of what this moment means for Kenyan national unity? Might the community reaction we’re seeing with volunteers and the like translate into a refreshed sense of purpose for the political class — even a squashing of some differences?
I think it is too early to define this as a watershed moment in terms of Kenyan unity – we have been here before with the 1998 bombings. But let us also recall that less than 5 years ago, our post-election violence pitted neighbors against each other and resulted in over 1,100 deaths. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Westgate tragedy has reawakened Kenya, as one commentator I read put it. The words of President Kenyatta were refreshing when he expressed how humbled he was by the generosity and selfless sacrifice displayed by Kenyans that he felt even more committed to ensure that his government delivers because that is what its citizens deserve. But it is important – and maybe controversial – that we put Westgate into context and examine why this tragedy has had such resonance across the country and the world and what it may mean about a refreshed sense of purpose by the political elites. I am cognizant of the problem of framing this as a tragedy that primarily affected middle-upper income Kenyans and wealthy expats, given the number of Kenyans of various working class backgrounds that also lost their lives. But it is also accurate to say that this tragedy has affected the elite of the Kenyan polity in ways that previous Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya did not. In 2011, the first known Al-Shabaab attack, was a bombing at a blue-collar bar in downtown Nairobi and at a bus terminal. Other similar attacks occurred through 2012 in the Ngara neighbourhood of Nairobi, a nightclub and sports bar in Mombasa and several other smaller attacks in the predominantly Somali neigbourhood of Eastleigh (Nairobi), Garissa and Wajir (in the north near the Somali border). While Westgate was much larger and more prolonged in terms of the terror inflicted than previous Al-Shabaab attacks, the reality is that the number and profile of casualties inflicted in the past few days (the list includes President Uruhu Kenyatta’s nephew, Ghana’s most famous poet and intellectual leader, a prominent Australian architect and his Harvard-educated wife, a Peruvian UNICEF doctor, Kenyan businessmen, young Nairobi professionals and several diplomats) will definitely result in a decisive action by the political class. How this reaction manifests itself, I am not too sure but it is something we should be wary of.
Q: You also told me you are hearing a lot of “scary, reactionary” comments from people. It reminds me of some of the things that we heard in the United States after 9/11. Can you explain that more and give some examples? As someone who was directly affected by this tragedy — lost friends in it, had a near miss with your own family — can you empathize with such reactions? What do you have to say to people are advocating retaliation?
I understand where these reactions are coming from. I may have been guilty of it too when I first heard of my family’s ordeals and later about my friends. I’ve heard reactionary comments denouncing the Islamic faith for such barbarism, calls for ‘smoking out the Somalis’ from Eastleigh, demanding a final military solution to the Somalia problem, building walls along the border, etc. And this brings me back to my earlier point. I hope that we do not quickly forget the solidarity we have demonstrated and revert to nationalistic jingoism or religious persecution that targets and vilifies people of Somali origins or Muslims. Similarly, I also hope our political class use this as a moment of reflection as they consider a sober and strategic response.
Q: After 9/11, grief-stricken Americans reacted with anger and many supported military actions which later seemed to have questionable effectiveness, or turned out to be huge mistakes, as in the case of Iraq. At the same time, it caused many Americans to become a bit more engaged and aware of their country’s role in global politics, and the way they were perceived in many parts of the world. Do you think there are any analogies to be made with Kenyans — especially as regards to their country’s role in Somalia?
With all due respect, I think Kenyans were already a very politically-engaged people and I don’t think the Westgate episode will have the same effect of political engagement that 9/11 did for Americans. Kenyans, and many other people from the developing world, cannot afford the luxury of ignoring our country’s role in geopolitics because we are probably affected more directly by geopolitical machinations than other Western countries. With regards to 9/11, there is a danger of using history by analogy but the comparison – and lessons learned from the reaction – to 9/11 is fair. Firstly, I do hope there is a better and more nuanced understanding of our role in Somalia and the history of radical movements like Al-Shabaab, starting with the removal of the Islamic Courts of Union in Somalia by Ethiopia/US and the subsequent radicalization of the extremist elements that sought to defeat the intervening foreigners through any means necessary. Understanding the history and context of these problems will allow us to chart a political solution, and not only a military solution. Secondly, what we can learn from 9/11 is that Kenyans need to be more vigilant about the over-reach of the executive on security-related matters, which is understandable and likely given what has just taken place.
Q: What can people do to help at this point, both inside and outside of Kenya?
For people outside Kenya, I would say continue supporting people you know who are dealing the loss of loved ones or are dealing with trauma that they may have faced. I personally have been touched and overwhelmed by the support of so many friends and acquaintances around the world who have reached out to check in on how my family and I are doing. For people inside Kenya, I know that the hospitals and Kenya Red Cross blood banks are at full capacity given the remarkable display of generosity over the past few days. We have also raised more than Ksh 57million [around US$ 700,000 and counting] via M-pesa donations for the victims. Going forward, I just hope that we can remember this moment of what makes Kenyans Kenyan as we enter into this critical period of reacting to Westgate and demonstrate our ability to move beyond reactionary responses.
Q: Any links you want to share to things you’re reading/watching/paying attention to as you follow this crisis?
There are plenty of articles and blogs on the internet and newspapers recounting blow by blow accounts of survivors’ ordeal that demonstrate the horror inflicted at Westgate. But these are a selection of the items that I think are some of the best reflections of what happened and implications for the future:
Kenya Reawakened by Gathara — one of the best pieces I’ve read on our response and patriotism
What Next for Kenyan Policy on Somalia by Ken Opalo — one of Kenya’s best political analysts summarizing future Kenyan policy on Somalia
Senseless [and Sensible] Violence: Mourning the Dead at Westgate Mall by Mahmood Mamdani
Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, and the Folly of “Otherness” — What Al-Shabaab Revealed about Us by Charles Onyango-Obbo — Ugandan writer on framing the Westgate tragedy
Making Sense of the Chaos in Kenya by Nanjala Nyabola — Kenyan grad student’s initial reflections on the crisis
Sachin, thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions, not all of which can be easy to ponder with the situation so fresh.