Making sense of the chaos in Kenya

The attack in Nairobi isn’t necessarily a proxy war against Western interests, writes scholar.

People from Kibera, Nairobi''s largest sl
There are many aspects to Kenya, and the recent attack is not just another woe is Africa story, writes Nyabola [AFP]

I hate it when an op-ed writer promises to have all the answers to a particular question, and then you get two-thirds of the way through and realise they have no idea what they’re talking about. So, to save you from that particular form of torment, allow me to declare up front: I have yet to make sense of the images and stories coming from my home city, Nairobi.

I only have information that is in the press: Late last night, a group pledging allegiance to al-Shabab, apparently led by a woman, took hostages at Westgate shopping mall, one of the most popular shopping malls in the country. As of this writing, 68 people are confirmed dead and several more are still being held hostage.

Like most middle-class Nairobians, I know Westgate mall well. Whenever friends visit me in Kenya, I take them on what I call my “Tale of Three Cities Tour” – comprising the school where I used to teach in the informal settlement of Kibera, the middle class suburb of Langata where I grew up, and  Westgate – to show them that Nairobi is a complex and diverse place. While most people expect a place like Kibera, Langata and Westgate always catch them off guard.

Kenyans – of all races and ethnicities – living, working and indulging in capitalist excess together? How? Indeed, the reality of middle-class life in Kenya is often a point of confusion.

I urge you to keep that image in mind because over the next few days there will be pages and pages of conflicting, contradictory and inflammatory messaging, particularly coming from newspapers and websites that don’t have enough money to pay to have correspondents on the ground, but still want to cover as many angles as possible for what is possibly another “woe is Africa” story. I may not know everything about this situation, but I do know three things that should help deal with the misinformation.

Kenya is not on the verge of implosion

There are many problems facing Kenya at the moment. Our deputy president is seeking an adjournment on his trial at the International Criminal Court to return to Kenya and help deal with the crisis. Struggles over land in Tana River and other parts of the country have killed many more than this hostage situation, and still persist, unresolved. Violence against women and inequality are driving the society apart. Quite frankly, we’re still recovering from the post-election violence in 2008.

Once the specificity of the incident is subsumed in the urgency of the “global war on terror”, our governments will waive responsibility and suspend our rights in the name of security, compounding the intensity of the tragedy. We should watch out for this.

However, beneath all the chaos are the stories that don’t sell newspapers or generate clicks per minute; stories that confirm that Kenyans continue to pull together in moments of crisis to help each other stumble along. Listen for the stories of people who waited five hours to donate blood at various hospitals and crisis centres throughout the city. Look out for photographs of police who arrived in uniform at the centres to do the same. Read about the immense wave of money contributed that slowed mobile money transfer systems. Watch for stories of emergency workers who have kept vigil alongside the officers working to end the standoff in Westgate. We Kenyans fight a lot, but like all brothers and sisters, when need arises, we band together.

This attack isn’t necessarily about the US, Europe, Iraq or Afghanistan

The Westgate Mall wasn’t necessarily targeted as some kind of proxy for the US or European interests. An argument is being made that because the mall was popular with expats, then by default, this is an attack on Western interests. Nairobians know that of all the malls in Kenya “popular with expats”, Westgate was probably a distant second or third. It is however, popular with Kenyans like me, who reject the cruelty of al-Shabab in Somalia, but also question US security policy in Africa. It’s not necessarily about religion either. Westgate, in many ways, was emblematic of the multiculturalism that makes Kenya extraordinary – look at the list of victims so far released; listen to the appeals for unity and from where they come. Terrorists may be simple, but their victims often aren’t.

Remember that Kenya has been instrumental in a mission to drive al-Shabab out of Somalia as part of the AMISOM (African Union Mission In Somalia) contingent. Our army periodically conducts missions across and along the troubled border. There were more Kenyans in that shopping mall than there were foreigners; relaxing, working, window-shopping.

Remember this, because the tragedy in Nairobi should not be conflated with a discussion about the situation in other parts of the world. Nor should it be used as an excuse for the Kenyan government to forget the many other on-going crises within the country. Once the specificity of the incident is subsumed in the urgency of the “global war on terror”, our governments will waive responsibility and suspend our rights in the name of security, compounding the intensity of the tragedy. We should watch out for this.

Your half-cooked opinion isn’t helping

By definition, terrorism is difficult to make sense of, given that it defies the instinct for self-preservation that is fundamental to modern society. So instead of offering a half-baked, sensationalist perspective that trivialises the sense of loss and devastation, let us quietly attempt to comprehend, while focusing on helping the many wonderful organisations like the Kenya Society of the Red Cross that are running emergency services and co-ordinating assistance to victims.

One final thing I do know is that Kenya isn’t exceptional because it is some bastion of peace – that narrative has long since been undermined – yet this attack is not Kenya. We are fascinating as a society because of our ability to pull together when all hope is apparently lost – that’s Kenya. There are many things that we get wrong, routinely and to devastating effect, but in moments like this where similarly positioned societies have crumbled, we have consistently emerged shaken, but stronger. We temporarily forget the things that divide us and somehow remember that we are all created equal, to give love and to be loved. Our national motto is “Harambee” – let us pull together – and we do; again, and again, and again. And the result is a thing of beauty. And that beauty? That’s Kenya.

Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst, is currently a graduate student at Harvard Law School.