We didn’t have wifi when it happened, but as soon as we woke up Sunday, September 22, another American at our hostel in Kampala, Uganda, informed us about the Al Shabab shootings at Westgate Mall in Nairobi the day before. She had been traveling around Kenya and Uganda doing academic research for a while.
“This scares me more than 9/11 did,” she said. “I mean, those weren’t very close to home for me,” — she was from the Midwest — “but Westagate Mall on a Saturday afternoon? Sure! If I had been in Nairobi, it’s very likely I would have been there.”
That seemed to be the part that got under people’s skin the most. The mall had been seen as a safe haven, free from the pickpocketing and street crime Nairobi is (unfortunately) notorious for — and it had been a place that we, as average nobodies, could have likely been. Learning about the shooting left a grim shadow on our day. We suddenly felt wary of crowded spaces and wanted to get out of the city.
When we eventually left the hostel, it seemed impossible to escape the news. We stared at a TV screen in a supermarket soon after four women escaped from the mall, and we stood still and attentive, silently listening as a reporter interviewed one of them.
- “God was with me…until about 11 o’clock when I locked myself in my office,” one of the women, a Kenyan, said. She looked tired and frazzled.
“How did you manage to escape?” Asked the reporter.
“I hid under a trolly.”
I was impressed. I don’t think that would’ve been my first instinct.
After a few minutes, we moved on, distracting ourselves with an art festival and lunch at a nice cafe, but still the TVs always seemed to be on somewhere in the background. Eventually, at dusk, a Kenyan band took the stage at the festival and called for a minute of silence.
“And thank you Kampala for all your support,” the singer said. The part of the audience who were paying attention clapped. It was the first moment I really felt Kampala, and possibly Uganda, were suffering through the tragedy with their neighbors.
A similar incident happened in 2010 in Kampala when a suicide bombing occurred during a heavily attended soccer match. Kenya stepped up to support their neighbor just as Uganda was doing for Kenya now. I realize the artificially drawn borders of the two countries never instantly made them two totally different places (they were drawn through tribal lines and it’s quite easy to find people from one tribe in both Kenya and Uganda), but nonetheless it warmed my heart to see such camaraderie and neighborly respect between two nations.
We left for the bush the next day.
By the time we came back, the death toll had risen to 72 and the mall had almost been cleared. Vendors selling newspapers in the streets shoved the headlines in our faces, held them up to our car window. I remember several images quite clearly, since unlike in America, it’s acceptable to put a gory photo on the front page of a newspaper in most other parts of the world. I remember one woman, who looked like she was screaming, lying face up on the ground. I remember another image of a police officer crawling on the floor pointing an AK-47 ahead of him, the body of a woman holding her purse (she looked like she had simply tripped and fallen) nearby.
I still felt ill at ease about the situation. We’d gotten word of increased security, and our plans only had us passing through Nairobi briefly, so I was never worried for my own personal safety. But having reminders of the shootings all around me made me constantly think, “Why would anyone see this as the right solution to any problem?”
Apparently, five days was enough time for others to feel just fine about it. At a comedy show later that evening, they were already making jokes.
“Oh my god, this would never happen with Ugandans. Ugandans could never be terrorists…you want to know why? Well you take a person from the coast and…” he proceeded to mock the laziness and lack of cooperation of certain tribes in Uganda (but in the Ugandan language, so I didn’t understand). I only understood one of the jokes, about one group of Ugandans who, if terrorists, would show up on the day of the suicide bombing and say, “Wait — whaat?!? I have to die for this?!? Then how am I going to get paid? No no, my family can’t get the money! I need to get the money!” If only they had been the ones hired on.
Several days later we were in Nairobi. Some family friends told me they had gone to a funeral that week for a relative of the president who had been killed in the mall.
- “Did you know anyone else?”
“Well, a friend’s daughter and her fiancé.”
Twelve hours later, an Indian man on our plane out of Kenya told us he’d eaten breakfast with his family at the mall that day, and a good friend of his had been shot in the leg as he crawled out of the building, only a few meters from freedom. Then he smiled, and wished us safe travels in Ethiopia.
That seemed to be enough information to disclose to two strangers, two outsiders to whom the tragedy would never belong, regardless of how deeply it affected us while we were there.