Saturday, September 20, 2014

We Are One: The Westgate Tragedy, A Year On

One year ago, my world came to a standstill. News started pouring in of a terrorist attack just one or two minutes away from my home in Nairobi. Hostages were taken in one of the upscale malls in the neighbourhood, and the rest of the world watched horrified and helpless. I remember exactly when I heard about it... it was a Saturday morning, and I was asleep. For some reason, I woke up to check my phone, and was assaulted by news from BBC and CNN about a 'terrorist attack in Kenya'. Needless to say, I was terrified.

Soon enough, I checked messages on my phone and discovered that my family was fine; while this was the mall that we went to every weekend for grocery shopping and other errands, by some divine stroke of luck, this was the one weekend none of my family members needed to go. Yet, there were others I knew in the area... friends, family friends, people I went to school with. I remember being shocked as I saw one of my family friends fleeing the scene covered in blood. (Here's his story A Survivor's Story) The news and the horror didn't fade... this was a multi day operation, and so many lives were lost. I remember toward the end hearing that some of the rescue forces were actually prolonging the situation, and looting the mall. It sickened me. The whole thing sickened me. I was numb for days, and couldn't understand how I was expected to function normally. Yet, I went to class. I went to work. Most of my closest friends and mentors knew what was going on, and were such a great source of support. I don't think I'd have made it through that week sane without them.

While those closest to me in Sewanee held me through what was going on, it was still strange to be so far from home in a place where most people didn't know what was going on. Or if they did, they had no idea how close to home it hit. When I meet new people now and tell them I'm from Kenya, they still ask about Westgate.

I remember when I heard that the situation was over, I went into the chapel on campus and sat still for about a half hour. At some point, it felt like the tears wouldn't stop and the healing would never begin.

But it did. What amazed and humbled me about this tragedy is the way it brought ordinary Kenyans together. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, no matter where we were, we showed a united front and supported each other. Sure, this isn't always the case. But I do think that to some extent, this unity lasted, and showed us all how something powerful could emerge from something broken. Not just Kenyans, but people the world over showed their support in various ways... by holding candlelight vigils, by leaving flowers at the embassy, by checking in, and by doing numerous other things.


I ordered these wristbands for myself, and gave one each to one of my sisters and one of my best friends. I guess I hoped that they would serve as a reminder of how strong Kenyans can be, and how important it is to appreciate life, and they do.




It's been a year now, and it's still scary to think about. We lost a lot of innocent lives who didn't deserve to go that way. We're still healing from what happened, and it's going to be a long process. Westgate is boarded up and lies still as a grim reminder of the horrific events of that week. But I have faith in us. I have faith in Kenyans and our greater community.

The first verse of the Kenyan national anthem reads (in Kiswahili):

Ee Mungu nguvu yetu
Ilete baraka kwetu
Haki iwe ngao na mlinzi
Natukae na Undugu
Amani na uhuru
Raha tupate na ustawi.

In English:

O God of all creation
Bless this our land and nation
Justice be our shield and defender
May we dwell in unity
Peace and liberty
Plenty be found within our borders.

I ask those of you who can to please light a candle in remembrance of those we lost that day. Thanks for all your support! Kudos to all the heroes who selflessly saved and protected so many that day.

We Are One. Najivunia kuwa mkenya!


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