A sign pointing to the direction of Westgate shopping centre as smoke rises in the vicinity in Nairobi, September 23, 2013. (Reuters/Karel Prinsloo)
After the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, as Nation editors were trying to figure out what should go into that week’s issue, William Greider, the magazine’s national affairs correspondent, offered some wise words that I’ve never forgotten. “Later, there will be time for analysis of who and what was responsible,” he said. “Right now, it’s time to grieve.”
That’s how I feel about what happened in my adopted country of Kenya on September 21. I wasn’t there for the attack, which happened at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi where I regularly went to buy groceries and visit my bank branch. But as I studied pictures of the victims, who included a young Kenyan woman from the media company I used to work for, I felt the same kind of heartsickness that engulfed me twelve years ago. The young woman was recently married, now pregnant with her first child and, just like many of the victims in the Trade Center attack, so bright and so promising.
The news reports I’ve seen keep describing the shopping mall as an upscale place for Nairobi’s elite, but that’s not the whole story, and not how I remember it. In the Nakumatt supermarket, the anchor tenant of the mall, Asian Kenyan grandmothers and African Kenyan secretaries on their lunch breaks trolled the aisles with their baskets or carts, just like me. Yes, there were lots of white expats doing business deals or bemoaning the state of Kenya’s politics over lattes at the overpriced coffee shop, but there were also scores of grocery baggers and shop workers and cleaners just trying to make enough money to keep their families one notch above poverty.
As I think about those workers, I remember reading about the September 11 victims who had been waiters and busboys at Windows on the World. Many of them were immigrants struggling to earn enough to send money home or to help their families establish themselves in their new land. We’ll hear plenty about the diplomats who perished in Kenya’s Westgate tragedy, but I keep thinking about all the families who lost their breadwinners, and whose names may never even be recorded.
I heard a news presenter on the BBC this morning say that the attack had changed Kenya forever. She’s probably too young to remember, but this is hardly Kenya’s first, or worst, experience of terrorism. In 1998, Al Qaeda bombed the American embassy in Nairobi, then located in the heart of the city and surrounded by streets full of shoppers and office workers, leaving several thousand people, almost all of them Kenyans, dead or injured. Whenever we have visitors from America, I take them to the small park that has been built on the site of the bombing so they can see pictures of what happened and reflect on the fact that we Americans aren’t the only ones who have suffered from terrorism. One of the saddest exhibits the last time I went there was stories written by children of fathers or mothers who had perished in the bombing, in which the children try hard to conjure up a parent whom they barely knew, or didn’t know at all.
That 1998 bombing didn’t change Kenya forever, as far as I have ever been able to see; it just made Kenyans yet more stoical in the face of hardships that, in a poor country, are so legion as to be unremarkable. In Kenya right now, all the talk on Twitter and in the news media is about coming together, forgetting political and religious differences, etc. etc. Based on what happened in the United States after September 11, however, I think it’s more likely that if the Westgate attack changes anything, it will be to increase Kenyans’ fears rather than their hopes.
There will be plenty of time for the pundits to weigh in on what the Westgate attack means in terms of international security failures, the role played by Washington in encouraging Kenya’s military actions against Somalia, the continued effectiveness of Al Shabab and Al Qaeda, or the need for a negotiated peace in Somalia. But right now, I don’t want to read them or hear them. Instead, I’ve sent my donation to the Kenya Red Cross and am just feeling sad.
Melissa Harris-Perry reflects on the legacy of September 11.