By Rick Beitman
“It’s experiential” was a phrase oft stated by Dr. Babarinde during the 2013 Kenya Summer Interim as a response to the unexpected. This maxim served well in preparing our group for the endless changes in schedule, the extremely fluid time, bartering for artwork at the market, contending with gastro-intestinal issues, and dealing with the myriad of characters we would encounter. However, as accustomed as I became to the unexpected, even I would never have contrived a terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
The September 21 attack on the shopping center came as a rude shock. The incident claimed by a Somali militant Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, took the lives of over 60 people. The attack struck close to home, or rather, the hotel. During the interim, our Westlands hotel, the Southern Sun Mayfair, was within walking distance from the Westgate Mall and our group had frequented the venue for SIM cards, food, coffee, and the like.
Survivor accounts were chilling as the places they described were familiar and I could picture them in my head as well as the thought that I could have easily been there. Even more chilling were the stories I heard in the aftermath from Kenyans at Thunderbird who knew people there that were not so lucky.
People we met, either on company visits, or alumni, or even locals we passed by that would cheerfully greet us with “jambo” could have easily been there. It felt more personal even than 9/11, the difference being I had never been to the World Trade Center, but I have been to the Westgate Mall.
Apart from the victims, I wondered how this incident might impact Kenya and its economy. After having visited 23 countries, I can say there are few places that match the awesome beauty of Kenya. While on safari in Masai Mara, we saw the spectacle of nature in a lush savannah. The interplay between elephants, giraffes, lionesses, cheetah, crocodiles, rhinoceros, zebras, hippos, and buffalo was more than a mere visit to the zoo. The Mara was a deeply spiritual experience that defied words. And at night, the stars were unparalleled.
As for Nairobi, it appeared a beautiful, green city, even amidst its chaotic streets and its slum, Kibera. It is inhabited by some of the friendliest people. And I deeply sympathize with Kenyans at Thunderbird, because they are our colleagues, our neighbors, and our friends.
However, one should also worry for the Muslim students at Thunderbird, as the Arab-Islamic mainstream often takes flack in the wake of such an incident. I worry for them because they are also our colleagues, neighbors, and our friends.
As we learned in a panel discussion last Thursday, Dr. Babarinde concluded that this attack was not representative of Islam, but rather was a criminal act in a much more complicated, sociopolitical setting of East Africa. Regardless, I hope people will not shy away from Kenya out of fear, for this is not the Africa I know.
Injustices will happen wherever in the world you may be, America or Kenya, but it is my hope that we will emerge stronger. When these incidents occur, the world needs to take notice and work to make it better, even if the change is only incremental at first. And hopefully foreigners will not shy away from Kenya, because stunning, natural beauty and wonderful people await them, and this… This is Africa.