Calling too close to home

Unnerving, that’s the feeling I got when I read the first news on the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi. My last evening in January in Nairobi I spent in Westgate, we went there to go to the cinema, watching ‘The Life of Pie’ and ‘Lincoln’, because we (me and the Mwangi’s) couldn’t agree on which movie to see, as a compromise we did a 5 hour marathon of the two movies. I also went there for coffee and a dinner once and had a stroll around while waiting for my friend. I’m never a big fan of malls, and wasn’t particularly impressed with the ‘exclusive’ look of this one either. In the end malls are a lot of shops with air-conditioning, conveniently grouped together, with shiny floors and a lot of escalators. The other thing that they have in common in a lot of countries I’ve been to, is the amount of ‘foreigners’ you will find sitting in the available ‘Starbucks’ or as in Kenya the local version called Art Caffé. Usually behind their laptop enjoying that big cup of coffee and something which resembles a French croissant. I’ve been one of those people many times. Besides the available internet, it is the other thing as well that draws us there, that reminder of home and in some cases a feeling of ‘culture(?)’ that we know, and maybe even a feeling of ‘normalcy/something familiar’ midst all the other things we don’t seem to understand of the country we find ourselves in. And in Westgate it was easy to have that feeling too.

Perhaps this is why I got unnerved, why this attack seems to creep up my spine and has established a headache that I cannot shake. But to be honest, my feeling is much more fundamental, it’s an instalment of fear into the core of my being. Maybe it’s the feeling, it could have been me, sitting there, even when that is far from any reality now.

Quite a selfish thought considering the circumstances, as it is (mostly) Kenyans that are the victims, even though it certainly isn’t a place for everyone to go to in a country where poverty is the ‘state of being’ for many of its citizens. They are the ones that must be really outraged, angry, scared and deserve every bit of sympathy for this horrible situation.

But it is exactly this fundamental fear, which drives these attacks. Fundamentalist violent attacks aim to install fear in people to gain ‘control’ over social, cultural and political life in those societies, by doing the opposite, destabilizing it. The actual randomness of their acts is their most powerful tool and this being the case often ensures political full-fledged support for anti-terrorism measures. And it’s exactly here where a society runs an enormous risk in terms of limiting people’s freedom in the name of fighting terrorism. Reasoning from the principles I stand for, I often disagree when this happens, but the fear that has crept into my spine may fully agree to catch these idiots at any cost.

A friend asked me this summer, if you would get raped or know you will be killed in one of the countries where you work, would it have been worth it? I answered ‘yes’ at the time. Not from the perspective of wanting to sound brave, I felt like an arrogant idiot for saying it actually, and felt ashamed, because how can I know how I will respond to the things you really don’t want to imagine happening to yourself? But it made me wonder, do I take my own life too light-hearted? Do I really take my family and friends who support me in everything I do, into account? Am I exaggerating or under-estimating the risks I’m taking? My next job will ask me to consider this again, and believe me when I say I feel anxious and scared at times about this and this attack has certainly brought back the internal debate I have around the risk I’m willing to take when I can also choose to work in a safe environment and work in my own peaceful country. But something incredibly stubborn (and rationally speaking quite an unbelievable) feeling shifts the debate towards somehow trusting that I’m taking the right decision to do this: I can and will not give into this fear, which really feels like giving up hope in the work that so many people do to fight the injustices they see in their societies. But as a person, I do get scared, and feel unbelievably sorry and affected by what happens when fundamentalism and terrorism show themselves in places that I’m familiar with, really close to people that I deeply, deeply care about. All of a sudden it’s hitting so much closer to home, than I had ever imagined, although nothing of it has a direct effect on my life now or in the future.

All my sympathies go out to the people who lost their lives and the families and friends that will now need to pick up the pieces of their lives without the loved-ones they lost and wishing all that got injured and were somehow involved a way forward to deal with the pain and trauma of this experience. As a good Kenyan friend of mine always says: Sending love and light, because I don’t think I have other words to offer, but even this feels a bit pretentious to say.

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