From Nairobi, With Love

More barbed wire is not what the world needs after the Westgate attacks

There’s a wide dirt track that runs from one side of Nairobi to the other. An ambitious building project that ran out of steam. It’s impossible to drive it for more than a block because town planners have dug ditches and dumped rubble at every junction to stop the cars. A few enterprising boda-boda riders have carved gaps in the rubble to slip their motorbikes through. Otherwise this muddy artery is strangely empty, while motorists snarl, swerve, and bump their way along pot-holed roads. Welcome to the strange world of Kenya’s capital.

For two mornings our house awakes to heavy gunfire, punctuated by the blast of a grenade, then silence. Like clockwork, soon comes the heavy diesel hum of a military helicopter ferrying troops and arms to Westgate. By Monday afternoon a plume of dark smoke rises from the complex. As the death toll rises, the Kenyan government struggle to keep a lid on things, claiming 62 dead. Many here fear it to be in the hundreds.

Westgate is one of a number of shopping malls in Nairobi that cater to a growing middle class. Popular, too, with an expat community reassured by marble floors and the familiar hue of consumerism. The largest and newest, Westgate is a carbon-copy mall flown in from a nameless western city. Perhaps this made it the obvious target for an attack designed to send shockwaves around the world.

Yaya is older, but a shopping centre born from the same mold. As black smoke rises from Westgate in the distance, we stop our car at Yaya’s security blockade. For a year or so, entering public buildings has followed a familiar routine: Stop the car, open the boot, park it, spread your arms and legs for the friendly guard, empty your pockets, on your way. Though well-meaning, the procedure wouldn’t deter a determined terrorist. At Westgate, they drove up to the barrier and executed the unarmed guards within seconds.

The Yaya complex isn’t busy, as many shoppers as there are uniformed security guards, everyone quietly focused on finishing their business. Feeling every inch the expat cliche, we enter Healthy U, where Joseph and Robert jump to attention. Healthy U is the only place in Nairobi to buy separates for a decent muesli.

As we mull over the benefits of rolled oats versus flaked barley, I ask Joseph if he’s nervous working today, in one of Nairobi’s largest malls. He doesn’t miss a beat: “My family has to eat, I have to work. I can’t be scared. Yesterday I sent my wife away and now I must work. There was already terror on the streets, the matatus [minibuses] that exploded. We don’t care, we must carry on working.” This man’s smiling and humble determination is in stark relief to my cowering westerner, spending a month of his wages on dried cranberries and toasted hazelnuts.

Village Market, another shopping complex nothing like a village, nor a market, is busy most days. On Monday night, two days into the siege, there are no more than five customers to be seen. In the food court, tired patrons pull the shutters down on their kitchens. A couple eat in silence, surrounded by a hundred empty tables. We find Osteria, a good Italian restaurant on the second floor, deserted but for a rich, white gentleman eating lobster alone. Fifty tables each with a single red candle burning in stubborn defiance, waiting for the lost shoppers to return. And return they will, because what Nairobi may lack in riches it makes up for in determination. This city stops for no-one.

Driving home on a stretch of Nairobi’s unfinished cross-town highway, we catch a BBC Worldwide broadcast as a local Westgate survivor describes his escape. It is delivered logically, without emotion, and has all the more impact for it. In the capital of Kenya, battling against the odds is the norm. I have every faith the population will return to life as usual. But will this nation’s government, and the international community, respond in the progressive and holistic way that’s required?

More likely is the standard knee-jerk reaction to beef up the barbed wire and double security staffing. These measures are in place to reassure the public, but this week we’ve seen how useless these efforts are when the attacks come. Should we rebuild our false sense of security? Or put these efforts into understanding the root causes of discontent? The latter is no easy option, but I don’t see another way to prevent the escalation.

Terrorism is as strong as the fear we feed it. The hashtag #WeAreOne has been circulating on Twitter as the Westgate attack enters the final throes. While it smacks a little of sugar and petals, fighting fire with fire simply isn’t working.