By STEVE MWAFUGA
It had been three weeks since I disembarked from Nairobi and nestled here in Montclair, my new home. Admittedly the adjusting process had been somewhat a challenge. But all this was dwarfed by the tragic news coming from home.
I woke up that Saturday morning to find my cell phone with a backlog of messages on my Whats App inbox, where my friends from Nairobi have created a forum so we can stay in touch. Everybody is in a frenzy messaging back and forth: “What’s going on?” “I can’t believe this!” I was somewhat drowsy, but now I am wide awake. What has every one so alarmed? My friend Norman, who lives in Durban, South Africa, tells me to tune in to CNN. “It’s all happening live,” he adds.
It is 21st of September, a date that will fade into obscurity for most Americans but will forever be imprinted into the psyche of my fellow Kenyans. As soon as I turn on the television I hear my phone buzz. It is my sister on Twitter — “We are under attack” — a statement no brother wishes to receive in an uncertain atmosphere. Fear and anxiety grab me and the next few seconds seem like hours. Is she okay? The next tweet brings relief: “I am okay so is mum but things are not so good at Westgate mall.”
I turn my attention to the news and what I see has me confused. It is Nairobi, yes, and that is indeed Westgate Mall. The reports tell of armed gunmen, possibly terrorists with links to the al-Shabaab militia. They have just stormed the mall, in an upscale area of Nairobi, and opened fire at anyone in sight. A few minutes into the news story and my friend Mikey sends a tweet. He warns that he has just received some unsettling pictures of the bloodshed and will be posting them.
The pictures show bodies on the pavements at the entrance of the mall, blood snaking along like a river and a couple shot dead in the front seat of their car. The pictures are too intense –not the picture of the Nairobi I left just a few weeks before. My memory of Westgate Mall is of a place where, after working for weeks, I managed to save just enough money to join my friends and enjoy the release of The Avengers in 3D — a movie where the violence is all in fun. Now, through the miracle of modern communications, I see the scene 7,000 miles away: lifeless bodies and blood splattered on the familiar corridors and walls.
The following Sunday afternoon saw our illustrious military take tactical advantage and secure most floors of the mall, in collaboration with security agencies from Britain, Israel and my new home, the United States. The news is on everywhere, including a laundromat in Cedar Grove where, when I mention that Kenya is my homeland, I draw looks of profound sympathy.
The loss is incomprehensibly tragic. Ruhilla Adatia-Sood, a popular television host in Kenya, and six months pregnant, was one of the dead. She enlivened my evenings as she shared entertainment news on Kiss TV. Who can claim to grasp the anguish of a dad trying to come to terms with the death of his little 9-year-old daughter Jenah Bawa? I can recall back in high school as we played host to her school, International School of Kenya, in numerous soccer matches. We were bitter foes, but today that falls away. I am simply at a loss for words. What could drive anyone armed with military-grade weapons to take the life of this little girl and justify such actions as noble?
In the days following the attack, my Kenyan friends at Montclair State try to come to terms with what happened back home. We find ourselves with unresolved questions. Not the whys. No, those questions are extremely complex and will not bear any fruit. What we ask is will it happen again and if it does, will those close to us — our parents, siblings and friends — be spared? It is already tough enough trying to build a life here in a new country without worrying about those we left behind. This is made especially worse with reports of the al-Shabaab vowing that more attacks are imminent.
As the flags fly at half-staff across our homeland and its capital Nairobi, my home, I walk through the corridors in University Hall, slowly making my way to my finance class. My thoughts are admittedly not on the formidable problems that were this week’s assignment, but with my family and friends back home. Weekends saw us get together — watching movies, sharing meals, catching up. This weekend I was far away but I found myself drawn even closer to them — in thought — because of this terrible turn of events.
Steve Mwafuga is a new MBA student at Montclair State University. He wrote this piece for The Immigration Project, a collaboration of the NJ News Commons. Westgate Mall photo via Wikipedia.