Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, And The Folly Of ‘Otherness’ – What Al-Shabaab Revealed About Us
A BLOG BY CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
AROUND noon on Saturday September 21, a group of terrorists believed to number 10 to 18 stormed the Westgate Mall in western Nairobi.
By the third day, 69 had been killed during the attack, or died later in hospital. Another 175 had been injured. Today the crisis entered its fourth day. In the evening a downcast President Uhuru Kenyatta, came on TV to give heartbreaking news. The crisis had come to an end, but the three floors of the mall had collapsed from explosions, and the terrorists and an unknown number of people were trapped in the rubble.
Amidst the tragedy, we are about to forget that the first day of the crisis offered quite troubling insights about how we the media view the world.
Some Kenyan journalists, especially TV presenters, inundated their audiences with references to Westgate mall being popular with “wealthy Kenyans, expatriates and diplomats”. It was also referred to as an “upscale mall” “frequented by foreigners”.
Foreign media said the mall was a “hangout for Kenya’s middle class” was “frequented by westerners”. On one TV morning show, a panelist who was honest enough to say he had never been to Westgate, claimed that a cup of coffee at cafes there costs Sh600 (US$7), and that the average cost of a meal at the restaurants there is Sh2,800. Not true. As of the time of the terrorist attack, the most expensive coffee at the “hip” Art Caffe was about Sh300 ($3.5) – and even that for a double Iced Cappuccino. And the average cost of a meal was Sh900 (three times less expensive than the commentator said it was).
Unsurprisingly several presenters and reporters also said the “radical Somalia group Al-Shabaab” had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and some referred to them as “Islamic terrorists”.
Men and women who are more educated and far cleverer than me about these matters, refer to this as “media framing” – how media perceive and report about an event, and the picture they try to paint in the minds of their readers and viewers about the event.
On the face of it seems there is really nothing harmful in this portrait of the crowd at Westgate. After all quite a few expatriates, diplomats, and middle class Kenyans do frequent the mall.
However late Saturday, someone posted a cheeky but telling tweet. He said something like “blessed are the poor, for they don’t go to Westgate”. The unsaid message there was that the privileged, who enjoy a good life, were the ones being hurt at Westgate, and those who are not rich should not bother sharing their pain – after all the wealthy don’t do much to relieve their suffering.
The western media were telling their audiences that, “well, it is Africa alright, and ordinarily we wouldn’t bother you with this story, except that this time you should pay attention because westerners could have been killed”. Indeed, they were, and that sent the western media to town with the Westgate story.
On Saturday evening our daughter came to me and said; “Americans are impossible, you should see what they are saying about the Westgate attack”. She showed me comments on the NBC TV website, where Americans were asking why the network was wasting their time with the Westgate story, “it is Africa after all”.
In common all these were narratives about them versus us, our “otherness” – our different cultures, possessions, religions, citizenships, languages, food,
Debased “otherness” enables us to ignore the pain of others and sleep soundly at night; to discriminate against people who are different without having to trouble our consciences; to persecute those who are not our relatives, fellow citizens, not of our religion, or social station without being afflicted by a sense of injustice. This type of “otherness” is anaesthesia against having to be humane.
However, by the evening of Sunday, references to “Islamic terrorists”, to a Westgate that was “popular with wealthy Kenyans, expatriates and foreigners” had died out. Why did the media suddenly drop these descriptions?
Because reality challenged the media stereotype of the Westgate attack. There were several ordinary folks who had been killed, or were bloodied and injured. It didn’t add up, they were not supposed to be in Westgate. Then, there were too many children—surely, they didn’t deserve to be killed. And, there were a little many Asians and mzungus (Caucasians) helping black Africans into ambulances, and even carrying and running with them to safety.
And everywhere you looked there were many black Africans sprinting withAsian and mzungu children and women to safety, and nursing the wounded ones.
And then there was an awkward wrinkle – Muslims too were among the dead. That was not supposed to happen, you know, how come “Islamist terrorists” were killing other Muslims? One of the survivors said he watched in horror when two terrorists asked some women to cite verses of the Quran to prove they were Muslim. They did…then the men shot them at point blank range. Some terrified people who were lying on the ground screamed; “why did you shoot them?”
One of the gunmen replied, “because they were not wearing the hijab”. So, it seems, misogyny and patriarchy trumped religion.
And Kenyans died, in the same way Ghanaian, British, and French nationals did.
Come Sunday, unbelievably long lines had formed in places around Nairobi where the Red Cross was taking blood donations. The city had never seen anything like this. Most of the donors were the “poor”, the humble, the working class, lining up to donate blood for the supposed upper class that patronises Westgate.
None of this fitted the script. Vulgar “otherness” had been put to shame by the people’s common humanity and decency.
So perhaps it is time to pause and reflect. The outcome of the Westgate terror attack seemed to tell that not all contests between those who have and those who don’t are a Lenist class war. Not every contest between cultures, religions, or races is a battle for conquest and domination. That they are well-meaning negotiations for space, for respect, for a little share of the pie, for some of the air, for a bit of the limelight, not a tango of death.