I was hanging on the words of Teju Cole, the Nigerian American writer who is one of my literary heroes, when I found out that two miles away, Nairobi’s Westgate Mall was under attack.
“If you’re too loyal to your suffering, you forget that others suffer too,” Cole said in one of his many moments of profundity during the talk.
Beneath that quote in my notebook I drew a thick line and wrote “found out that there has been a shooting at Westgate.”
Story Moja Hay Festival, where Cole was speaking this weekend, celebrates African literature and represents Nairobi at a high point.
At its best, Nairobi is a diverse, cultured city boasting all of the promise of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. It has leading modern artists, innovations that are altering the face of technology and development, and a growing educated middle class that is interested and excited to invest in their country.
At its worst, Nairobi is racist and divisive, populated by a diverse cross-cut of the world’s population who live parallel lives, existing within minutes of each other and yet never touching. It grapples perpetually with insecurity and violence, a threat that hits home too often for those of us who live here.
As I hung on Cole’s words, my friend’s cell phone buzzed in her purse on the floor next to me. Moments later, she held it out in front of me to show me a text reading:
‘Stay away from Westgate, shooting and hostage situation going on there’
I fished my phone out of my bag and texts began flowing in. I watched as a wave shifted across the audience, Cole and his words ceased to exist. We all melted into our smartphones, mass texting family and friends and firing up our Twitter accounts for immediate updates.
The upscale mall was two miles from where we were. As we would find out in the coming hours, it had been invaded by a group of Islamists claiming to have been sent by al-Shabaab. At times, they would kill indiscriminately. At other times, witnesses have given eerie reports of the gunmen (and at least one woman) separating Muslims for release and then shooting non-Muslims.
Painfully unaware of what was happening, Cole continued his talk, he spoke of the ‘precariousness of life’ as we all began the frantic headcount that feels too common these days: “Where is everyone I love and are they okay?”
I’ve no doubt his words at that moment were also profound but I don’t remember any of them.
Our world is defined by an increasing interconnectedness. Fueled by technology and social media, we exist less in the moment and place and more in a hundred other moments and places around the world.
For me, this has never been more profound than during the attacks on the city that I have come to call home.
Within moments, we were reading tweets from friends begging for help as they hid inside the storage rooms of Nakumatt, the grocery store inside the mall under attack. At the same time, we read gloating tweets from the accounts of the terrorist group claiming responsibility for the attack, promising to kill those still inside.
Almost instantly I spoke with friends across Nairobi. I breathed a sigh of relief with every text that came in from a loved one assuring that they were not there. I felt my stomach drop further for every friend or family member of a friend who was still unaccounted for.
Even at that, the magnitude of the attack took awhile to sink in.
There is a certain degree of insecurity inherent in life in Nairobi. Robberies and carjackings are not uncommon and the threat of terrorist attacks have hung over the city for a long time. In 1998, The United States Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were bombed in terrorist attacks. Since Kenyan troops invaded Somalia in 2011, there have been renewed threats of violent attacks.
The festival was called off and as it shut down around us, the death toll climbed to a dozen, then two dozen, jumping disconcertingly quickly.
From that moment until Nairobi’s early morning hours I ran down my iphone and laptop batteries in constant communication with friends and colleagues who were covering the event, friends across Nairobi, and friends in London, Seattle, Boston and New York, all aware of and affected by the attacks.
Friends of mine communicated with loved ones still trapped inside the mall, texting words of encouragement in the hopes that it would keep them calm until help arrived.
Help has arrived for some of them, but for many it still hasn’t. It feels like each time I get on the phone with a friend I’m told of another person’s loved one who dead, injured, or missing.
The death toll continued to climb and the scenes of carnage became more and more shocking. Close to 70 are confirmed dead and many, many more are injured. Horrible stories are emerging from people’s time in Westgate. Children and pregnant women have been counted amongst the dead. We didn’t know how many hostages are still trapped inside.
During tragedies, we rely on numbers to assess the damage. And as Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie recently said when she gave the Commonwealth lecture:
“Of course we must know about the dead and the dying and of course these figures and facts are essential. But they must, they should, co-exist with human stories. We should know how people die, but we should also know how they live.”
At the beginning of his talk, before we were aware of what would unfold over the next hours, Cole paused to survey the packed auditorium.
Not unlike the crowd that was at the Westgate Mall at the time of the attack, the room was filled with the mix of people that make Nairobi the complex city that it is.
Kenyans young and old, of varying races, ethnicities, and backgrounds shared the room with Africans from around the continent and Europeans and Americans all living in or visiting the city.
More significantly, they were writers and academics, artists and intellectualls, aid workers and entrepreneurs all gathered in Nairobi because they sensed there was something here.
Cole took in the crowd and smiled saying, “I like the sense of possibility in this room.”
We are experiencing Nairobi at its worst, but lets also not forget it at its best.