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After Westgate terror: Struggling to define new normal in Nairobi

A stil intact Westgate Mall. Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya – The Westgate mall terror attack still hangs in the air.

Fewer people go to the major malls here these days and those who do don’t stick around long. Security guards now greet cars and shoppers. These unarmed men and women don orange vests as they search bags, execute scans with a metal detecting wand and gaze into car trunks.

The detectors beep a droning sing-song as the few shoppers who do come enter the mall. Some who get beeped are required to identify the offending item; others just push inward. People visiting the Galaria mall in the suburb of Karen are choosing to park their cars at the adjacent gas station in order to avoid the car search.

Despite noticeable security changes in Nairobi’s malls, life for many appears to go on as usual. Nairobi may look the same, but its people remain deeply affected by the Westgate attacks.

The vulnerabilities that allowed for the terrorist attack, and standoff, at the Westgate mall persist.Meanwhile, Kenya’s leaders appear more concerned with maintaining political power that they feel is under threat by the International Criminal Court.

“Can you feel the love tonight?” sang a young man at the YaYa Centre mall on Saturday afternoon.Seats next to the piano were filled with friends and families meeting for a coffee and a snack at Dormans. Outside, road and building construction continues apace. Traffic is as bad as always. By appearances, life is back to normal in Nairobi.

Malls such as The Junction, YaYa Centre and Galaria are home to major grocery stores, quality coffee shops, banks, restaurants and free wifi. By having it all, malls are a part of the weekend routine for many of Nairobi’s residents. However, people at the Galaria mall were spending little time inside on Saturday. The tables at the Art Cafe and Java House just in front were full, but the shops were near empty.

A young Somali girl (she asked not to be identified) talked about the White Widow to show that not all Somalis are terrorists. The alleged connection helps to prove that it was an ideological terrorist attack carried out by a small group of extremists, for the young girl.Empty halls of the Galaria Mall on Saturday afternoon.

An early rumor held that the White Widow, a British woman named Samantha Lewthwaite who was widowed by her husband’s participation in 2005 London attacks, was seen leaving the scene of Westgate during the attacks. Side-by-side images circulated quickly after she was spotted, but the rumor was swiftly debunked. However new evidence may yet connect Lewthwaite to the planning of the attacks.

Little international attention was paid to the Somali-dominated Eastligh neighborhood when a series of bombings started in late 2012. Relations with the Somali community in Kenya was already strained before Westgate and the young woman says it is worse.

She and her family feared leaving their home in the days following the attack over fears of retribution. Neighbors are suffering small levels of discrimination and harassment, she said. President Kenyatta has made it clear that he wants to resettle the sizable Somali refuge population in Kenya back home.

“My country hosts more than one million Somali refugees. This is a sizeable number of Somali nationals who have been deprived of the opportunity to make a constructive contribution to their country. It is desirable that efforts are made to facilitate their safe and orderly return to their motherland,” said Kenyatta in August.

Despite the terrorist threat and rising tension between Kenya and Somalia, it is the International Criminal Court that is the focal point for Kenya’s leaders. The debate over the pending ICC trial against President Uhuru Kenyatta and ongoing case against his deputy William Ruto take all the attention. The former opponents turned allies stand accused of inflaming tribal violence in the wake of the disputed 2007 presidential elections.

The Sunday news cycle in Kenya revolved around the remarks by Kenyatta at a special meeting of the African Union in Ethiopia. He strongly condemned the ICC as a colonial tool of the US and Europe and argued it threatened the sovereignty of Kenya.

(Nairobi) Chinese-led road construction continues on Langata rd.

“Western powers are the key drivers of the ICC process. They have used prosecutions as ruses and bait to pressure Kenyan leadership into adopting, or renouncing various positions,” said Kenyatta to the AU.

Other African leaders echoed his remarks, further emboldening the possibility that Kenyatta will not cooperate with the trial. He is seeking a one year postponement through the UN Security Council. While Kenya’s leaders worry about the ICC, people in Nairobi remain uneasy and confused.

The government is moving on from Westgate before all questions have been answered.

The Kenyan Defense Forces by all accounts did a terrible job dealing with the terrorist attack. Aside from looting and possibly causing the collapse of the Nakumatt by detonating explosives, the KDF turned a controlled stand-off into a multiple-day affair.

Westgate comes up in group conversations. People share stories of friends who were at the mall during the attack and the physical and emotional injuries that they are still recovering from. Life in Nairobi appears unchanged, but the problems are not quite as far below the surface as they appear.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]