Baptism by fire in Nairobi

23 Sep

Once again the eponymous protagonist of ‘rebeccainspace’ – the ‘me’  of this saga – has upped and moved to a faraway land.

So from England, to Israel, to England, to France, back to the UK, then back to France, and then over the Atlantic for a four-year stint in New York City, here I am landed, as if by a random roll of the dice, in the heart of East Africa – in Nairobi, Kenya, to be precise.

Nairobi, capital of Kenya, a traffic-clogged city lying just below the Equator – and all I wanted to do was muddle along in my new surroundings, allowing myself to feel all the usual sensations of disorientation as a stranger in yet another strange land.

I hadn’t even been here a month yet – I didn’t even know my way from A to B yet in this smoggy, sprawling city – I could only speak about five words of Swahili – I hadn’t managed to even begin to pick my way through any of the confused babble of narratives I’ve been fed about Nairobi, the crime, the traffic, the lay of the land – But Nairobi clearly wasn’t going to give me the chance to settle in gently.

Three and a half weeks into our new life in Nairobi, and a band of masked terrorists wielding guns and grenades have stormed the heart of this city, spreading terror in a shopping mall, spraying their bullets at families, shoppers, diners, people chatting over a cup of coffee, all enjoying a leisurely Saturday afternoon in a Western-style retail paradise.

Westgate: the very first place I was taken to on the day we arrived in Nairobi three and a half weeks ago by a local friend who wanted to show us a pleasant place to sit and have a coffee, go shopping, enjoy a leisurely moment, a place where ‘expats’ (what I’ve become once again) hang out. Westgate: where I bought the first provisions for our new apartment in Nakumatt, the sprawling flagship supermarket occupying three floors in the mall.

Westgate today: nearly 70 ordinary people slain while shopping in the upmarket stores, slain while eating lunch with their families in the food court, slain while having a coffee with friends, slain while running down escalators to escape – men, women and children, Kenyans and expats; 175 injured; Nairobi hospitals fit to bursting with casualties; Nakumatt still occupied by murderous gunmen holed up with tortured hostages over two days after the attack first began.

As I write this, I can hear helicopters roaring overhead, and I see a huge cloud of billowing black smoke which has formed over the shopping mall in the distance – signs, according to the Kenyan TV which we’ve been watching non-stop, that the Kenyan special forces may have stormed the terrorists’ stronghold so as to bring the seige to an end.

In just this short time in Nairobi, I’m horrified by the number of people I know who have been personally affected: One Kenyan friend has lost her uncle who was shot while having a coffee at Artcafe, our Indian plumber lost his mother and seventeen-year-old son in the attack, American friends of ours are close friends of a fellow American who lost his wife who was seven months’ pregnant with their first child. The degrees of separation between me and the dead are far too few.

Nairobi needs healing, and me, the newly arrived outsider, has been forced to get to grips with this new city much more speedily than I ever would have imagined. A baptism, indeed, by fire.


13 Responses to “Baptism by fire in Nairobi”

  1. Ben September 23, 2013 at 10:24 #

    Very powerfully written account of the horror and your feelings in response. Very good idea to write, an ’empowering’ way of dealing with the situation.

  2. Arielle September 23, 2013 at 22:49 #

    Rebecca, our thoughts are with you, your family and your community.

  3. Rivka David September 24, 2013 at 00:03 #

    Thank Gd you are ok, and a prayer for all those who got caught in the violence …. what on earth took you to Nairobi??? You inspire me! xxx

    • rebeccainspace September 24, 2013 at 00:43 #

      Rivka! I will write you an email to say more about this – you inspire me too 😉

      • Rivka David October 7, 2013 at 07:04 #

        So nu? Xxxx time to catch up!

  4. kaguya September 24, 2013 at 00:35 #

    Thank you for writing this. I think documentation of how things like this *personally* affect people is invaluable.

    On a more personal note, I can only pray for you, your family, friends, and acquaintances, but I will.

    • rebeccainspace September 24, 2013 at 00:41 #

      Thanks for your note, Kaguya. Just saw your profile – ‘a Jewish Japanese person’ – sounds interesting!
      Oh – just saw who you are underneath the screen-name – hello you!

  5. Maya September 24, 2013 at 20:13 #

    Just glad to hear that you’re safe- wishing you a more peaceful time from here on in.

  6. Simon September 28, 2013 at 18:11 #

    Very well written as usual Red. PG the year ahead will be one of peace in Nairobi and the whole world.
    x S


  1. Too close for comfort in Nairobi | rebeccainspace - October 1, 2013

    […] an extract from an op-ed I wrote in The New York Jewish Week recently discussing the same theme as Baptism by Fire in Nairobi, my last post on this […]

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