Why I’ll still be flying home to Kenya – even after Westgate

ON July 8, 2005, I watched with a sense of admiration as London commuters steadfastly made their way to work.

Heads down, grim faces and square shoulders, displaying that particular kind of dogged British stoicism, Londoners trudged to tube stations and bus stops as if the worst terrorist attack on British soil hadn’t happened the day before.

This week I, along with fellow Kenyans and adopted Kenyans all over the globe, glued myself to live updates on news websites as the unfathomable horrors of the Westgate attack in Nairobi unfurled.

I ran my phone battery down refreshing pages, mumbling monosyllabically at interruptions to my internet vigil and refreshing the pages last thing before I went to bed and as soon I woke up in the morning.

The mounting feeling of horror spread over four long days, a tight knot in my belly muddled with anger, anxiety and the bitter pull of homesickness didn’t leave me for a moment.

Scouring Facebook for news of Nairobi friends – a one line status, or the changing of a profile picture to a Kenyan flag signalled they were ok – became a nervous twitch.

Sliding underneath the hard anxiety was the same admiration I’d felt when Brits pulled together in 2005 as Kenyans all over the country queued to pump the blood from their veins into blood banks so that it might save another’s life.

Volunteers camped overnight by the besieged mall, cooking meals for the red-eyed ranks of journalists, police and armed forces, restaurants delivered pizza, celebrities delivered water and members of the Nairobian Somali community made their own brave pilgrimage to the site to show solidarity and deliver food.

The message from home was one of unrelenting solidarity, a show of togetherness that transcended race, religion and social boundaries.

I have no doubt that Kenya’s fighting, uniting spirit will be vital in healing its wounds, but there are longer term fears that trouble my mind – we in Kenya have seen violence before and the disastrous effect it’s had on the Kenyan economy.

It doesn’t feel long ago since I returned from Kenya following a Christmas visit in 2007, the year election riots bubbled up like lava as the delicate thread holding together ancient tribal wounds was ripped apart and hatred and unspeakable violence erupted through the cracks.

We sat clenched and huddled in front of our TV screens which showed images of armed and inexperienced riot police beating men in cotton shirts who held no weapons. Children howled as bullets rained down and innocents fell to the ground; women and children were burnt to death in a church in Eldoret as they sought sanctuary.

And the effect on the tourist industry was enough to see visitors opt to avoid Kenya this February surrounding the next set of elections, which thankfully turned out to be peaceful.

Before that tourism has plummeted following the 1998 American Embassy bombing – barely recovering in time to be hit another blow by the Israeli hotel attack in 2002 – and of course has suffered at the hands of well-publicised Somali pirate attacks partially prompting the Kenyan invasion of its unstable neighbour that has apparently sparked the Westgate shootings. 

Post-1998 I remember deserted hotels, run down restaurants with hopeful staff tentatively waiting on scant customers and large resorts on Kenya’s famous coast turned to ghost towns. 

Foreign owned tour businesses went under, leaving their owners penniless, often unable to afford their plane tickets out of their adopted country.

I don’t want to see that again.

Sometimes the only tool you have to counter shocking acts of brutality and violence is to carry on as normal, denying the perpetrators of violence and terror the thing they set out to take from civilians – a sense of security, hope and freedom in your own society.

Already a large tourism conference scheduled for this week is set to go ahead with Kenyan and foreign hoteliers united in trying to deflect the impact of the attack onto their own industry.

I have plans to travel back to Kenya, it’s my home, I’ve travelled back regularly for over 20 years, and I don’t intend to change them.

While I may not be in Nairobi now to donate blood or ferry food to emergency services, I can show my solidarity in another way – by going ahead as normal.

Along with thousands of disparately spread Kenyans, I’ll be returning to spend my money in the Kenyan economy; eat in Kenyan restaurants, drink in Kenyan bars and shop in Kenyan shops.

I’ll be taking care and paying close attention to travel advice, avoiding large gatherings and soft targets, but I’ll support the economy in my own small way.

The attack in Nairobi joins devastating past acts of violence on civilians in Mumbai, London and New York, and as names of the victims emerge, a global picture is painted.

A renowned Ghanaian poet, a British-Australian architect and his brilliant Dutch health-worker partner, much loved sons, daughters, mothers and fathers from Peru, Canada, France, South Africa, South Korea and China as well as of course, Kenya – the slaughter was indiscriminate and globally impacting.

But there is one way in which the globe can counter the cowardice, brutality and destruction – by not giving in to the fear and panic terrorism set out to instil.

Tourism is Kenya’s second largest economy, second only to agriculture, employing millions and without it, the country is brought to its knees.

While individuals must prioritise their own safety, closely following travel advice and taking care, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you scroll back through major attacks bearing al Quaeda’s stamp – the group al Shabaab have linked themselves with, cities include Jakarta, Casablanca, Madrid – the worst Islamist attack in European history – and of course London and New York.

Terrorist factions are a global threat, not limited to Kenya or any one country, and sometimes the most effective weapon in the face of such atrocity is the strength to carry on as normal, to not dignify brutality with the terror, hysteria and panic it aims to create.

Take care, heed advice, but if you have a holiday booked to Kenya, perhaps think twice before you automatically cancel it.

I’ll be flying home – and I know I won’t be alone as Kenyans around the globe resolutely pull together to support their country.

Hannah Marsh is a freelance journalist who splits her time between the UK and Kenya where she grew up, counting both as home.

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6 thoughts on “Why I’ll still be flying home to Kenya – even after Westgate

  1. Barry cork says:

    Hannah,
    What a great piece of writing. For so many of us abroad this has been a challenging time with feelings of helplessness and anger taking over.
    Well done and I look forward to catching up at home this Christmas.

  2. Alice says:

    Great piece thanks and its also very great to see how Kenyans have refused to let this divide or intimidate them. I like our resilience in the face of this tragedy. We will rise again

  3. Nayna says:

    Hannah thank you writing about our Kenya, please anyone else who is thinking of cancelling your trip to Kenya please don’t do that we at the moment would like to know that the world is with us. Visit our beautiful country and the hospitality the people have to offer

  4. Baldeep McGarry says:

    What a beautiful piece of writing! You captured how most of us have felt being away from Kenya at such a hard time for its residents. God bless Kenya #weareone

  5. JRC says:

    Great piece Hannah!

  6. Dorcas says:

    I totally enjoyed reading this piece Hannah, it is such a source of strength for many of us in Kenya. as you point out, one way other countries can stand with us and support us is by not giving up on us. The “we are one” call is a global call.

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