Photo: Ben Curtis/Associated Press, via CBC
Three days ago at about 3:00 pm, five men with murderous intent stormed a hotel and office complex in an upmarket neighbourhood of Nairobi, shooting and detonating explosives as they went. The terrorists were linked to the Somalia-based Islamist militant outfit Al-Shabab; when the last of their guns fell silent 19 hours later, the lives of 21 innocent civilians had seen a brutal end. The scene of this terrible crime was right next to the university hostel where I lived during my undergraduate studies.
While the siege lasted, Kenyans rallied each other, online and offline, defiant and confident about their security forces, who had reacted to the situation with admirable alacrity; a kind lady delivered breakfast, free and unsolicited, to officers and rescue workers who spent the night at the site; and everybody castigated the New York Times for its tactlessness in publishing a photo of the bodies of victims inside a blown-up restaurant at the scene.
Terrorist attacks are as comprehensible as they are mysterious. On the one hand, there is the human condition, the weakness we all have, the line dividing good and evil which, in the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, cuts through the heart of every human being. But the cruelty of the man who wakes up in the morning with the sole intent of taking innocent life, whatever his motivation, can never make adequate sense.
For a long time now, we Kenyans have had multiple reminders of this kind of cruelty. Many media houses report that Al-Shabab has carried out attacks in Kenya since 2011, in retaliation for Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in that year. This is a simple and easy-to-understand narrative, a neat way to go around the complexities of history and present a clear cause for the fell pass in which we find ourselves.
The real story is much more complex. Part of it is that the terrorist group, which arose out of Somalia in 2006 and has held that hapless country by the throat since then, attacking Kenya multiple times before 2011, kidnapping tourists and aid workers at the coast, and generally destabilising the country’s northeast. The desire to stop these attacks, by helping stabilise Somalia, was the published motivation for Kenya’s incursion into southern Somalia, although there may have been other considerations.
It is true that since the invasion, the attacks have become bolder and more devastating. The major ones roll off the tongue like a litany of horrors. The first of them resulted in the death of 67 shoppers at Westgate Mall, in Nairobi, in 2013. It was followed by the death of 147 students at Garissa University College in 2015. In between these shocking events, many smaller incidents have claimed multiple lives, especially in north-eastern Kenya, a predominantly ethnic Somali region.
The real story of the attacks is also the story of the resilience of Kenyans. We Kenyans are a lousy lot. We step on each other’s toes all the time. Sometimes we descend to such depths of depravity that even we fail to understand ourselves. But every time these attacks happen, the best of the Kenyan psyche, if ever there was such a thing, shines through like a bright torch. This is no doubt a general human phenomenon, a tribal reaction to a common threat, but I feel that we have a flair for it that is unparalleled.
In the midst of our darkest moments, we have always found something to smile about, a joke to laugh at without being overly trivial, a group of heroes to applaud, a common experience to remember. This, perhaps, is our saving grace, the only reason this country has remained an island of peace in a troubled continent. No matter how much blood terrorist bullets draw, I do not see this charm ever waning.
Over the next weeks and months, we will quarrel about how to secure our country. We will argue over the merits of our troops’ continued sojourn in Somalia. We will haggle over how much our government values our lives. In short, we will be very Kenyan about it. But the memory of the unity we all felt will linger above the melee, a silent witness to our humanity, and the definitive proof that we won at Riverside.
For now, we mourn our dead and treat our wounded.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.