“Tell me about when I was a baby,” my daughter asks drowsily. “You were made in Kenya,” I coo and have done so, proudly, for the past six years of her life, reminding her that her history began before she was born.
In 2004, her dad and I moved to Nairobi. Within our two years there, we created a stronghold of beautiful friendships … friendships that became family: We celebrated holidays; traveled together; and we became part of our friends’ extended families. It’s there where we decided to have a child. Our friends in Nairobi were the first to know about my pregnancy.
The friendships continue and though my daughter has not yet been to Kenya, there’s a deep tie connecting her there. She has aunties and uncles who send gifts, talk to her on the phone, and love her. This summer, I traveled in Italy with friends from Nairobi. Despite physical distance, we are still close.
So on the morning of September 21st, when I saw the news of the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, I felt a crashing worry, a shooting fear, much like when I saw the Twin Towers collapse on 9/11. Immediately, I messaged my friends to make sure they were OK.
My ex-husband, now living in Southeast Asia, and I were instantly reconnected, sending texts back and forth. “Is Fady OK? Have you heard from Leticica yet?”
Before I even left my bed that morning, I learned that one friend was not OK. She was shot three times and part of a grenade attack. A young boy died in her arms. My daughter heard the sobs that I couldn’t contain and brought me a bracelet to give some comfort – it happened to be a bangle from one of her Kenyan aunties.
On the 21st, as though in prayer, my daughter wore the pink dress with bicycles on it that her wounded auntie gave her – a hope she would heal.
My beautiful friend survived … nearly 70 people did not. She’s still in hospital recovering. We say she’s lucky.
But as time passes, many people in Kenya won’t hear a car door slam without jumping and sweating. The sound of fireworks that spread across Nairobi during Diwali may inflame fear (gunfire sounds a lot like fireworks) instead of inspire joy. A vibrant city in a majestic country is in mourning.
Kenya doesn’t need more violence. It cradles a high level of crime daily. When you live there, you have to get used to this – or try. You are always on alert. Your friends know exactly how long it should take you to drive home from dinner. If you’re late texting that you’ve arrived home, expect a barrage of urgent texts, asking if you’re OK. You keep your car windows rolled up and the doors locked. You live with a gate and guards around your property. Kenya is sometimes threatened with terrorist attacks. You have to live your life though … go out, enjoy. And people do. Nairobi is alive and growing, despite these acts of violence. Kenya is an incredible place to live. I still hold firm that everyone should visit this beautiful country.
Over scrumptious ostrich baguettes from the Village Market (an upscale shopping center like Westgate), my ex-husband and I would swoon over the clear, bright weather; the acacias; and the purple jacarandas of Kenya. “Where else in the world could you have just seen a leopard and get charged by a water buffalo, come home to Nairobi and eat a world-class meal, then enjoy the cinema,” we’d ask one another regularly. We loved Kenya.
You, too, would love it. It’s my hope that the terrorist attack will not stifle tourism. The country needs us.
Kenyans are proud of their country and are resilient. Hero stories are surfacing. Ordinary Kenyans risked their lives to help those hurt in the attack. No one has been left unscathed. This should come as no surprise – it adds more beauty to Kenya.
Part of being an ex-pat means carrying pieces of countries in your pockets that you’ll forever love. You, your story, your memory is spread wide across the globe. A piece of me belongs to Kenya, and that has been passed to my daughter.
Tonight as I tuck her safely into bed, like every night since my daughter was born, we whisper, “Lala Salama” to one another – Swahili for “peaceful sleep.” Lala Salama, Kenya. May your bullet-scarred buildings rest in peace.
Photos by Steve McCord, as part of a photo series “Upper Hill After 8″ taken in the Upper Hill neighborhood of Nairobi.
Editor’s Note: I first met Becky Cavender when our work overlapped in Africa and, like her I frantically searched for information about my many friends in Kenya and was relieved to know that they all survived. One had been there an hour before with his family, another lives next door to Westgate and huddled with her daughter in fear for days. A third was trapped inside the mall with her child for four hours but miraculously escaped. The stories seem endless and, sadly, they are becoming increasingly common for ex-pats. Lala Salama to all who leave their comfort zone of home to live abroad. -Martina Clark, Managing Editor