On Saturday, September 21st a gang of shooters identifying themselves as members of the Somali-based, al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group al-Shabab murdered 69 people, injured 175, and imprisoned about 30 hostages at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. According to reports, the group sent emails to news organizations and posted Tweets from a since-suspended account explaining they had attacked the mall as payback for Kenya’s support of Somali government measures to bring them down.
Most hostages were freed on Sunday evening. By Monday morning, Kenya Defense Force helicopters hovered low and loud above the silenced, hotel-studded skyline adjacent to the blood-slick crime scene. Gunmen remain holed up in the mall with an unknown number of captives.
Ghanaian poet and novelist Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ held his phone to the window of his hotel room located five minutes’ walk from the mall, to share the sound of the propellers slicing through the squall they were creating.
Four days earlier, Parkes had come to Nairobi as a featured author in the fourth annual Storymoja Hay Festival, a celebration and incubator of African literary talent. After years of missed opportunities, he had finally met legendary Ghanaian poet and statesman Professor Kofi Awoonor at the Thursday press conference, attended his Friday morning writing talk, and afterward joined him for lunch with a group of other scribes.
As they ate, Parkes says Awoonor regaled them with tales of his brief political imprisonment and his time as Ghana’s Ambassador to Brazil and Cuba. “He was talking about…the borderlessness of the world,” Parkes recounts, “and all the miracles within it.”
The following day would prove to be a nightmare.
Kingsley Karimu, Ghana’s High Commissioner to Kenya, recounts the frantic call he received from Awoonor’s son.
“They’re shooting!” Afetsi Awoonor told him.
Karimu could hear gunshots through the phone as the younger Awoonor explained he had left his father in the parking lot to go into the mall just before the attack. Afetsi, who had his dad’s cell phone with him, texted with Karimu while he sought an escape—until a bullet reportedly burst through his shoulder. Karimu now had no way of contacting the older Awoonor who could not be found.
Meanwhile, texts and calls were flying.
Parkes was on his way to a reading of Nigerian author Teju Cole when he says he got a first call from the British Council advising him not to return to his hotel. “They said there’s been some sort of attack,” Parkes recalls. “At the time, they weren’t sure if it was a robbery or a terrorist attack.”
During Cole’s reading, Parkes’ phone registered six missed calls. When he finally walked out of the auditorium to answer, he learned it was indeed a terrorist attack and that “Prof”, as Awoonor was affectionately called, was missing.
After dispatching what Parkes describes as “a taskforce of Ghanaian citizens in Kenya” to search the area hospitals for, Karimu received a call from the morgue to identify a bullet-ridden body.
“I saw him lying there on the platform,” Karimu recounted by phone from Nairobi Sunday night.
Scores in Kenya’s capital city had to make such morbid confirmation over the weekend—including the nation’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew and his fiancée were among the fatalities. Just as people in the Washington, DC area had to collect the corpses of their loved ones on September 16th in the devastating aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting by mentally ill gunman Aaron Alexis.
Even as Nairobi’s Westgate Mall remains under siege, the harrowing details of the attack make up a numbingly familiar equation:
Gun-wielding, sometimes grenade-throwing ideologues / mentally ill / youth (al-Shabab is reportedly Arabic for “the boys”) + A “soft target” (elementary school, movie theatre, office building) + Reasons impossible to fathom = A senseless wash of blood and bodies.
It’s a phenomenon no one can ignore as happening “over there” anymore. Both international and local, in ghettos and cloisters, indiscriminate of so-called advanced and developing nations, these killings are rapidly in danger of becoming “the new normal” as President Obama remarked at a service remembering the 12 men and women killed at Washington Navy Yard on.
In the same speech, Obama predicted “the change we need” won’t come from the powers that be, but from the people. Yet, if the comments posted on articles about such attacks are any indication, we the people remain tangled in ideological arguments about gun control, the dearth of mental health services, class, religion, faith and foreign policy.
In the meantime, as Prof once expressed in his poem “Songs of Sorrow,” “death has made war upon our house.”
But this war can be won—mainly because it has to be.