Assault at Westgate Mall, Nairobi, Kenya

Today I’m reading the new reports on yesterday’s gun assault on Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The numbers killed and injured keep rising. Last I checked, there’s around 50 dead and nearly 200 injured.

This was a horrible, inexcusable event. Al Shabab, a Somali terror/warlord group aligned with the collection of groups we refer to as Al Qaeda, has claimed that the massacre was in retaliation for Kenya’s cooperation with the Somali Army to out Al Shabab from the territories it occupies. It is unclear how this strategy is to work, given that Kenya entered Somalia in response to a series of terror attacks by the group.

It is likely that As Shabab intend this as evidence of their continued existence and a way to obtain recognition from other groups that might support them. Admittedly, my knowledge of the complex dynamics of Islamic terror groups is lacking.

The shooting as Westgate was particularly depressing to me. I’ve spent time in Kenya, and grew rather fond of Nairobi this past summer. I have many Kenyan and Japanese friends and colleagues in the area.

In Africa, only certain people can go to upscale places like Westgate. On any given day in Westgate, Ya Ya Centre, or any of the other upscale malls, you might be sharing space with Kenyan politicians, a prize winning African literary figure, brave human rights and relief workers, corporate kings, diplomats from all around the world, and a host of others.

Kofi Amoonor, Ghanaian literary figure

It has already been announced that Ghanaian writer and former ambassador to the UN Kofi_Awoonor is among those killed.

It is really easy to be cynical about an upscale mall in a developing country from afar. I’m positive that disparaging comments have already been made, but I will not search for them.

Places like the Westgate Mall, however, are sanctuaries in a place like Nairobi. Though I only rarely visit malls in the United States, Westgate is a place where people like me can escape the stigma of “otherness” and constant objectification, be free of the constant touting and begging that unfortunately occurs far too often in Nairobi and be in a place where one doesn’t have to look over one’s shoulder at all moments. It may sound quite awful to hear a wealthy, educated and white American complain, but in Nairobi, sadly, all of these things are a given. It becomes extremely exhausting and places like the Westgate happily provide them (along with excellent bookstores).

The worst outcome of this shooting will be that security will become even more intense. The divisions between the wealthy and the poor will become ever clearer. On the one hand, a secured area creates safety, on the other, it creates awful divisions. Nowhere is this clearer than the United States, whose history is filled divisions.

I am wishing the best to all in Nairobi right now. I’m sure that everyone I know in Kenya knows one or more people that were in that mall yesterday.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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