Nairobi on Fire
I told my American friends that I was going to Kenya to visit my parents and they looked appalled. “You can’t go there,” they said. “People are getting killed!”
It all started in 2011 when Al-Shabaab militants from Somalia crossed into Kenya and kidnapped several foreign tourists and aid workers. The Kenya Defense Forces in a joint operation with Somali forces pursued the terrorists into Somalia, dropping bombs into their camps and pushing them back with ground troops.
In retaliation, the Al-Shabaab militants promised that Kenya would pay for this ‘treachery’. And so began the terrorist attacks in Kenya. Grenades were thrown into churches, bars and buses, and Kenyans started dying. A wind of terror spread through the country and people avoided crowded places. The police rounded up anybody who looked like he or she was from the Middle East, arrested some and deported others in a show of force. Nairobi was under attack and the city was burning.
On 21st September 2013, four masked gunmen attacked the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, resulting in 71 total deaths, including 62 civilians, five Kenyan soldiers, and four attackers. Approximately 200 people were wounded in the mass shooting.
On 2 April 2015, gunmen stormed the Garissa University in Garissa, Kenya, killing 148 people, and injuring 79 or more. The gunmen took over 700 students hostage, freeing Muslims and killing those who identified as Christians. Pupils were told to get out of their bedrooms and position themselves face-down on the ground, and then shot on the back of the head. The country wept for the children.
On December 2015, I flew to Kenya with a lot of dread and fear. “Kenya is my home,” I told the Americans. “I have to go home and see my parents.”
The Boeing 654 British Airways landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport on a Friday morning. We were welcomed into the Nairobi airport by tight security including sniffing dogs and a thorough screening. An hour later and after collecting my luggage, I walked outside the airport and felt the African heat slap against my face. With the breeze came the familiar smell of dust, smoke and distant rain.
My mother and sister hugged me and together we took a taxi and headed towards Nairobi City. “Where’s Kiniti? I asked.
“Your brother had a meeting today. He will see you tomorrow.”
Kiniti was my older brother, and my hero since childhood. He had been the hard one, always protecting me from bullies and bigger boys. He was the one who had introduced me to girls, and taught me how to play soccer. While I had gone to America for further studies, he had joined the Kenya army and had moved up the ranks fast. I was looking forward to seeing him.
I was excited about being home, but I could feel a shift in the air like something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the look in the eyes of the people, or the loud silence that pierced the air. “Everybody is scared of crowded places,” my mother said. “You must watch where you go, and please be home before it gets dark.”
We didn’t make it far before our first road block. I had seen road blocks before in Kenya but this one was scary. The policemen were dressed in combat gear and all held AK 47s at ready. They told us to get out of the car and stand by the pavement. We were frisked and our IDs were checked to confirm that we were truly Kenyans and not Somalians. The car was torn apart before we were allowed back inside. There were no smiles or polite words exchanged. People were dying and the city of Nairobi was burning.
The drive through the skyscrapers of Nairobi City was far scarier. Traffic was thick and hundreds of Kenyans pounded the streets in their everyday hustles. I saw armed men mingled with civilians. The policemen patrolled the streets in pairs and were heavily armed. They stopped anybody who had a very light skin and anybody who looked like a foreigner. Other than the policemen, the government of Kenya had also poured detectives into the streets and neighborhoods, determined to protect the people. The word Al-Shabaab terrorists was but a whisper on the lips.
It was a relief when I finally arrived home. I ate my mother’s cooking and told them stories about America. They laughed at my accent and told me I looked like a black American. They kept glancing at my luggage in the hope that I had brought them something. I teased them a little before I gave them their gifts: an iPhone for my sister and some clothes for my mother. Later on, we walked through the neighborhood and I said hello to my childhood friends.
Night came dark and strange. My childhood noises were gone to be replaced by silence. People locked themselves in their houses and didn’t come out. A tire burst in the distance made my sister squeal in fright. Under the dim light that night, we held hands and prayed for protection. We prayed for our country and for the strength to say no to terror.
On Saturday I stayed home and rested from my long flight. I watched the news and cringed. There had been another explosion in Eastleigh. “You shouldn’t go to church tomorrow,” my mother said. “It’s not safe.”
“I have to go to church mum,” I said. “I did not come all this way to hide in the house.”
On Sunday morning I found it very hard to wake up due to fatigue. My mother woke me up as she did when I was a little boy; by yanking the covers away. Breakfast was pancakes and eggs, and I really enjoyed it.
We were about to walk out of the house and head to church when suddenly the door burst open and a big man stepped in. He stood by the door, the light behind his head, and it took me a minute to recognize him. It was my big brother, dressed up in military fatigue. “Come here junior,” he said. We met halfway in a hug, and held briefly. I felt the muscles and lean body. Kiniti was a very fit man.
“Hello mother,” Kiniti said, as she hugged both my mother and sister. “I’m taking Robert out of here. It’s too dangerous for him.”
I looked up startled. “What do you mean brother?”
Kiniti turned and met my eyes. “We had a security briefing yesterday. There is to be another terrorist attack in Nairobi, and you cannot be here.”
My mother was convinced. She rushed into my bedroom and grabbed my bags. We loaded my luggage into my brother’s military jeep and drove out of Nairobi. The skyscrapers of Nairobi fell behind to be replaced by smaller towns. Shortly after, the buildings were replaced by coffee plantations and banana trees. It all felt unreal, me fleeing from my childhood city. Beside me, Kiniti drove with a lot of concentration and only relaxed two hours later when we saw the mountains.
“This is the real Africa,” Kiniti said. “Here in the village you will be safe.”
With the help of US intelligence. Al Shabab terrorists have almost been pushed out of Kenya, limiting the attacks to a few towns on the Kenya-Somalia border.
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
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