Nairobi in the Age of the World Target

photo by Kul Wadhwa

The attack on the Westgate mall comes at a time when there is no longer anywhere “off the grid;” you are always on someone’s grid, and you are never far from someone’s battlefield

Diasporans know the drill all too well. A call or SMS comes in to apprise you of calamity at home. You rush to all communications channels available for information about loved ones. If they are safe, you settle into a sleepless vigil over CNN, Al Jazeera, Kenyan media on YouTube, and Twitter. You watch the rising body count, the undulating cloud of black smoke and you hear the final implosion of the mall with growing unease. You feel almost apologetic when you tell concerned friends who have checked in with you that your family is okay.

Even if you say they are okay, it will be a lie. They are not okay. You are not okay. You have never been okay. A woman dies on top of a man who plays dead. Her body stiffens as blood runs cold. The man escapes and sends an SMS to your sister to take care, to keep clear of Westgate. He’s back to work the following day. Is he okay?

The global media will soon forget Westgate Mall, if it hasn’t already by the time you read this. The world quickly forgot the embassy bombing in Nairobi until it suddenly remembered it again on September 21, 2013. Not since the 1998 bombing of the American embassy has Kenya seen such an act of terrorism… But wait. Not since 1998? Where did Nairobi go in the intervening decade and a half?

This was memory as erasure, reportage as disinformation. But as the week went on, the picture shifted. The lazy tendency to tell Kenyan stories only from a Western point of view was shaken as the scale and target of the attacks came into sharper focus. The Westgate attack shook the international media’s predilection for exaggerating the gap between “there” and “here.” Indeed, it threw “here” and “there” off kilter. In the age of the world target, there is nowhere “off the grid,” there is no “report from the field.” You are always on someone’s grid, and you are never far from someone’s battlefield. Any report from a highly trafficked and gated transnational nodes like Westgate — where media, corporate, and political elites defensively gather — must be self-reflexive. So when the media moves on from Westgate, it will not so much forget as actively repress its awareness of the fact that it has decisively entered the picture, and that the myth of its own distanced ability to jet in and out of Africa is also in smoking ruins.

How do you report on the world objectively, after all, when you are the target? Militants inside Westgate, it was reported, were watching local TV broadcasts and adjusting their tactics accordingly.

Westgate was not, as was so often reported in the first days of the siege, “Kenya's finest mall.” It was anymall, wherever. But its anywhereness did not emerge out of the fabric of daily life in Nairobi, even through a horrific and still uncalculated number of ordinary Kenyans were killed or injured by Al Shabab terrorists. Its anywhereness was precisely what what made it the pride of Kenyan strivers, eager for exceptionality. Pass the security wand, and you could be in Dubai, London, or California. You could bump into someone you last saw in Dubai, London, or California. It was global but also local. There was a Nakumatt! A Bata Store! You could buy unga or iPads; see a Bollywood blockbuster or pick up the Nairobi Star.

The ungainly word “glocal” fit Westgate, precisely in its ungainliness. “Glocal” is not a word in any English I speak, but neither was Westgate a space I ever felt comfortable in, probably because of its calculated efforts to reassure a clientele that looked and spent like me. Like Groucho Marx, I was suspicious of any club so eager to have me as a member. And this club was built like a bunker, wedged into a claustrophobically small lot, next to another shopping center, and across the road from another, even larger mall. Its architects responded to the urban vibrancy of Nairobi in classical postmodern style, by shutting it out, constructing a faceless silo that reflected its visions of the good life inward. Entering it would feel like being transported and, simultaneously protected. Any leisure consumer space with that much fear baked into its tiles was bound to feel uncanny. Sitting at Westgate’s resplendent Art Caffé, expat chatter about terror and security filled my ears. Caffeine and WiFi addict that I am, trips home always found me sitting on that terrace, listening to glocal fears and rumors, and feeling like a sitting duck. I was.

Where was Westgate? The name implies it was in Westlands, the Nairobi area reserved for “whites” in colonial days. News reports gave its location as Parklands, next door, in the area formerly reserved for “Asians.” Perhaps it is named after the Westfield Group, which owns and manages an archipelago of malls across Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US. Either way, Westgate was not downtown, it was not near any national or civic buildings or monuments. It was nowhere near Nairobi’s famous slums into which Irish celebrities and wide-eyed college documentarians are forever parachuting. It was, however, reputedly within the green zone of the nearby United Nations compound. Westgate was nowhere and anywhere. It was a node in the “space of flows.” Everyone from the president’s nephew and his fiancée, to the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, to my regular cab driver were caught in the gunfire. Anyone I knew in Nairobi could have been there. But that doesn’t mean that those who were there are a cross-section of society. It doesn’t mean that the victims, however much the nation mourns them, can stand in as a part for the whole. For one problem of the age of the world target is no part can stand in any longer for the whole. This fact is salt poured into patriotic wounds. But it ought to be welcomed by those still scarred by the double-edge of tribalisms and nationalisms at any scale. And Kenyans above all, who still await justice for the crimes against humanity perpetuated in the wake of the disputed elections of 2007, justice which patriotic jingoism in response to the Westgate tragedy, with cruel irony, only make harder to achieve.

In the age of the world target, about which Rey Chow has so lucidly written, global media finds itself brought down to size, provincialized in the attempt to capture a “world picture.” I can’t even find an aerial picture of the collapsed mall, although plenty from before the attack are available. Perhaps it is still erect in the minds of those who plan to shop on the first day it reopens. Failing to snap the world picture, each press corps settles on the facet of the unfolding crisis that reflects brightest back into its own national eye. The British tabloids chase after “the white widow.” American journalists corner community leaders in Minneapolis’ “little Mogadishu.” Kenyan stations interview wananchi. And the Indian media chimes in with a story about the Gujarati engineer of the mall and the number of Indian-owned business on its now-imploded floors. Like an inane mosquito that might also be giving you malaria, Al Shabab’s Twitter feed buzzes in everyone’s ears, taunting, boasting, sounding anything but “ashamed and defeated” as they call on Kenyans to call on their leaders to withdraw troops from Somalia, or suffer further terror.

But the revenge motive Al Shabab provides for its actions can never be taken at face value. Neither can their nationality be assumed. The attackers included American and British nationals: it appears so far that the attack was planned and launched from Somalia using recruits that were precipitated out of a global miasma of jihadism. Their gruesome work done, we must suppose that at least some promptly melted back into the population, heading for the airport, border, or coast. You don’t need to hide out in a “failed state” when the nation-state as a political form so spectacularly and regularly fails its assumed role as protector of its citizens. As late as 1999, a perpetrator of the Rwandan genocide was living in Nairobi.

As with the Rwandan genocide, however, history quickly moves on, even over unburied bones. Three days of mourning (one fewer than the siege lasted) are enough for the nation. Where do the missing parts go in that unified whole? Particularly a unified whole, like a nation-state, that must resume its business, be forward-thinking and make realistic assessments of future threats. How high does Al Shabab rank on that score? Perhaps the killers are a routed, desperate splinter group of an unpopular fringe in the ongoing Somalian uncivil war. Perhaps their ongoing threat to Kenya or the world, like the number of the unrecovered in the Westgate rubble, is “insignificant” to the state.

It is too early to tell, but an angry and traumatized city and nation may be open to appeals to secure its borders. But safety will not come by securing borders. The listing of the killed by nationality reveals how very enmeshed we inevitably are. And while globalization holds up interconnectedness as a unilaterally good thing, interconnectedness is also fearful and uncanny. Being enmeshed brings the stranger closer and our own strangeness closer still. Being interconnected comes with darkness, grief, and vulnerability. It is a hard thing to face. As Wambui Mwangi lamented on Twitter, “Mourning should open the self to others, but we’re using ours to forget.”

The shards of Westgate shine a light into some recesses of a Kenyan collective psyche that has been repeatedly traumatized in recent years by catastrophes and violence, a nation estranged from ourselves, even (especially?) in our ordinary lives. After fielding the messages and calls from home, any diasporan can relate to the next task: explaining Kenya and its political passions to momentarily perturbed friends and acquaintances, uttering that word “tribe” that is so shameful to utter in mixed company, even if the experience of belonging it tries to gesture to is one you find hard to live without. We are estranged from ourselves not because we have failed to abandon our premodern tribal alliances, but because we have failed to reckon with, and truly grieve, the double-edge of belonging and violence that is tribalism’s homebrew. It will intoxicate you, and make you blind. Hence the hashtag #WeAreOne, ready to serve, at a moment’s notice. Prefabricated to be sure, pre-emptively shouting an answer so that we can never ask the question. Don’t ask that! For #WeAreOne.

But, are we one? If you have to say it, you must be worried that maybe we aren’t. And maybe we don’t need to be one. Maybe we are entangled. Enmeshed. Maybe all our differences do not add up to something greater than ourselves. Not the Parliament, the President, the Nation. Not God. Maybe they add up to something not greater than, but less than. Maybe the sum of the nation’s parts still remain the nation’s part, divisible and singular and vulnerable lives. Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and unbelievers like me were all attacked. But that doesn’t make us all one precisely because any “one” would always be united in relation to an other. An outside. And the outside is part of us, inextricably. You cannot other the stranger without destroying yourself and making the work of mourning impossible.

Grief is often promoted as a moment suspended above politics, especially by politicians. The opposition leader in Kenya was quick to pledge unity with the party he fiercely opposed in the recent election, and promised a quick return to “normalcy.” In the context of all the unanswered questions and ungrieved lives surrounding postelectoral violence in 2008, however, “normalcy” can sound more like a threat. No one wants to be seen as “playing politics.” But the inescapably political moment in any time of grief is not the opportunities it provides individual politicians. It is grief’s public exposure of the “part that has no part,” as Jacques Ranciere phrases it. The dead, in 1998, in 2008, in 2013, among other dates we might cite, remind us of the part that has no part in the fictions of normalcy and security. But the part that has no part is also we, the living. To approach this part, which we encounter every time our strangeness to ourselves makes of our vulnerability a terrifyingly open-ended thing, is to make grief the only possible source of our strength.