The Man Under The Elephant

I’ve waited to write this.

The last time I went to Westgate was exactly a week before the famed attack the mall is now associated with. When I say exactly, I mean exact, down to the hour.

I was meeting up with some friends in between my trips in and out of Kenya. It was the first time I’d been to Urban Burger. It was also the first time I realised how massive Nakumatt was. For some odd reason that day, all our phones either dead or close to it. So we were moving about in a panic, trying to finish our chores so we could regroup outside and go about our plans for the day.

The next time that same group of friends regrouped was at Aga Khan Hospital, one week later, to volunteer and donate blood. We were watching the updates terrified, all thinking the same thing, none of us saying it. 

“Those terrorists followed the EXACT same path we did when we were there.”

We all agreed in shock but I stayed quiet. I stayed quiet, partially, because a good friend of mine worked at Westgate and I had not yet gotten news of his wellbeing.

I also stayed quiet because that very same day I had wanted to go to Westgate, watch a movie, revisit Urban Burger and shop for stuff for my trip to Lagos the next day. I would’ve been there earlier, but my brother knows me too well.

He knows I’m up and out super early everyday. So when he woke up at about 10am, his instinct to pick my keys on the way out, lock the door, hide the keys outside the house and leave was more than justified.

Which is how I ended up fully dressed, ready to leave, in a house with no electricity, shaking the doorknob in anger at quarter past 12.

When I finally managed to get someone to come to the house, electricity came back and the TV came on, and my phone beeped as it was still plugged to the charger. I picked it and walked out onto the balcony and heard an echo of a thud.

And then my phone beeped once. Twice. Fifteen times. A few pictures, a lot of messages later, I checked local news and saw nothing at all. I needed some sort of verification for what I hoped was a rumour gone wrong. I called a friend who was there and all he said was “Don’t call. Please.” Which is when this tweet happened.

Moments later, I stared at the TV and all I could see was a scrolling bar saying “Explosion at Westgate”,

The rest, as they say, is grossly overdocumented history.

I’ve waited to write this piece for a long time. I didn’t want to be just another person making offhandish statements, exacerbating matters. I shrugged in Lagos when they asked what was happening in my country. The reports were too divergent. Even months later when the looting reports came to light, I stayed mum because I remembered New York.

I remembered New York post 9/11. Nothing anyone can say or do can or will ever hem the seam of the fabric off a country that was torn apart by those towers falling. As someone who was Black and Muslim and African in New York post 9/11, I can tell you that hatred is as destructive as it is poisonous.

We all saw the destruction. We all wept for the dead. We saw the wars that ensued and their impacts on lives, countries, economies, industries. What you didn’t see was the poison. Someone once told me that whether you put a litre or a drop of poison into water, the water will forever be spoiled. The gallons of blood spilled, were replaced with gallons of hate. I watched “Muslim” become a derogatory word. I got “random security searches” at every airport I ever landed at. This was so bad that one time I was detained for 17 hours for questioning, and after missing my connecting flights, the customer care rep for the airline refused to refund me and cursed me out for my faith. I filed a complaint that magically disappeared. I couldn’t get jobs in some places, I even remember (and at least one reader will remember this story) when I got stopped by police a total of 6 times on a 5 minute drive.

You’ve seen what cops will do to Black people in the US. Imagine what they do to Muslims. I really would rather not delve into how many times that profiling turned me from a patient, passive, calm being into a raging madman.

So when the siege at Westgate started, I started to fear for our fabric. We were already so divided; the threads were few and stretched between the patchwork fabric that is our society. All it needed was a tug or a blade.

Al-Shabaab hit it with bullets.

I waited to write this because I wanted to watch what would happen. I wanted to see if we as a country would survive. Whether this would be a rerun of the US.

A year and some weeks later, I venture to say the hate may be as strong, the destruction not so much.

We were saved some destruction by a few unfortunate things. The first is Kenyan’s forgetfulness. How many times were we bombed last year? Tens? Hundreds? I’m sure half of you are still trying to figure it out. Which is why, were it not for the giant memorial of an empty building and the efforts of a few people to keep us remembering, most would or have, forgotten.

The second thing is the greed of Kenyan Armed Forces. As soon as their looting became the focus, their warpath was replaced with a plan to retreat.

Don’t get me wrong. Thousands of people have suffered destruction post-Westgate. We saw what happened with the Kasarani camps. We saw how even matatus and buses at some point were refusing to let anyone looking remotely Somali board. Oh, and I could tell you a story or two about how I can walk into a mall with a lighter and a penknife, but my friend gets searched super thoroughly for wearing a Hijab but that pales in comparison to stories about mistreatment from the police where homes are raided, families mistreated, and basic civil liberties are denied.

But it could be worse. What Kenyans, especially our Muslims are feeling is more of the hate than the physical destruction.

I had a fairly senior corporate persona out to lunch the other day and he said to me (unaware of my religion) “You see, this is the type of place I like to go. A place where they serve a lot of pork and a lot of alcohol so that we don’t have Muslims here.” And that is not nearly the most outlandish of things I’ve heard.

The fabric of our society is torn; there is a steady drip of hatred pumping through us.

I watched the Terror at the Mall!! documentary (download here or watch below) and in one disturbing moment, there is a man who tries to hide under the elephant in front of Nakumatt. He is shot. Seven times.

He actually survives the first few shots but seems to insist on peaceful conversational resolution to the attack. It fails. The more he talks, the more he’s shot. Until he’s no more.

I pray his soul – and those of the many other victims – rest peacefully. But I cannot help but fixate on this man, as I’m sure many a Muslim relates to the relentlessness with which voices try to be hushed.

My last little story. Two Fridays back, I was walking into Yaya Centre. I breezed past security and behind me, 3 men in kanzus who’d just come from prayers were about to walk in. They were a jovial bunch and entertained the security check, cracking jokes between each other about how long it takes them to enter a building. At which point one of the people behind them snapped and started shouting at them. Angrily blaming them for all the delays they cause, all the fear they create, all the hate they inspired and eventually telling them to go back to their own country. One replied that they were all Kenyan and that they too had lost many people in terror attacks. The woman snidely replied something to the effect of “Yeah, cause the police killed them.”

Many Somalis, Kenyan or otherwise, will try to resort to conversational resolution but only end up in a losing argument. Much like the man under the elephant, all the attacks, verbal or otherwise, will eventually hit so many times that many an innocent person, Muslim, Somali, Christian or otherwise, will eventually have their spirits crushed and killed.

I have waited to write this because I still can’t find the words to end this on a positive note.

I still can’t.

Stay peaceful Kenyans. And Eid Mubarak to our Muslim brothers and sisters.

4 thoughts on “The Man Under The Elephant

  1. I just watched that documentary on HBO and caught all kinds of feelings…from the lady claiming the first mall in kenya with an escalator to pondering why that man chose to hide under the elephant…lets not even go into how long it took the SWAT team to burst through the doors…and all the unanswered questions one year later…sigh

  2. Some questions don’t seem to have any answers, but I think it’s good to ask them just the same. I think realising that the question exists at all is a good start.

  3. Pingback: Je ne suis pas #CharlieHebdo | Diasporadical

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