I wonder if you miss me, Nairobi. I wonder who massages your back with her feet now that I am not around. I know you cried, as I did, the day before I left you. I remember the raindrops that sought rest on my cheeks.
I got on the plane to America with mud on my shoes. I do not think that any of the rich businessmen who can afford frequent Kenya Airways flights would wear muddy shoes. It was my first plane ride, and the windows stared me down as I walked to my seat.
I stared back. I hoped my eyes reflected the fire of a dream come true. I feared that the windows would see my anxiety about going to a new place, about becoming just another face in the crowd. But I hoped my eyes whispered something to the windows about the fusion of an unlikely past with an unlikely future. I hoped my eyes told the story of defying convention, like a plane defying gravity.
We have a perfect relationship, Nairobi and I. It is the kind of relationship that says, “Even at my best, I’m better with you.” I told myself that Nairobi and I needed time and distance to be the best versions of ourselves. For me: a businesswoman, an engineer, or a writer. For Nairobi: a hub of opportunity for young professionals like myself.
The 21st of September was a grim day for Nairobi. That morning, I woke up to a text from Abdul, a Muslim friend from home.
“My aunts are under siege in Westgate,” it said. Westgate is an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi where I spent many afternoons with my friends, reminiscing about high school.
“Haha. Why are you being so dramatic?” I replied. The great downside of lasting peace is that it makes your systems lax, so when anything sneaks up on you and upsets the balance, it hits hard.
Nairobi. Place of cool waters. City under the sun. I had gotten used to peace in Nairobi, my confidence buoyed by the harmonious 2013 elections. Was it a robbery, a terrorist attack? I thought robbers would, hopefully, take what they wanted and leave.
A tweet from a Kenyan media personality read, “R.I.P. Ruhila Adatia.” It chilled me. Ruhila Adatia is a presenter whose voice breathed soul to Kenyan radio.
That day, the words, “Good afternoon, I’m Ruhila Adatia,” played over and over in my head. Ruhila’s voice does not bring the vexation that you feel when a presenter’s voice interrupts a lineup of your favorite songs on an idle afternoon. When you hear her refreshing voice, your lips curl upward in a smile. It is hard to imagine listening to the radio without Ruhila chiming in with witty and light-hearted jabs about celebrities’ lives.
I wondered if her words would sound so clear in my head in 2014 or 2015. I thought of her husband, Ketan Sood, who had lost both his wife and his unborn child. Sixty-seven people died in the Westgate attack. Sixty-seven families can no longer hear their loved ones’ voices except in their imaginations.
For a tense 48 hours, Nairobi watched as the Westgate Mall attack unfolded. I watched, too, from 7,291 miles away, distracted but still trying to finish a physics problem set. I knew that was what Nairobi would have wanted me to do: hold on, and learn as much as I could in order to be the best version of myself while I was away.
Grieving for you from a distance felt eerie, Nairobi. At around 2 p.m., I heard someone unlock my room in Vanderbilt Hall. I thought it was one of my roommates until I heard a man say, “There’s nobody here.” Frightened, I pushed my chair back quietly and slid under my desk. On the day I was accepted to Yale, news of the Newtown gunman broke on Kenyan TV. I remembered that when I told my mum, she had asked, “Huko na mahali utakuwa ni karibu?” Is that close to where you will be?
I heard a few things being moved around, and then I heard the man leaving. I sat confused for a while and heard the door open again.
“Maintenance,” he called out. I must have missed it the first time. Here I was, safe and at a distance, yet still fearful because of what was happening back home.
I cried, but not in the open-the-floodgates kind of way. Tears welled up in my eyes and I wiped them with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. A Kenyan friend who goes to UMass asked me, “What justification do we have to cry when people in Nairobi have reason to be aggrieved?” I had been asking myself this, too. Another friend from home living in the United States posted a picture with the caption “Keep calm and hug a Kenyan.” I smiled because a friend’s comfort was the only thing that could help.
I hoped and prayed for Abdul’s aunts. I watched on social media as escaped hostages told stories about the terrorists letting Muslims leave. I worried about how this would affect the already-tense relations between Christians and Muslims. Nairobi, with a Christian majority, had sustained a good rapport between the two religious groups — that is, until the former president, Mwai Kibaki, declared that Kenya would help Somalia fight Al Shabaab, a Muslim extremist group. When terrorist attacks ensued against Christians, Nairobi started to see the hijab and the turban differently. Eastleigh, a neighborhood with many Somalis and Muslims, where Abdul grew up, became prone to grenade attacks and clashes, and we had to avoid it for a while.
I hoped that since Muslims were allegedly being released, it would mean that Abdul’s aunts could survive this ordeal.
But I also felt guilty that this made me relieved. It was wrong that religion was being used to sort us. Already, some of my friends were posting hateful messages about Muslims on social media. Somalis were being attacked, too. “Why are ‘we’ giving ‘them’ refuge when ‘they’ will attack ‘us’?” Such statements doubled my sadness. I feared that they would tip me from hopelessness to madness.
In an interview on Jicho Pevu, a Kenyan television program, a survivor with an eye bandage said: “This is not the religion I grew up with, that I’ve known for 35 years. This is not Islam.” He had been let go after reciting the Shahada, a Muslim prayer. But he emphasized that the attack was not about religion. Christians were killed. Muslims were killed. Ruhila was Muslim.
At 3 p.m. (10 p.m. Kenyan time), Abdul told me his aunts were safe.
The narrow-minded represent a small portion of Kenyan society. Most of the responses after the attack made me feel extremely proud of Kenya. People posted hopeful messages for those affected by the attack. Messages against hate speech spread, and, on Twitter, #weareone trended, neutralizing the venom that had begun to well up.
Around the world, the support was enormous. Messages of condolence poured in from scores of different countries. Yale held a vigil to pray for Kenya.
If I had not already been sold on the kindness of the Yale community, the vigil would have made a believer of me. On that night, dozens of people gathered outside Dwight Hall. Against the backdrop of Old Campus’s towering residence halls, one candle was lit, and then two, and then dozens more. We lit candles for the student whose friend was still trapped in the mall and for all the Kenyans affected. In attendance: the Chaplain’s Office, and friends of the Chaplain’s Office, and the Yale African Students’ Association, and Shades, and faculty heads, and friends, and friends, and friends…
In Nairobi, this concern translated into something beautiful. A hospital started rerouting blood donors to other hospitals because they already had enough blood. Kencom, a major bus station in Nairobi, was brimming with people ready to donate. Children distributed food to people in line.
The Sunday after the attack, there were reports of Muslims guarding churches so that Christians could pray. Did I mention that Muslims taught some of the hostages a prayer to say if asked by the terrorists?
Raisah Virani, a 15-year-old Muslim survivor, said in a television interview that a woman had rubbed her back and told her, “Stay calm, dear, you have been shot. Jesus will protect us.” When the attackers said that Muslims could leave the building, Virani refused. “At that moment I was standing up for Kenya, for everybody,” she said.
I am proud of what Kenya, a young country, is making of herself. Having made some bad turns in life, she is growing from a reckless teenager to an adult. Still, she’s not a full adult yet — not in the thunder thighs and childbearing hips kind of way.
I miss you, Nairobi. I promise I will return to massage your back with my feet and charm you with my smile. I will have grown, as will you.