In response to the African al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab’s horrific four-day siege on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last week, the Orient contacted Clare McLaughlin ’15, who is studying abroad in Kenya this fall term. She and one other Bowdoin student currently in Kenya, Elizabeth Brown ’15, were confirmed safe through their respective off-campus study programs on the day of the attack, according to Bowdoin’s Office of Off-Campus Study.
The interview with McLaughlin was conducted via email in a question-and-answer format, and the following questions and responses have been condensed for brevity.
Do you know where the Westgate mall is and have you been there?
I know where the mall is because we go out on the weekends to bars in the Westlands area. My program moves me around a lot to experience all parts of Kenya (hunter-gatherers, rural, urban, coastal etc.) so I don’t live in one particular place, but right now I happen to be doing my three-week urban homestay in Nairobi. I don’t live very close to Westgate, but I go to classes near there.
Where were you on the day of Shabab’s attack and what happened?
[On the day of the attack] my friend and I planned to go shopping in downtown Nairobi—probably at a mall like Westgate—for clothes, but we decided that was too American—we wanted to go out and do something from this list of “stuff to do before you leave” that a professor sent us.
And thus, we decided to be absolute grandmas and go to the Botannical Gardens and a Maasai Craft Store…it’s always weird to think about how lucky we were to be in another section of Nairobi, called Langata, that day.
Basically, I was walking down the street trying to catch a matatu—the chaotic form of public transport here in the form of overpacked vans usually bumpin’ reggae music—when the director to my program called me asking where [my friend] and I were. She told us there was shooting at Westgate, so don’t go to the Westlands.
To be honest, we had seen shooting situations—not terrorist attacks—before and we didn’t even really flinch. We just went about our daily business assuming it was another robbery or something. Then, news started coming out and details unraveled when we got home that night.
No one really made us stay somewhere but by default we stayed in that night because 1) Westlands is the big party scene and that was obviously a no-go and 2) the mood was really somber. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who was killed, and it was just a time where we all felt we needed to show a united respect.
Do you know anyone who was at the mall that day?
People I know lost relatives and friends, but no one I had direct connection to was there.
In general, what are your perceptions of safety now? Is your program stricter in terms of security and where you go?
Security has always been an issue here and personally, I think the worst thing to do is to follow the exact protocol of a white tourist, a “muzungu.” It just makes the experience isolating and kind of makes it seem like all Kenyans are going to rob you, which is so far from the truth. The way I see it, I just try to be wise about what protocol I choose to ignore.
With some things, I have found it’s better to just go for it and trust people. For instance: my friends and I choose to use matatus and pikipikis—motorcycles—with the locals rather than getting a cab. That probably isn’t the most secure choice, but it’s something I’m willing to do to have a fuller, more fun experience here.
But because of security issues I have witnessed—such as the Westgate attack—I think I’m more cognizant of when I choose to take a risk. The irony, though, is that the Westgate attack occurred at the very place—a nice expatriate facility—that we are shown is a safe place to hang out in the city. I went into a Nakumatt—like a small Walmart—in a mall similar to Westgate yesterday to get some things and I definitely got chills.
What’s the situation like in Nairobi now and how has it changed since before the attack?
Things are a bit different in a literal sense. Nairobi has always had security guards everywhere—but now they seem more proactive by actually scanning bags, checking cars and looking more alert overall.
In a cultural sense, Kenyans are super news-conscious so there is constant reporting on Westgate. The media constantly emphasizes the need for unity and the importance of not dividing along religious lines.
This country knows its reputation for ethnic divisions and vividly remembers the 2007 post-election ethnic violence. I’m not sure, but I think people keep this in mind as they know the potential for Muslim-Christian conflict, and therefore urge compassion and unity with Kenyan Somalis and Muslims.
As for daily activities—aside from the obvious that no one can go to Westgate—people are going about their daily business. It seems as if people aren’t more wary of where they go but perhaps more wary of a greater evil out there. A lot of people still seem to be grappling with the idea of terrorism in itself.
Politics are always interesting here. People are now looking to various security agencies to find blame in the issue. The president has demanded beefed up security. Deputy President [William] Ruto continues to try to put off his crimes against humanity trial at the [International Criminal Court], as he says he needs to be in Kenya in the aftermath of Westgate.
Beyond the attack, what’s your experience been like living in Kenya so far?
It’s amazing. I tried to come without too many expectations, which has allowed me to understand all of Kenya’s regional and demographic complexities more fully.
Clare McLaughlin ’15 is a Government and Environmental Studies major and writes for the Orient while on campus.