Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, And The Folly Of ‘Otherness’ – What Al-Shabaab Revealed About Us

USE -westgate-shopping-mall_kenya2_mainAROUND noon on Saturday September 21, a group of terrorists believed to number 10 to 18 stormed the Westgate Mall in western Nairobi.

By the third day, 69 had been killed during the attack, or died later in hospital. Another 175 had been injured. Today the crisis entered its fourth day. In the evening a downcast President Uhuru Kenyatta, came on TV to give heartbreaking news. The crisis had come to an end, but the three floors of the mall had collapsed from explosions, and the terrorists and an unknown number of people were trapped in the rubble.

Amidst the tragedy, we are about to forget that the first day of the crisis offered quite troubling insights about how we the media view the world.

Some Kenyan journalists, especially TV presenters, inundated their audiences with references to Westgate mall being popular with “wealthy Kenyans, expatriates and diplomats”. It was also referred to as an “upscale mall” “frequented by foreigners”.

Foreign media said the mall was a “hangout for Kenya’s middle class” was

The rescue broke down colour lines in dramatic ways.

The rescue broke down colour lines in dramatic ways.

“frequented by westerners”. On one TV morning show, a panelist who was honest enough to say he had never been to Westgate, claimed that a cup of coffee at cafes there costs Sh600 (US$7), and that the average cost of a meal at the restaurants there is Sh2,800. Not true. As of the time of the terrorist attack, the most expensive coffee at the “hip” Art Caffe was about Sh300 ($3.5) – and even that for a double Iced Cappuccino. And the average cost of a meal was Sh900 (three times less expensive than the commentator said it was).

Unsurprisingly several presenters and reporters also said the “radical Somalia group Al-Shabaab” had claimed responsibility for the attacks, and some referred to them as “Islamic terrorists”.

Men and women who are more educated and far cleverer than me about these matters, refer to this as “media framing” – how media perceive and report about an event, and the picture they try to paint in the minds of their readers and viewers about the event.

On the face of it seems there is really nothing harmful in this portrait of the crowd at Westgate. After all quite a few expatriates, diplomats, and middle class Kenyans do frequent the mall.

However late Saturday, someone posted a cheeky but telling tweet. He said something like “blessed are the poor, for they don’t go to Westgate”. The unsaid message there was that the privileged, who enjoy a good life, were the ones being hurt at Westgate, and those who are not rich should not bother sharing their pain – after all the wealthy don’t do much to relieve their suffering.

The western media were telling their audiences that, “well, it is Africa alright, and ordinarily we wouldn’t bother you with this story, except that this time you should pay attention because westerners could have been killed”. Indeed, they were, and that sent the western media to town with the Westgate story.

On Saturday evening our daughter came to me and said; “Americans are impossible, you should see what they are saying about the Westgate attack”. She showed me comments on the NBC TV website, where Americans were asking why the network was wasting their time with the Westgate story, “it is Africa after all”.

In common all these were narratives about them versus us, our “otherness” – our different cultures, possessions, religions, citizenships, languages, food,

Kenyan and non-Kenya security officers secure an area inside Westgate mall - when evil came calling, all took to arms (Reuters)

Kenyan and non-Kenya security officers secure an area inside Westgate mall – when evil came calling, all took to arms (Reuters)

aesthetics, and the colour of our skins.

Debased “otherness” enables us to ignore the pain of others and sleep soundly at night; to discriminate against people who are different without having to trouble our consciences; to persecute those who are not our relatives, fellow citizens, not of our religion, or social station without being afflicted by a sense of injustice. This type of “otherness” is anaesthesia against having to be humane.

However, by the evening of Sunday, references to “Islamic terrorists”, to a Westgate that was “popular with wealthy Kenyans, expatriates and foreigners” had died out. Why did the media suddenly drop these descriptions?

Because reality challenged the media stereotype of the Westgate attack. There were several ordinary folks who had been killed, or were bloodied and injured. It didn’t add up, they were not supposed to be in Westgate. Then, there were too many children—surely, they didn’t deserve to be killed. And, there were a little many Asians and mzungus (Caucasians) helping black Africans into ambulances, and even carrying and running with them to safety.

And everywhere you looked there were many black Africans sprinting with

The pain touched people of all religions.

The pain touched people of all religions.

Asian and mzungu children and women to safety, and nursing the wounded ones.

And then there was an awkward wrinkle – Muslims too were among the dead. That was not supposed to happen, you know, how come “Islamist terrorists” were killing other Muslims? One of the survivors said he watched in horror when two terrorists asked some women to cite verses of the Quran to prove they were Muslim. They did…then the men shot them at point blank range. Some terrified people who were lying on the ground screamed; “why did you shoot them?”

One of the gunmen replied, “because they were not wearing the hijab”. So, it seems, misogyny and patriarchy trumped religion.

And Kenyans died, in the same way Ghanaian, British, and French nationals did.

Come Sunday, unbelievably long lines had formed in places around Nairobi where the Red Cross was taking blood donations. The city had never seen anything like this. Most of the donors were the “poor”, the humble, the working class, lining up to donate blood for the supposed upper class that patronises

New bonds were forged in moments of trial.

New bonds were forged in moments of trial.


None of this fitted the script. Vulgar “otherness” had been put to shame by the people’s common humanity and decency.

So perhaps it is time to pause and reflect. The outcome of the Westgate terror attack seemed to tell that not all contests between those who have and those who don’t are a Lenist class war. Not every contest between cultures, religions, or races is a battle for conquest and domination. That they are well-meaning negotiations for space, for respect, for a little share of the pie, for some of the air, for a bit of the limelight, not a tango of death.


117 comments on “Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, And The Folly Of ‘Otherness’ – What Al-Shabaab Revealed About Us

  1. noni mugo
    September 25, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Reblogged this on aesthetic asymmetry.

  2. ac
    September 25, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

    I really liked the tone of this piece, except for the unprovoked jab at Americans. I don’t think it’s fair to judge us by our local comments sections (I realize the irony of me broadcasting this sentiment in a comments section).

  3. john
    September 26, 2013 at 12:49 am #

    i so tire of people trying their best to excuse the atrocities of Westgate as having nothing to do with ISLAM. The fact muslims died in the attack does not negate the fact, but simply reinforces that this ideology does not accept modernity or coexistence. The medias attempt to moderate the actions of the group as a SINGULAR ABNORMAL DISTORTED action of EXTREMIST who are ISLAMIST comically sugar coats the fact that this is religious terrorism committed by Muslims to achieve varying political ends in the name of religion. An unpalatable fact but a fact nonetheless which we must accept! al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram, AL Shabaab all espouse the same ideology of an islamic state as prescribed by the dogma of their faith. If we are afraid to acknowledge what the problem is because we fear to smear moderates with extremism then we will simple perpetuate the opening for these attacks because we allow the ideology of their faith to flourish within our society without the reformation to check the violent medina suras that hold precedent in Islam.

    • Mohamed
      September 26, 2013 at 11:47 am #

      IRA in Nothern Ireland were terrorists but I never heard a single Muslim refer to them as Christian Terrorists. Terrorists are terrorists, and no religion propagates terror. Don’t fall into their trap. Judge Islam by the actions of 99.99% of muslims and not the 0.01%.

      • JohnT
        September 26, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

        The IRA were not referred to as Christian terrorists because their campaign was a largely secular struggle and it was not based on religion.They were not calling for a Catholic state but a united Ireland, whereas Al Shabaab and the like are waging a war based upon religion.
        The only similarity is that the Republicans were, indeed, judged by the actions of the violent few, just as the 99.9% of muslims will also be judged..

      • julesbeebo
        September 27, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

        yes, I agree with you.

    • Sam
      September 26, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

      Hi John, thanks for the comment. I am guessing that you are American. If you are, then I suggest you should definitely not attempt to scratch too far beneath the surface of what you call ‘varying political ends’, as you might find that most of these uncomfortably lead a little too close to home. Most of these groups have either been directly set up, funded or radicalised by the actions of the US government and its’ allies. Perhaps if the US government and its’ murdering hordes and proxies went back to where they came from and left the rest of the world alone, we would see much less of these types of atrocities. Somehow though, citizens of the US and the rest of the developed world would have to be content with the fruits of their own hard labour and increasing fuel costs as their greed and love of living large beyond their means (even the government, at every level is broke) uses up their own limited supplies. If the developed world (or rather those very few who control the opinions of uneducated masses) stopped raping and pillaging anyone who is weaker, or has differing views, or who presents an opportunistic target, perhaps then we would see less radicals. If Americans and their government all stayed home, then you would have to contend with your own right wing extremists, your one gun for every single human in the country, your spiralling debt, personal and public, your failing education system, your shambolic health care system, your crumbling infrastructure and your lack of basic grammar. How about we try that for a while, instead of casting aspersions on those who we bully, when they fight back in these pathetic ways that they do. If the developed world sets the example of bombing men, women and children from drone planes, torturing people without trial, routinely ignoring the UN and international law, then how do you expect a bunch of uneducated peasants to react? Blaming these attrocities on religion is as ignorant as these fools that carry out these acts.

      • Annette Bates
        September 27, 2013 at 3:24 am #

        Well said, Sam. Agree with you 100%. And I am an American.

      • Chatsworth
        September 27, 2013 at 10:50 am #

        I’m American and I agree with this statement. The Americans I know feel the same. Its unfortunate that the rest of the world generally knows more about what our government does to the world than our own citizens do. Those that speak up and challenge are written off by the public as crazy conspiracy theorists. This embarrasses and saddens me.

      • Sarita
        September 28, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

        Truth bravely spoken.

      • Juliana
        October 1, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

        Oh Sam, can I buy you a drink for that wonderful post! Sick too my tummy of America’s hypocrisy and double standards. I couldn’t have penned it any better!

    • ala tozzi
      September 26, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

      Well said John. I agree with you fully.

    • lilongweinmybackpack
      September 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

      it seems, John, you have already made up your mind. May I challenge you to allow yourself to at least consider other people’s opinions. You’ll be suprised at what new things you still have to learn….

    • lilongweinmybackpack
      September 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

      John, your comment suggests that you have made up your mind about all of Islam and its followers. May I challenge you to – at the very least- consider other people’s opinions bearing in mind that we don’t always share experiences with Islam and Muslims in the same way you do. You will be surprised at what you will learn, the world is a big place. Holding on to absolutist opinions is unrealistic in a world of such diversity. Your approach seems to have more in common with the Islamic extremists than you realise.

      • juddyblaise
        September 26, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

        perhaps john’s conclusion makes him a christian extremist.

      • ifeyinwaelueze
        September 26, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

        The main focus of his post was enlightening people on “otherness” a concept that I find simple, but strangely complex.
        It is not a justification for the attack or whomever is responsible for it.
        Its a call to wake up and smell the coffee, everyone is affected by things that go wrong around them, you and I are not excluded. And we need to jointly help put things in other, arguing about who is in the right or wrong won’t help.

    • Shabalala
      September 26, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      What truly is factual is that “al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram, AL Shabaab all espouse the same ideology of an islamic state as prescribed by [their interpretations of] the dogma of their faith.” Yes, that reads better.

    • Dennis Ongata
      September 26, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

      John, while I appreciate your views, I would like you to see the bigger picture. While the Islamic ideologies are set pretext to all these things, there is a greater war being fought on a larger scale, and its a war we all don’t see. There are many innocent Muslims who are true to their conscience and would not perpetrate such dogmas described as extremist. Someone is playing a game. All these terrorist organizations some too sophisticated even to their own, seemingly controlled by Jesuitish agenda of world dominion and a new world order, an “ordo ab cao’ or simply order out of chaos; will they not relentlessly work to destroy our society, to threaten peace among mankind and collapse the very fabric of society?

      We must wake up to the reality that we are all being overtaken by an evil wave, which when full blown is soon taking away our freedoms and enslaving us.

      • shy
        September 26, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

        Thank you seems like there are still some sensible people out there. Its so easy to jump to conclusions and not think. There are a lot of Muslims in the world and clearly we’re ALL not like that otherwise well the world would have ended according to some people. I am a Muslim and it just surprises me how much hate people have. I mean this is a time to think, its a time to grieve many have lost their loved ones and me being one of them and all people can do is point fingers. Islam this islam that.. muslims this muslims that… Whoever did this they use religion as an EXCUSE to do what they do. A lot of other Muslims read the Quran, follow it but you don’t see all of them holding people hostage, raping women, killing innocent people. So please think before you say things.

    • christophersellers
      September 27, 2013 at 6:45 am #

      Your narrow-mindedness is extraordinary & you have entirely missed the point of this article.

    • Rabba
      September 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      .whitewashing the Islamic factor just because muslims died too (RIP) is excusing the fact that Islamic doctrine is the base of this thinking…Sure Islamic leaders will come out after such an incident and denounce it…yet the same leaders and their flock will speak negatively and hatefully about non muslims when with their own.

  4. africanstardust
    September 26, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    I am a South African and lived in the US from when I was 6 until I was 16, at which point we moved back to SA. While I was in high school in the US, my history teacher said one day that technically we were supposed to learn about the Rwandan genocide, “but it’s just Africa, and stuff like that happens in Africa all the time, so we’re going to skip it.” I cannot explain to you the outrage that I felt. How is it so easy to dismiss human lives that were lost? How can people just wave it off as “it’s Africa” and think that means it’s somehow less important or not worthy of discussion? Their reaction in this situation doesn’t surprise me. However, I know of many Americans who are praying and who are concerned. My heart goes out to Kenya and its people and I pray that healing and restoration will take place. Thanks for the article.

  5. Paddy Fahy
    September 26, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    I am one of the Mzungus who regularly frequented Westgate. I left the Westgate last friday night / early Sunday morning. It is fair to say that it is an expat, middle class hangout. However, as the article correctly points out, reports have been riddled with inaccuracies. For the record, I paid Ksh450 for chicken pitta bread and fries (yes still a lot of money for some but nothing near what is being reported). Anyone who thinks that the Westgate tragedies will not touch every section of the community is sadly mistaken. Aprart from the dead and injured and their families,there of 100’s of ordinary hard working Kenyan’s whose livelihoods depended on their employment at Westgate.

    One small comfort, I took from Saturday was observing the cross section of people who responded to KRC’s appeal for blood donations. Among them were: Kenyans, Somalis Indians and Mzungus, All wanting to do what they could.

  6. Mike
    September 26, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    John you are so right. Islam is unfortunately the curse of this earth.

    • christophersellers
      September 27, 2013 at 6:48 am #

      Not Christianity or Catholicism? Historically they have a far greater record for genocide than any modern day terrorist.
      Books are full of fun facts…

      • Rabba
        September 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

        Well we live in we need to act like we did in the middle ages?

  7. Jeremy Lansman
    September 26, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    I observe that religious fundamentalist/orthodox people are, like iron filings in a magnetic field, oriented in a common direction. To see some as others? Yes, that is a good point. Jew spitting on Jew due to dress (I have seen that in New York) is only different in degree from Muslim killing Muslim over dress.

  8. Ratmanduex
    September 26, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    What ever the the killing by the Jihadist of AL Shabaab of Muslims signifies it does not signify that their motives were not linked to the religion of Islam. The Muslims the killed breached the tenants of the the religion as they view it. It is like a catholic saying that the Inquisition had nothing to do with Catholicism or that apartheid had nothing to do with a particular dutch protestant interpretation of the Bible.

  9. Brian Stewart
    September 27, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    The problem with all religions is that they, without exception, call on the faithful to believe ….or else! Tolerance of differences of opinion is rare and usually found in the more liberal echelons of a particular group. At the risk of generalizing, fundamentalism combined with a myopic view about “the unbelievers” often results in radicalism. Thus religion becomes the war cry of the suppressed/oppressed and is used to manipulate the masses. The long term solution to this is to educate, inform and liberate people’s minds…..unfortunately the very thing that religions tend to fight.

  10. Sarah
    September 27, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    Islam is a religion of peace and unity. It does not condone slaughter of mankind or hurting innocent children despite their race in any manner. John you need a reality check sorry to say. In essence, no religion justifies such atrocities.

    • Rabba
      September 27, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

      Well neither does Islam with all its tenants come together and excommunicate mosques that spew hatred and clean up its reality check right back at you…

    • sefricanwriter
      September 27, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

      Sarah you need to study the Bible and Koran more. All religions were born in bloodshed despite what they may preach. The atrocities listed in the bible like dashing babies against rocks etc are many. Many of the verses in the Qu’ran clearly call on the followers of Islam to become the conquerors of all religions, the followers of which are referred to as idolaters . Refer inter alia to Surah 61:9

    • Noor
      September 29, 2013 at 9:41 am #

      This one does without any doubts.

  11. momof7
    September 27, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    One should never judge Americans by our media. I am American, and I am perpetually disappointed in our media, in the lies they spew and the image they portray of my country. No one I know likes our media. I would like to say that I don’t know how they maintain their power, but the truth is that as long as they support the political leaders of our country, we are stuck with them.

  12. Noek vanBiljon
    September 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    I am a congenital anti-religious but not anti God agnostic skeptic. Religion has northing to do with God It is an earthly man made abstract but I can not agree more profoundly that the habitual use of the expression “muslim terrorist” by the western media is reprehensible and I suspect that there are hidden agendas operating here. On the other hand I am puzzled by the fact that no fatwas have been issued by Islam against people who claim that they are Muslims and then kill in the name of Islam. Christians and Muslims call each other black, like the pot and the kettle and innocent harmless defenseless human beings get trashed in the process.

  13. urbankeystrokes
    October 11, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    Reblogged this on urbankeystrokes.


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