In Nairobi: Hoping (Pretending) that Al Qaeda is Done Blowing Up Shopping Malls

Since the attack at the Westgate Mall, billboards advertising metal detectors and CCTV cameras have mushroomed across Nairobi. But the old sound is the same: the incessant honking and screeching of the minibuses - matatus, in Swahili — pushing through the swarms of people.

It’s afternoon, overcast, and I am on a matatu on a highway heading into the city. The voices of two men next to me compete with the radio. They are arguing about Westgate.

Everyone wants to know: Did our soldiers loot or not? There’s footage showing soldiers entering the mall — supposedly to rescue hostages — and, later, emerging from a supermarket and jewellery shop inside the mall with polythene bags full of mysterious goods. There were no hostages with them. The supermarket says that its safe was vandalized and that millions of shillings have vanished.

The matatu stops in a crowded street. I get off and push through the crowd. The police say we shouldn’t gather in big groups — the better to avoid a terrorist attack — but everyone ignores them. There are 3.5 million people in Nairobi. How can you avoid being with other people? Everyone thinks Westgate was an isolated case. Maybe this is just a protective way of thinking because there’s nowhere to hide, and it’s hard to stop an attack. Our borders with Somalia are porous, and in Nairobi the streets are very crowded, especially where “extremist” Muslims live.

I follow the two men away from the crowd, up Kenyatta Avenue, and, because I have nowhere else to go, I follow them into an office building. They are talking about President Kenyatta and the International Criminal Court, in the Hague, which has charged him with crimes against humanity. The trial starts November 12; Kenyatta, of course, will not be there. “It’s colonialism!” says one of the men, as a security guard runs a hand-held metal detector over his torso, arms, legs, mid-section. Then he leaves his identity card with the reception and steps into an elevator.



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