On Saturday 21 September the Westgate Mall in Nairobi was taken over by militants. They killed and injured a shocking number of visitors and occupied the building for days. Kenya fought back by emphasizing the unity and solidarity among its citizens.
Little to remember, loads to forget
In my research on Mt. Kenya UNESCO World Heritage Site I often have to think through processes of collective remembering. Heritage, by its very nature, evokes a sense of shared pasts and intends to keep the memory of such pasts alive. Monuments, works of art, languages, entire sceneries: they can become symbolic of particular eras, individuals, important events etc., and as such they can be mobilized in an effort to establish and support a sense of a collective. In Kenya, however, collective remembering is not so easy. Burdened by rather violent events in its past, which articulated the differences rather than the common ground between its citizens, there is not much history available that could help cultivating a sense of collective nationhood. In Kenya, one could say, there is little to remember but loads to forget.
The drama that unfolded at Westgate Mall provided an excellent opportunity to make Kenyan citizens forget, if only temporarily, the country’s turbulent past. Often, when large-scale disasters take place the nation state all of a sudden emerges as an important frame of reference. Think of national fundraising activities, the listing of victims according to their nationality, or government calls to act as responsible citizens and support victims in whatever way necessary. In Kenya it was little different. Soon after the news spread that an armed group had stormed Westgate Mall a media campaign took off emphasizing the bond between Kenya’s citizens.
Unity, unity, unity
The news coverage that kept the larger audience informed almost 24 hours a day between 21 and 24 September (when Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta finally announced that operation Westgate had ended) was telling in its focus. In a way, or so it seemed to me, the drama was symbolically exploited to promote a harmonious image of Kenya. A few examples: in interviews people were caught on screen saying things like ‘as a nation we have to realize we have to step up and face terrorism’ or ‘they cannot stop us from being a united Kenya’. Uhuru Kenyatta claimed to be deeply moved and proud to be the President of a country whose ‘response has been nothing short of wonderful’, all the while exclaiming that ‘we Kenyans fight back’. Together with his rival Raila Odinga he toured the Aga Khan Hospital, where the two men offered their sympathy to victims and their families.
The limited number of film shots available were edited together and accompanied by the Warren Brothers song Dear Mister God and Chris Tomlin’s God of this City, as if proposing to pray collectively for the fight to end soon. Photos from Westgate Mall that quickly circulated on the internet and in newspapers mainly showed two themes: they were either of army and police officers fighting to get control over Westgate Mall, or of people assisting one another in fleeing the building, nurturing wounds, finding comfort, and so on. Notably, many of the latter kind were ‘multi-cultural’ and showed citizens of different origin aiding one another. And of course there was the countrywide call for blood donors. All over Kenya people were encouraged to visit nearby hospitals to donate blood because stocks in Nairobi were running out.
The whole media circus reminded me of that other occasion earlier this year that had caught the attention of so many Kenyans for days in a row: the March elections. Here, too, there had been a strong emphasis on unity and peace, but the angle was somewhat different. Rather than being encouraged by the presence of a common enemy, as was the case for Westgate Mall, the March plea for unity arose from fear. Fear that (as had happened during previous elections) next-door neighbors would attack each other during voting or after election results had been announced. Only a few months back the country had held its breath and was watched closely by the larger international community to see whether it would be capable of averting political riots.
But almost overnight a different ambiance arose and even though politicians undoubtedly made effective use of the footage collected by journalists something bigger seemed to be going on as well. Unknown to one another, people started to look out for their fellow citizens, united by the severity of the situation.
How long before amnesia falls prey to amnesia?
All this made me muse on the power of national disasters. How effective could they be in wiping out unbefitting memories and instigating a form of instant collective amnesia? And how long could their effects last? Indeed, did part of the painful memories of domestic conflict and uproar go up in smoke, together with parts of the shopping center?
If so, this would certainly be an uncalculated side effect of the attack that, in all probability, was directed precisely at disrupting the Kenyan government and the nation at large. Perhaps the pointlessness and the arbitrariness of the attack had triggered something of an unprecedented collective grieving. But then again, the sense of a collective trauma or loss could also soon wear out and the images that had so convincingly communicated national solidarity could end up as empty shells, representing little more than endeavors to reassure investors and tourists that Kenya is still a safe place to spend money. All in all I would not be surprised if, for a long time to come, the Westgate Mall tragedy will continue to be evoked in an attempt to keep the spirit of collective action alive. And who knows: perhaps in the long run it offers Kenya a possibility to remember, rather than only to forget.