The urge to forget: collective amnesia as a byproduct of the Westgate Mall attacks By ILRI via Flickr

The urge to forget: collective amnesia as a byproduct of the Westgate Mall attacks

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.


Marlous Akker

Thank you Josh, for reading and commenting upon this short piece. Let me start by saying that, as the date of posting suggests, it was written in the middle of the fuzz that the attacks created. As such, the blog mainly tried to engage with the public outrage that the attacks had caused, and with the strong sense of comradeship I believe was emerging. It wondered how long this particular sense of collectiveness would last, but it did not so much (and could not, seeing its date of publication) situate it within the ensuing processes of governance that you refer to.

I agree with you that the cultivation of an image of Kenya as ‘a country under threat by foreign enemies’ is hardly new: the demonization of the ICC and Al-Shabaab are two examples, but presenting the country’s wildlife stock as threatened by Asian demands for ivory and rhino horn, or the caution that resource exploitation by foreign companies elicits (see for instance http://www.nation.co.ke/lifestyle/DN2/Dont-pop-the-champagne-yet-over-the-oil-fields-of-Turkana/-/957860/2076822/-/12p058rz/-/index.html) likewise come to mind.

However, I also think that it is essential to keep in mind the very specific opportunities that all these occasions offer for what you have called ‘emasculating the very freedoms of liberty, independence and freedom’: the ICC charges and the drama at Westgate, for instance, offer a very different rhetorical potential. If only because the first is (partly) about mechanisms that are, or are not, in place to regulate political competition, while the latter is (partly) about the plight of an upcoming middle class pursuing a lifestyle symbolized by Westgate and likewise shopping centres.

There is not just one discourse of nationalist fervour, I would therefore suggest, not one narrative of national identity and pride. Rather there are many, which comment upon different affairs and conditions. Sometimes they indeed overlap and reinforce one another, as you suggest, but other times they undermine and subvert one another (think for instance of the president's attempts to reassure foreign investors that you can witness by using the link in the blog, and the ambivalent stance towards foreign entrepreneurs more generally of which I have included an example in the link above). So yes, let’s explore what these different narratives add up to, and let’s examine how those in charge capitalize on them. But at the same time, let’s not confuse the one for the other, and let’s seriously scrutinize the co-existence of a diverse range of nationalist sentiments.

Josh Maiyo

Its interesting how you capture construction and reconstruction of a narrative of a single Kenyan identity arising from national disaster. These are however, not isolated incidences, but part of a sociopolitical process incorporating a continuum of narratives. The Westgate attack only served to reinforce and cast in new urgency an already surging public discourse of sovereignty, nationalism, kenyan pride and anti-foreign sentiment arising from the International Criminal Court (ICC) charges against the president and his deputy, and associated comments attributed to 'the international community' regarding consequences of electing persons accused of crimes against humanity.

The Westgate attack therefore reinforced this growing discourse, by adding a new twist to sovereignty: National Security and the imperative for Kenyan's to stand as one against all perceived foreign forces threatening its pride and existence as a nation.

Indeed, the Westgate attacks have subsequently been used as a reason for Kenya to ask for deferral and even dismissal of the ICC cases 'in the interest of (inter)national peace and security'. While this sense of 'amnesia' and nationalist fervour is whipped up, the ruling elites have gone a step further to use this lull in public criticism of the state and even vilification of any critical voices to propose laws tightening regulations against critical voices through the gagging of civil society organizations and the media.

It seems therefore that the (re)construction of a narrative of national identity, nationalist pride and a siege mentality goes beyond the creation of a perceived single Kenyan identity; but is subsequently abused to further emasculate the very freedoms of liberty, independence and freedom that the upon which the discourse is constructed.

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