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Westgate massacre: Remembering a happy, colourful Nairobi.

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by Mintu Mohan I have been in a trance, for the last three days, too shocked at what is happening in Nairobi. Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya that was our home till we left it 3 weeks ago, is under siege. It feels as if our backyard has been bombed. Westgate mall was the only glitzy mall in the city of Nairobi, at least in the area with maximum concentration of expats and Kenyans of Indian origin. This is where all the action is now.

Even though I claim to hate malls and detest everything they stand for, I guess we all get drawn to this artificial cocoon like flies to light, so much so that even we the “wannabe socialists” end up there more often than we like. We lived 10 minutes away from Westgate, so close that I have sneaked out to catch movies with my husband during his lunch breaks from the office. We were regulars on Tuesdays to the “Pizza Inn” to enjoy the “2 for the price of 1” offer and afterwards to have yogurt ice cream at “Planet Yogurt”.

“Nakumatt”, the only big supermarket chain in East Africa, owned by a Kenyan Indian, was our one stop shopping destination in spite of the high prices. Indians dominated Westlands, where Westgate mall is located and the nearby Parklands area. At any time, a good percentage of shoppers in Westgate would be in sari or salwar kameez or the traditional dress of the Bohra community. These are Indians who have lived in Kenya for generations and have made it their home but have held on to the traditions of their ancestors. A lot of businesses in the area are also owned by these Indians. Smoke rises from the besieged Westgate mall in Nairobi. AFP.

When we moved to Nairobi in August 2012, our Africa dreams had finally materialised. The dream that we both had nurtured for many years by watching the twinkle in the eyes of friends who had lived in Africa and reading Wilbur Smith, was just coming true. From the moment we landed in Kenya the warnings and advice started pouring in – don’t go here, don’t go there, don’t drive at night, don’t walk on the streets, always keep windows rolled up in the car and so on. Incessant warnings, security briefings, daily emails and text messages on security situation and horror stories from people who have been there for years were part of the daily routine. But none of this deterred us from getting out and exploring this country that is blessed in abundance with natural beauty. Along the way, I also came to love Kenyans who are among the most polite, hearty and jovial people I have come across. Kenyans love to talk. If I paused long enough with the fruit and vegetable sellers at the market,theywould start to chat me up, enquiring about family, where I am from, how many kids I have and whether I plan to “add ” more.

I particularly enjoyed the Kenyan English used by local people where they often added difficult words into everyday language. On asking for directions to a guard once I got ” Madam, proceed straight, negotiate the curve to the right…” Our 365 days in Nairobi, which I think we utilised to the fullest by visiting each and every safari park and any place of interest, was not marred by a single bad experience even though burglaries and car jacking abounded. The only instance when we were in a “situation” was when our car got bogged in Lake Nakuru. The first van that came along stopped and the driver helped us call for help and he waited till our vehicle was pulled out and we were on our way, even though it was getting late and he had clients with him. Sitting here thinking back on the time spent in Westgate, I am surprised that I remember so many faces. I wonder if these faces I know are safe.

We had gone to enjoy the succulent burgers at “Urban”, the newly opened burgerplace and I remember being served on both our visits by this thin tall girl with a wide smile. “Urban” was the first shop at the main entrance and people sat on the verandah enjoying the open air were apparently the first to be hit by bullets! In our last weeks in the city, I was in “Nakumatt” almost every other day to deal with some issue with our VAT refund so much so that I still can see the face of the customer service officer who helped me sort it out; the kind lady at the counter of Kazuri bead shop who patiently let me browse through each and every piece in her shop over a few weeks till I mustered the courage to pick up one of their exorbitantly priced necklaces; and the Indian lady in Salwar Kameez, who would sell 250 Ksh (Rs 175) scoops of sinful delight from her gelato counter on the ground floor. There were several such small counters scattered all over the mall selling Kenyan and Ethiopian handicrafts or mobile accessories. I shudder to think that those sellers might have been in the direct line of fire.

I did hear back from a lot of my friends saying they are safe, but in a year one meets a lot of people and Nairobi is a small town and the expat community, really tiny. Every moment I am getting flashes of faces I have met and I pray that they survived. Each friend who wrote to me had a tale of miracle, where one family didn’t go for their routine Saturday lunch only because the husband unexpectedly had to work. Another one cancelled a dental appointment because her son had a match in school, and yet another friend’s son had a lunch date at the “Art Café” which thankfully got cancelled because the friend saw his message too late.“Art Café” is a coffee shop chain that is extremely popular with the expat crowd and at no time have I seen it empty. The seating here spills onto the verandah space next to “Urban”. I am glad that my friends in Kenya are not directly affected. I am glad that I am far away in another continent,but the question lingers … will the quaint Nairobi be the same again? Mintu Mohan is a former resident of Nairobi.




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