23 September 2013

Normal People Doing Normal Things: Processing Westgate

Shootings and horrible violence happen every day. All over the world. Ordinarily those places only exist within the context of the news report you’re reading. And that’s how we cope with what’s happening around us. Oh, I’ve never been there before. Or, I would never go to that country so that couldn’t happen to me. 

I tend to forget that normal people were just doing normal things before it gets very, very bad. Like Iraqis going to a funeral on Saturday and then 60 of them are killed. Or on Sunday how people were just sitting in church in Pakistan when 80 were killed. Because it’s all so foreign and far away. And don’t they know their lives were at risk anyway? Living in those crazy countries and doing things like going to church and funerals when there are terrorists around?!

And then on Saturday these guys took over Westgate Mall in Nairobi. If you read the news articles, Westgate is described as this elite mall rising above the slums of Nairobi with a giant bull’s eye on it. There had been threats from terrorists before. And it’s owned by Israelis after all, so didn’t those upscale Kenyans and expats know what kind of risk they were taking by shopping there? That’s how I would read the news. Mostly so I can process the violence and convince myself it would never happen to me. And continue my normal day. 

But I’ve been to Westgate many, many times. There are other similar malls in Nairobi with movie theaters and food courts. You do not feel as though Westgate is special and you have achieved some elite status once you walk inside. You can see each floor and size-up all the stores from the underwhelming main entrance. You aren't made aware that it's owned by Israelis or there have been terror threats in the past. I certainly never knew it was anyone’s bull’s eye.  

I’ve shopped there on many occasions. Mostly when I’ve chaperoned groups of high schoolers from here in Kinshasa when we go to a conference in Nairobi. The mall is close to our hotel, so they beg to spend their evenings there cruising around and feeling like normal teenagers. I go to supervise so they don’t get in trouble, and I stay far away from them so they don’t get embarrassed. 

Basically I sit in a cafĂ© near the main entrance and people-watch. Now that spot is famous for being littered with dead bodies. But before that, I know there were people hanging out doing very normal things. 

Once I watched a little Indian boy have his first encounter with an escalator. He was petrified to put his foot onto the moving steps. His mom yelled at him as she glided up and up further away, “Just get on! Just step on!” He was so scared and then finally made the jump. They both doubled over laughing in relief.

Normal people doing normal things.

Another time I saw a woman who I assumed was American and about my age. She looked like she was getting in her R&R after spending who-knows-how-long out in the bush working for some organization. She came over to me, probably because I looked just like her, and sheepishly whispered, “Do you know where I can find some medicine for a yeast infection?”  
Normal people doing normal things. 

I sympathetically pointed her in the direction of one of my favorite pharmacies. Remember when I wrote about watching the Kenyan presidential debate at a mall pharmacy with a kind security guard who pitied me for living in DRC? That was at Westgate. 

Normal people doing normal things. 

On another night as it reached curfew time, I met up with my high school group at our designated spot in front of the supermarket. A few of them smirked. Then giggled uncontrollably. When they could no longer contain themselves, they came clean. The girls had pierced their noses and some of the boys pierced their ears. A chaperone’s worst fear. My eyes doubled in size as I imagined their parent’s reactions. (I hope none of them read Mama Congo.)

Normal people doing normal things.  

Yesterday when speaking at the memorial for the Washington Navy Yard shooting, Obama said, "I fear there's a creeping resignation that this is somehow the new normal. It ought to obsess us, it ought to lead to some sort of transformation."   

So for now I find myself obsessing about all those people doing normal things before something very bad happened. Yes, it's politics and terrorism and other complicated issues that scholars are already analyzing. But mostly it's someone's mother or father or child going about their normal day. Violence is not normal. For anyone. Anywhere.

*We know that many of you have also been to Westgate or know someone who was there. Or maybe you're amid violence in another place. Please share your thoughts.


  1. Normalcy and violence go together too often. I've been reflecting on it myself recently here: http://justkalinaw.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/heavy-heart/ and here: http://justkalinaw.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/what-does-war-look-like/ (By the way if it's your first time visiting my blog be sure to read my disclaimers on my "about" page where I say I know nothing...) Since my last post there's been yet another two outbreaks of violence with hostage-taking. I'm currently on a basic "house arrest" for security reasons, but along the streets and in the city everything feels so very "normal." I sigh heavily.

    1. Thanks for your links, Sharon. How did I miss you're in the Philippines now? Good luck for your time there and lots of hope for peace.

  2. It's so easy to remove ourselves from terrible events, like you said. Or even blame people for going out and shopping in that market when a car bomb went off, or for enjoying an afternoon at the mall when it got overrun by terrorists. You make a good point, one that we need to be reminded of in times like this.
    -new reader


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