We are getting a lot of news about terrorism these days. It seems in some ways, my mind is shut off to headlines involving Syria, Nigeria and elsewhere. It feels unreal and far away. And that insensitivity makes me feel bad that I don’t put more energy, time and effort into doing something, or, at the very least, thinking and caring about it. I almost lost my life in an act of terrorism, how much more real can that get?
But today, it feels real again, as Al Shabaab waged another attack in Kenya. Now, their focus was at a university and so far, 70 have been reported dead. I know from my experience in previous attacks, the death toll is downplayed to not scare tourists or outsiders. My heart mourns for the loss of these students, when something feels real and close we somehow are able to care and think more of it.
Al-Shabab was minutes away from claiming my life. I had been in Nairobi for business (looking to partner with artisan groups to bring their products to market) and had been staying near a beautiful Western mall known as Westgate. Thursday and Friday, Westgate was my home. I sipped coffee, managed my emails, shopped, used the ATM and worked with a colleague.
On Saturday morning, my colleague and I went outside of Nairobi. After feeding baby elephants, I asked our driver to take me to Art Café at Westgate so I could catch up on work. On our way there, my driver with a panicked look and urgent in movement, turned up the radio. There had been a robbery and we needed to stay away from Westgate. One thing led to another and we later learned that “robbery” was led by Al Shabaab.
It was a ruthless 4 day, what I would call a war, which claimed more than 70 lives and injured 200. Women, children, families, authors, aid workers, Kenyans and internationals had their innocent blood spilled on the marble floors of Westgate.
For days, weeks and months I had survivor’s guilt. I kept playing back in my head what it felt like to sit the café, outside, like I had done the two days previous, where the gunman started their rampage and opened fire. ‘I should have been there’ I kept thinking to myself. ‘Why wasn’t I there?’ In some ways, I was jealous they experienced something I didn’t. Survivor’s guilt is crazy that way. It’s a strange thing that makes you feel like you’ve lived it, even though you didn’t, it makes you wish you had, even though it’s something you would never want to experience in your life. It makes you obsessed with the situation, the timelines and the ‘reasons’ why you weren’t there.
I’ve traveled to Uganda and Burundi post-Westgate, and I was obsessed with the fear, the facts, the predictions of another attack. I’ve had small voices and fear speak to me. ‘Go home. You’re risking your life. It’s dangerous.’ I’ve placed staff in these countries and even tried to adopt a little boy from Uganda, placing me in traffic jams in Uganda where newspapers threatened that Al Shabaab was planning their next attack.
Westgate stopped me in my tracks and terrified me for some time. In my fear and contemplation a friend told me, ‘Fear is the point. They want to terrify us. To stop us. – are you going to let them win?’
After hearing those words of wisdom that I already knew in my heart, I knew I couldn’t stop. That terrorism, fear and security couldn’t stop me from risking what I have to give, what I love and what I want in life for others to experience justice.
Since Westgate, I’ve continued to return to East Africa. I think of many of the places there as home. I’ve continued to hire staff, create job programs and place my time, money and energy on this region.
Why do I do this? Because there is a significant amount of injustice in the world. And we can do something about it. There is hunger and suffering and while it doesn’t’t feel real to use each day, we can still do something. Small things. For me, working in the office today, managing emails, designs, working to create markets, those things can create jobs that rule out unemployment, hunger, anger, terrorism.
I’ve made a choice that I want my life to be about stepping up and doing something, especially in the wake of horrific actions in the world that are meant to stop us.
What big or small things can you do today to create justice for someone else in the world? Here in the US or elsewhere?
Written by: Alicia Wallace