Just thoughts

Do we stand the risk of forgetting what happened at Westgate Mall?

A society uninterested and unwilling to learn from the past is doomed. We must never forget our history. We must never lower our guard.
J. Edgar Hoover

Three years later, I am still not convinced.

I am not convinced about how many gunmen there were or what eventually happened to them. I am not convinced about how many people died and if the siege had to last as long as it did. But most of all, I am not convinced that they should have reopened the mall in the way they did.

But being convinced or not doesn’t seem to be an issue. And so we have moved on-  business as usual.

This is Westgate mall I am talking about.

To this day, every report that’s been released about the attack on Westgate is vague in terms of what actually happened. We know there was a terror attack and many lives were lost- at least 67 is the number that is often bandied about- meaning it could have been 68 or 73, who knows. The number of people responsible for the untold horrors, who they were and where they ended up is just as ambiguous. The facts surrounding what happened behind closed doors in those four days we were under siege are marred with contradictions. In other words, we don’t know much. But we have moved on- in true Kenyan style.

Westgate mall is back to its spanking snazzy self, competing with a myriad of other equally snazzy malls for the top position as Nairobi’s premier shopping mall.

Research shows that Nairobi doesn’t need any more malls- more so when they are all basically offering the same thing- same experiences,  same brands, same pay for parking policies. There is nothing disruptive in the mall culture in Kenya and you would think that with the kind of history Westgate has, it would have done something to change that.

It didn’t.

Save for some tighter security measures, Westgate mall is exactly the same as it was before September 21st 2013. It’s as if nothing happened there.

I am not looking to dwell or wallow; I am just wondering if ignoring such a crucial part of our history is the right way to go. I am wondering about how those who lost their loved ones feel about the current state of affairs.

When you walk into the mall, the first thing you encounter is a majestic water feature which looks exactly as it did pre-attack. What if post attack, it incorporated memories of those who died at the mall and those who stood up to the attackers? What if it was a calming focal point that offered an opportunity for reflection for all visitors coming to the mall?

How about if a section within the mall had been dedicated to the promotion of peace, something to constantly remind us that we are one? Remember that catch phrase? In the days following the attack, we were not Kikuyu or Luo or Kalenjin, we were one. Even our politicians were one. Those three words were synonymous with Westgate, why did they have to end there? In rebuilding the mall, would it have cost too much to dedicate a section of the mall to the spirit of Kenyans being one? A place where everyone could come together in acceptance of one another, a place that could highlight the fact that we are bigger than our past mistakes, our pettiness.

Or maybe a section that would bring together all disaster management agencies: the defense forces, the hospitals, the red cross, ambulances, volunteers, the media… because we all know about the confusion that sets in during such times, no one knows seems to know what to do- how about if they had put up a disaster command center like no other, with state of the art equipment?

Or how about a centre of the ex-Al shabaab that the governemnent was offering amnesty? A place they could come and talk, get rehabilitation, search deeper and seek understanding for all of humanity?

I am not suggesting that the investors needed to give up their estate to charitable causes, because realistically, that land where Westgate sits is extremely valuable and this was their call to make. All I am saying is, there were so many possibilities that even a capitalist would still have been able to have his cake and eat it, possibilities that could have been explored to enable Kenyans and the world at large to come out better on the other side.

I don’t doubt that these investors grappled with how to move forward after the attack, but looking at the mall today, it appears as if the discussions were centered around the fact that security needed to be tightened. Full stop. If there was any discussion about how to honour the people who died there or how to come out of the ordeal a stronger people, there is nothing to show for it.

A friend of mine from the UK was at this mall the other day and he told me that if he hadn’t been told there had been an attack, he would never have guessed the mall had such a history, he went on to say that it was a shame- not just because the victims had been forgotten and so soon but because the mall would have drawn in more visitors if it had repositioned itself differently.
I agree with him.  Can you imagine the human traffic that mall would have drawn if it represented something more than commerce and business?

And just so we are clear, I believe the re-opening of Westgate was good, a strong message to terrorists that if they destroy something in this country it will, eventually, be rebuilt. It was a tremendous symbol of our courage and resolve. They will never kill our spirit. They will never win. We will always rebuild. That’s what the mall represents. But simply rebuilding without meaning points to something other than courage and resolve; there are other things in this world besides making money.

It is important that we remember our history, have a correct understanding of it and teach it to those who never had the opportunity to go through it in the first place- we need to reinforce the fact that our lives matter and when we suffer; we shouldn’t suffer alone, when we die, we honour each other.

It is brave to stand up to aggression, but insisting on making everything exactly the way it was before is just obstinate. It is also an indicator that as human beings, we still don’t get it. We still have a long way to go.