Before Nanette left for her five-month Kiva fellowship in Nairobi, she told me she was memorizing some verses from the Quran.
“Why?” I asked.
“I heard that Al-Shabaab asks their hostages to recite passages from the Quran,” she said. “If you can, they let you go. If you can’t, they tell you to close your eyes.”
I laughed ruefully and took what she said with a grain of salt. After she was accepted into the Fellowship program for Kiva, a nonprofit microfinance organization, the group asked Nanette to list ten countries where she’d like to be stationed in order of preference. Her first four or five were southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. Kenya, the only African country, was somewhere in the middle of her list. When she first heard that Kiva had assigned her there, she wasn’t sure what to make of it. Her excitement in visiting Africa for the first time soon gave away to worry when she found out the U.S. State Department had issued a travel warning against Kenya.
When I first heard of the term “travel warning,” I thought this was a lightly applied label that probably meant the occasional robberies and diseases. This isn’t the case. A travel warning according to the State Department means “Do not go there. At all.”
We issue a Travel Warning when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Warning might include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. We want you to know the risks of traveling to these places and to strongly consider not going to them at all. Travel Warnings remain in place until the situation changes; some have been in effect for years.
Four days ago, a small group of Al-Shabaab militants stormed onto a univerisity in eastern Kenya and killed almost 150 students. It was the worst terrorist attack since the 1998 bombing of the United States Kenyan embassy.
I’ve been reading news reports over the past four days of how as few as four Al-Shabaab members armed with AK-47s and explosives slaughtered 148 innocent civilians. More blood flowed than during the 2002 Mombasa attacks (13 killed, 80 injured), 2013 Westgate shopping mall attack (67 killed, >175 injured), 2014 Nairobi bus bombings (3 killed, 62 injured), 2014 Gikomba bombings (12 killed, 70 injured), or 2014 Lamu attacks (>29 killed).
Al-Shabaab immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in which they separated Muslim kids from non-Muslim kids in an “operation against the infidels.” The attack is in retaliation against Kenya whose military crossed the border into Somalia in 2011 in an effort to root out Al-Shabaab militants. I don’t know much about Al-Shabaab, only that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda didn’t want to associate with them because they originally killed both Muslims and non-Muslims indiscriminately.
Today, according to the New York Times, Al-Shabaab is more targeted but just as ruthless. During their 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall, one of the biggest and nicest malls in Nairobi, these terrorists went down the line and asked people at gunpoint religious trivia questions — “What is the name of the Prophet’s mother?” “What is the name of his first wife?” Those who answered incorrectly were killed on the spot.
How can governments and societies combat extremists who use violence to disrupt daily life? It seems that Al-Shabaab is bent on taking back land they feel belongs to a Somalian Islamic state. They seek to accomplish this by pitting Christians against Muslims and attacking Kenya’s stabilizing institutions like its schools and malls.
Nanette emailed me a list of concerns she had about the Kiva office in Nairobi where she works every day.
Al Shabab is known to attack non-Muslims, and Strathmore being a premier Catholic university may be a prime target.
In an audio message released on Thursday, a Shabab spokesman, Ali Mohamoud Raghe, said the attack had been carried out because “the Christian government of Kenya has invaded our country,” a reference to the Kenyan military’s 2011 incursion into Somalia to oust the Shabab from its strongholds.
He said the university had been targeted because it was educating many Christian students in “a Muslim land under colony,” a reference to the large Somali population in a part of Kenya that Somalia once tried to claim. He called the university part of Kenya’s “plan to spread their Christianity and infidelity.”
Since then, the group has maintained that it tries to minimize Muslim casualties, though Muslims continue to be targets in many of their operations. During the shopping mall attack, gunmen separated Muslim from non-Muslim civilians by asking religious trivia questions (“What is the name of the Prophet’s mother?” “What is the name of his first wife?”). The “nonbelievers” were killed on the spot.
Other universities around Nairobi have put up warning against Al Shabab attack in the past one week (however I see no such warning at Strathmore). See picture below.
Kiva office and Strathmore walls are literally made of glass, rendering it impossible to seek protection in any of the rooms.
I wished water and food would have sufficed should an attack occur!
There is a warning that says that Nairobi may be the next target. We received this warning from [name redacted], as well as, separately, my roommate who works at Living Goods:
Sharing the following message from the International Rescue Committee via the Nairobi Security Consortium:
Nairobi under high alert. Security agencies asserting that Garisa is a decoy. Military deployment heavy around South C where they think terrorist are. Be alert.
The “South C” that the previous warning mentions is an area directly south of Kiva office, a short 10-minute walk away from Kiva office / Strathmore Business School.
Strathmore only has one guard on each gate, who doesn’t check bags and/or names very thoroughly. The university in Garissa that was attacked had two guards.
Strathmore has never briefed us of any emergency plan, even in terms of a “normal” fire. We are unaware of any emergency phone numbers, what to do, where the assembly point is, etc. in case of an attack.
Based on these facts, I feel that staying away from the office for the time being would be best. It would also be great to have a definite emergency plan should an attack occur, at least to know exactly what we should do in terms of physical safety. This may be overkill, but then I thought about the 147 people in Garissa who lost their lives and feel that it is prudent to take extra measures.
Hope this helps in understanding the situation on the ground. I want to emphasize that I am not flipping out, and that I wrote this with a clear head. I am okay staying in Nairobi (please don’t think that I am pulling out of my fellowship). At the most, I may just decide to not come in to the office. :) I don’t mean to cause unnecessary alarm; I just want everyone to be safe.
Thank you for all your help!
I wondered what the chances were of Al-Shabaab attacking Strathmore. How many other universities are in Nairobi? Which ones have predominantly Christian students? I asked Nanette to please stay at her apartment if she doesn’t feel safe and to become familiar with the campus layout in case she ever needs to quickly and inconspicuously escape.
Having grown up in the suburbs of Boston with tons of priviledges, I used to think really bad or catastrophic events don’t really happen to me. Violence, accidents, and natural disasters are things I read about in the news. They happen to other people. Nothing bad has happened to me by any measure, but even unpleasant things like my $1400 camera getting destroyed on a company trip and my parents getting swindled by a shady general contractor out of thousands of dollars (or was it tens of thousands?) are firmly etched into my memory. They become painful sores that constantly make me ask “What if I had protected myself?” or “What if I hadn’t taken that chance?” If armed gunmen tell you to lie face down on the ground or give you an orange jumpsuit and a script to read to your family and country, you probably won’t have the priviledge of looking back and asking yourself what you could’ve done differently.
Nanette, it pains me to think about how I’m safe in New York City working at a comfortable desk job in a great company but helping no one. Meanwhile you’re putting your life at risk in order to live in Nairobi and help those who need it the most. Helping the poor bootstrap themselves out of poverty is an admirable undertaking in and of itself. I’m wondering if economically enfranchising those at the bottom can stabilize society and help it stand against extremists. If so, you’re doing the work of god. I really wish I had taken time off with you. What am I doing here?
Nanette, please stay vigilant and safe. I love you. I remember your mother embracing you before you left saying, “Come back safe. You’re the only daughter I have.”