gardens and grenades

It’s been (dare I bring it up) more than a week since the last attack in Nairobi, and the new reality is becoming routine. Military guards stand sentry outside hotels and malls, cradling semi-automatics. Entering a grocery store or nightclub requires a swipe of the metal detector, although the screening seems a little selective. If you’re a muzungu trying to get into the popular downtown bar Simmers, the staff just waves you through. (Guess they figure white people are the targets, not the perps.) I think it’s a lot like airport security — it’s there to make the patrons feel safe, rather than serving any real purpose against a serious attack. For example, Simmers is an open-air club, bordered on three sides by sidewalks… not exactly difficult for a pedestrian to lob in a grenade.

The initial panic seems to have subsided, but I don’t know if that’s a return to logical thinking or a false sense of security. I ask my taxi drivers what they think of al-Shabaab and they shrug them off as hooligans. Some Kenyan blogs are covering how to survive a grenade attack. Others are even brazenly going as far as making fun of the whole situation. (Both via Paige.) But I honestly don’t know what to think.

Despite the new reality of living in Nairobi, life goes on. I have a new story in the Nation today. Gathering the material for this piece was really enjoyable — it reminded me of home. I’ve only recently begun to get my fingernails dirty, but I grew up on a diet of vegetables grown in my own front yard, and it’s nice to see people trying to bring some of those same techniques to an area that so desperately needs an agricultural revolution.

note the lush green that Gai has created against the background of a parched savannah

It was also just great to get out of the city — Gai’s farm is on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Canadians have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Gai has giraffes and cheetahs. And also a generally gorgeous home.

My bedroom for the evening.

Also — I finally went to the coast. And I approve.

Dear Canadians, you are suckers.

Breathing space.

But it’s not all coast and cocktails. Next up for me? Some dangerous women are showing Nairobi’s rapists the meaning of the word no. Aw, hell yeah.

perspective needed

“After two months debating what to do, Emily borrowed $10 from friends – the equivalent of two months’ rent – and sought treatment from a well-known local abortionist. The elderly woman inserted a plastic tube into Emily’s vagina and told her to sit for several hours on a bucket until she heard a pop… Her ex-boyfriend beat her when he found out about the abortion.”

I live in the same city as Emily. The challenges she faces — and the horrors described in this article — provided me with a much needed lesson in perspective today (and left me clutching my abdomen). I don’t want to devalue the lives of the three deceased and dozens injured in this week’s attacks, but… more than 2,600 women dying annually in Kenya because of botched backstreet abortions? That’s a September 11 every. single. year.

However, you can be sure that this man is getting more attention in the news.

three dead

“Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.” — Balzac

Last night’s second grenade attack killed one person and injured eight. And the news keeps getting worse: yesterday, two victims of the nightclub bombing succumbed to their injuries. That makes three dead in 24 hours.

Al-Shabaab hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attacks. News articles are clear on that fact, but the situation in Nairobi is still being framed as part of Kenya’s war with al-Shabaab. I wonder, though. The grenades were detonated in crowded areas downtown, but they’re not areas that foreigners frequent. So far, only Kenyans have been injured or killed. That, combined with al-Shabaab’s silence on these attacks, makes me wonder where the attacks are actually coming from. Al-Shabaab swore they would destroy skyscrapers and target foreigners, which hasn’t happened so far. These attacks could just be a rogue element within al-Shabaab who’s decided to take matters into his (her?) own hands, or just some crazy person with access to grenades.

Kimathi Avenue, downtown Nairobi

It’s business as usual in Nairobi. Sort of. On my walk to get groceries today, a rifle-wielding soldier stood sentry outside the posh colonial Norfolk Hotel (alongside the hotel’s regular private security), watching the ex-pats come and go. I wondered if every loitering car had a trunk full of explosives. I usually just buy a day or two’s worth of food at a time, but today I stocked up on as much as I could carry — if everything goes to hell, at least we’ll be well-fed for the first week.

I’m touched by the number of friends and colleagues who’ve gotten in touch over the last 24 hours to ask if I’m okay, wish me well, and tell me to stay safe. I’m not going to lie that I’m unsettled by what’s happening here, but the fact remains that I am incredibly fortunate: if things get worse, either the Aga Khan Foundation or the Canadian government will get me up-on-outta-here in a hurry. I can’t say the same for the millions of Kenyans who call this country home. I hope for their sakes — and selfishly for mine, as I really don’t want to leave this otherwise fantastic city — that it doesn’t come to that.

I especially feel for the Somalis living in Kenya (and abroad) who have nothing to do with al-Shabaab but get lumped into the same camp. No doubt they’ll be taking the brunt of some Kenyans’ anger over the coming weeks.

the I&M building, one of Nairobi's tallest skyscrapers

Aside from the regular warnings I receive from the Canadian government, Nation Media has started sending “Security Bulletins” — complete with emergency numbers and evacuation procedures. I’ve already stored the numbers of multiple private ambulance companies in my phone, as well as the emergency response number for the Red Cross (1199, if any Kenyans are reading). Other than that, there’s nothing I can really do, aside from avoiding crowded areas, following my instincts, and hoping for the best.

Being in a situation like this changes your perspective. My biggest complaint about life here used to be pollution and traffic, but yesterday I found myself flipping through my medical insurance policy to find out what kind of coverage I have if my legs get blown off by a terrorist. Sirens are no longer background traffic noise — my mind immediately jumps to grenades, carnage and debris.

When I accepted this contract, I weighed the risks and benefits… and in terms of personal safety, I wasn’t too concerned. Nairobi is known for being a crime-ridden city — but that means robberies and car-jackings, which are unpleasant but don’t usually end in death or mortal injury. There are diseases too, but that’s more of a risk outside Nairobi. There’s no malaria in the city, and there’s good sanitation in the areas where ex-pats live… plus some of the best hospitals on the continent. So, when I told people I was moving to Kenya, I was overly flippant in response to widened eyes and is-that-safe-be-careful. I never imagined that the city would become a war zone. Two low-casualty grenade attacks are not on the same level as the devastation and horrors of places like Somalia and Afghanistan, but things are definitely not heading in a peaceful direction here. Even the Amurrrrrrcahns are admitting they may get involved (in fact, I would be surprised if they’re not already on the hunt).

In the meantime, I’ll be here on my balcony filing stories with a mug of tea and a watchful eye on Nairobi’s skyline. I may be in more danger than friends and family back home, but when you take a good hard look at the grand scheme of global poverty, violence, rape, fear, and torture, I’m still incredibly fortunate. I just have to hope that luck holds.

crisis in paradise

I woke up this morning to an email asking if I was still alive. Tangled in the sheets and still half asleep, I squinted in the blinding glow of my Blackberry screen, trying to make sense of what was going on. Turns out, while I was peacefully sleeping off my long weekend, someone lobbed a grenade into a nightclub downtown. At least a dozen confirmed injured. The police are blaming al-Shabaab, and the anti-terrorism squad has sealed off the bar. It’s begun.

bloodstains on the floor of Mwaura's Bar in Nairobi (Mukoya/Reuters)

Since Kenyan troops went to war with al-Shabaab last week, there have been escalating threats of terrorism — threats that the international community are taking seriously. The Canadian government emails me once a week to warn me to stay away from anywhere crowded or popular with foreigners. No bars, malls, sporting events, or anything fun at all. And don’t even think about going anywhere near the border with Somalia. The Americans have also issued a travel advisory for Kenya, warning of terrorist threats… although they’re denying involvement beyond that.

So it shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it’s still a shock. We knew something like this was coming, and we’ve been speculating for days on what it would be. Al-Shabaab promised the destruction of Nairobi’s skyscrapers and the decimation of the country’s tourism industry, so maybe I expected them to start with shock and awe. Images abound: explosions in hotel lobbies, suicide bombers on buses, car bombs in the underground parking of my office building (a prime target since it’s also home to foreign embassies and the stock exchange… great). Last night’s attack may not have been on that scale, but it makes those visions seem more likely. Al-Shabaab is clearly walking their talk, and this could just be the beginning.

It’s surreal to live with a real threat of terrorism — from my balcony I can see the skyscrapers of downtown just a few blocks away, and I keep expecting them to burst into flames. I remember in the days after 9/11, when the planes finally took to the skies again, I wondered if every jet I saw was headed for Parliament. This is a similar feeling, but doubled in intensity. This is an actual threat, one that has been carried out, first in Uganda and now in Kenya. I’ve spent long enough living in different parts of Africa that being a visible minority no longer throws me, but it’s strange to know that al-Shabaab is thinking about people like me when they plot their next move.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up somewhere like Afghanistan, where this uncertainty is just a fact of life. (All life is uncertain, but a terrorist attack a few blocks from home throws it into harsh relief.) I guess the only attitude to take in this situation is fatalism — if it’s going to happen, so be it. I can’t hide inside my apartment until all the baddies of the world are captured (or buried at sea). And anyway, I’m more likely to get robbed or die in a car accident than get-gotten by terrorists, if Dan Gardner has taught me anything.

But it’s all an especially harsh crash back to reality, after spending the weekend on the south coast drinking rum punch and making friends with starfish. What a country.

UPDATE: a second grenade attack in less than 24 hours, this time at a bus stop. It’s getting real.

a taste of home

Canadians gathered last weekend with one goal in mind: eat to the point of physical discomfort. Being thousands of miles from home doesn’t mean we can shirk our responsibility to overindulge, so a little group of Canucks gathered in Nairobi last Sunday. Mission: accomplished.

oh my.

We started with pumpkin soup, then came turkey, stuffing, potatoes mashed and roasted, garlic green beans, roasted carrots, gravy, cran, and a steady flow of red wine. Then two pumpkin pies, a red wine chocolate cake, ice cream and banana bread. We had a lot to be thankful for.

these pies have equally fantastic back-stories: one was made from an actual pumpkin, and the other from a can of pumpkin pie filling transported all the way from Canada in a suitcase.

Meredith documented the saga of preparing the glorious feast, so head over there for more photos, commentary and general merriment.

la piece de resistance: an 11-kg turkey named Jalal. (thanks Meredith for this photo.)

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all my Canadian friends. I hope your celebrations were as memorable as mine.

the first draft of history

When people ask what I like about being a journalist, I can boil it down to one word: access. Journalists go places and meet people and do things that are out of reach for most civilians — it’s an incredible privilege, and we pay that honour forward by doing our best to accurately and fairly report on what we’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled.

They say journalists write the first draft of history. Sometimes, that history isn’t pretty. I recently read a statistic that around one in 10 Americans suffer from PTSD, which seems high… but if it’s true, journalists are certainly no exception. Newsrooms increasingly offer counselling and support to reporters covering difficult topics, but journalists rarely discuss trauma as openly and honestly as CBC Radio’s Dave Seglins in this piece, on the sentencing of Col. Russell Williams. I recommend you give it a read, no matter your profession. [Via -30-]

Not only reporters, but everyone, can take a lesson from this unashamed account of psychological trauma. Unwillingness to discuss mental illness (whether temporary or chronic) only makes it that much harder for sufferers to cope. If you sprain your ankle or struggle with lifelong back pain, there’s no shame in casually disclosing it — but mental weakness is a spectre few are willing to candidly raise. Well done, Mr. Seglins.

Of course, not every journalist is working in psychologically taxing conditions (although it’s a good excuse for the hard drinking and cynicism). Sometimes being a journalist means bearing witness to moments of peace and harambee (“pulling together”), such as my chance to attend the celebration of the life of Dr. Wangari Maathai today. When I arrived, the crowds were already thick in Uhuru Park. But a flash of the press pass, and I was above the fray on the media riser — with an unobstructed view of the casket, the ceremony, and all the dignitaries, there to wish a truly remarkable (and tough as nails) woman well on her next great adventure.

a bamboo, water hyacinth and papyrus casket -- Dr. Maathai's final chariot before cremation.

Paige and I went to the funeral together. She provides her account here.

let the wild rumpus begin

I had no idea that Maurice Sendak, author of my favourite book, also wrote the book that haunts me most from my childhood. (In a good way.) He recently gave a fabulous interview to the Guardian, where he airs his views on Gwenyth Paltrow (“I can’t stand her”) and Roald Dahl (“He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him”)… you can read it here.

Also, new article in the Daily Nation today, about solar-powered water pumps in rural Kenya. Here.

tools of the trade.