Kenya is now officially a country besieged by terrorists. Much of Africa is living in fear of some kind of armed group. It is a thin distance between such an armed group’s criminal background and its probable claims to Jihadism. Boko Haram is just such an example. And so is al Shabaab. Or many of al Qaeda’s offspring in North Africa. One can imagine the Cape Flats gangs soon issuing media briefings with a religious agenda. We in East Africa, especially Nairobi, are now realising that global terrorism is a fact of life for us.
We may soon be naming our children in Nairobi after one or the other of the many attacks attributed to or claimed by al Shabaab. We may have to call our children Mujahideen, Jihad, Fundamentalist, Terrorist, Terror Attack, Improvised Explosive Device, Global Terrorism etc. For these words glare at us from the front pages of newspapers, TV screens and iPads everyday, everywhere, all the time. These terms terrorize our minds; they send our relatives, workmates, friends and neighbours into spasms of anxiety. These are dangerous words. They are words that have imposed a lockdown on us in Nairobi.
Who’s your neighbour?
So, this is my real but also often imaginary day in Nairobi. First, I live under a state security policy known as nyumba kumi (ten houses). This know-your-neighbour or police-yourself-and-your-neighbour idea/practice is borrowed from Tanzania. Its objective is to reduce the security risk to the individual by giving him the responsibility of accounting for his life. In theory it is simple. Isn’t it easy to knock on your neighbour’s door, introduce yourself and expect them to say who they are, what they do for a living and probably invite you for a cup of tea? Well, in practice it is quite difficult to implement.
Why? Because the neighbourhoods of Nairobi are increasingly gated communities, which have mini-gated blocks of apartments and micro-gated apartment floors! How do you even reach your neighbour? What do you do if your neighbour is the type that leaves the house at 5 am and comes back at midnight from Monday to Monday? How do you approach a neighbour whose door is permanently locked? Actually how do you ask your neighbour to tell you where they work or how they earn their income, how many children she has, how many wives he has, if the ‘other’ people in the house are relatives, visitors or employees etc.?
Second, because I drive to work, I am guaranteed some kind of privacy early in the morning. If you use public transport in Nairobi you have to be ready for the drama and ensuing spectacle that you will be a character in and audience of. All the contents of your bag have to be made public. You must show your national identification document to the bus manager. You must imprint the image of the guy next to you in your mind because the media and police will demand you describe them exactly should there be an attack on the vehicle or elsewhere and that guy is a suspect.
The dreaded body search
Third, when you arrive at work or go to a public office you will encounter the nightmare of body search. 9/11 is but a dim memory of a TV spectacle here, and not many people in Kenya have travelled by air. So they didn’t or don’t know about the full body search that air travellers have lived with since 2001, until terrorists attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and we all went crazy about ‘insecurity.’ Security guards at public buildings and offices conduct such invasive body searches that you feel repelled or dirty after they are through with you. They will push their gadgets into all parts of your body, wherever there is something slightly metallic or bulging. They will insist you show them whatever is bulging in your pockets. They will remind you that you are no different from the terrorists. In other words, all Kenyans are now suspected of being terrorists unless ‘cleared’ by the metal scanners and their handlers.
My Somali friends
Fourth, the Somali question. This idea that the al Shabaab are Somalis has just refused to go away. The media retails it. It is the government of Kenya’s default position on terrorist attacks in Kenya. Many Kenyans will tell you that you are crazy if you dare ask them for proof that al Shabaab are Somalis, or vice versa. The one personal consequence – and which I think many Kenyans are suffering too – is that I am implicated in this prejudice. I am at a loss about how to relate to fellow Kenyans who are Somali. I teach Somalis in class. I have friends who are Somali. The readers of my newspaper columns in Kenya are Somalis. So, how do I speak about them? How do I start a conversation about al Shabaab with my Somali friends without looking as if I am part of the ‘anti-Somali’ conspiracy in Kenya? How do I deal with this enveloping stereotype?
Terror warning, time undisclosed
Lastly, my cell-phone has become my nightmare. I dread receiving SMS these days. For the next one could be from friends of friends of friends ‘warning’ me not to visit some parts of the city. In the recent past I have been warned to stay away from a ‘populous and major university in the city’ – I didn’t need to reread the message to know that I worked at that university. Supermarkets, churches, embassies etc. have been declared no-go areas. Here is the most recent warning I received, “Hey guys, very serious threat confirmed by UN security. There’s a planned terror attack to be carried out in traffic in any of our highways. They plan to shoot guys in traffic during peak hours, day and time undisclosed.” I could live with the ‘old’ insecurity that gave Nairobi the name ‘Nairobbery,’ but this is something else.
I could wave all this away and fortify myself with the knowledge that very few cities in the world are free of crime and occasional violence. But I am now a virtual prisoner of the terrorists and the government. My government will shake me down any day, declaring that it is all for my own security, even if it is that very same personal security that has just been violated by state agents. The terrorists haven’t even bothered to declare to me why I am implicated in their war, a war they have declared in half-sensible statements about global Jihad, religious rights, human rights, sovereignty of a collapsed state etc. But where are my human rights to life in all this drama of fate?
And to imagine that the enemy, the terrorist, al Shabaab, the they of the SMS above, is invisible, is unknown, doesn’t necessarily carry a gun but probably just has a laptop, like the one I have just typed this story on, right here at Java Café, in the middle of Nairobi, is to really scare the daylights out of me. To imagine that the Internet that millions of people celebrate as liberating is the source of DIY knowledge on improvising explosive devices, on how to evade capture, on how to cause mass fear, is to understand the precariousness of life today. That is my fate, in this so-called city-in-the-sun, Nairobi.