And behind me I hear the footfalls of countless generations and ancestors. And around me the living community of my people, whose woes are my woes; whose moments of joy are mine.
Kofi Awoonor, Ghanaian poet murdered at Westgate, Nairobi on 21st September 2013
On 19th September 2013, at the Annual Lecture of the British Institute in Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Dr Ann Stewart delivered a lecture entitled ‘Caring about care: Recognising and regulating body work in a global market’. Based on her recently published book, Ann gave a compelling and wide ranging talk about forms of care and asked the question ‘who do we care about and how’? The discussions that followed the lecture were vibrant and engaged, the sorts of critical conversations about labour and about gender that I had hoped would come about in my time at the Institute.
On 21st September, at lunchtime, a terrorist siege began of an upmarket shopping mall in Nairobi, Westgate, a mile or two from the Institute. Everyone reading this will have seen the terrifying images. For well-off Kenyans who have become used to hearing the occasional distant grenade explode in the east of the city, in a crowded church or bar or bus station, the events mark a sea change. Here Kenya’s wealthy elite and the international community are the target and terror is at the heart of our lives. I’ve heard it said countless times this week that, looking at photographs of the attack taken in the mall, many of us recognised shop fronts, escalators, sweet stalls, even marble tiles on which we have trodden. As elsewhere, the mall is at once a response to, and a perpetuation of, a city segregated between the wealthy and the destitute. Reborn each day, sparkling clean, its shelves restocked with international branded goods, the Nairobi mall succeeds in making invisible the messy reality of life in a third world city. It would be deeply dishonest to deny that those who clean the mall, serve its meals, guard it – in short, those who provide us with our accustomed care and comfort – go unseen, unknown, unheeded.
Yet in the past three days we have heard stories of supermarket staff, faced with terrified customers running into the shop when the grenades and gunfire began, shepherding people into store rooms, barricading them in to conceal them from the attackers, hiding them behind boxes in stock rooms. Despite our own bleak assessment of ourselves as deeply divided along ethnic lines, as a society riven by long running racial divisions, in the terrifying and traumatic siege of Westgate mall many have commented on the intersecting unities we have discovered this week. An elderly Indian lady, recently returned home from England to care for her elderly mother in Nairobi, and desperate to do something to help, went down to the perimeters of the mall to serve tea and food to the police and media who have worked without a break for days. There she met an African woman who for many years has come to the mall everyday to sell tea and food to its cleaners, waitresses, guards. For the past three days, these two women have teamed up to cook and bring food to those working outside, plastic bags on the ground, car boot full of supplies wide open and elderly mother, still needing to be cared for, in the front seat watching them work.
But the events of the past three days have also made visible that which the well-off and the comfortable work so very hard not to see. The private security guard paid the minimum wage carried our children to safety through a pool of blood; the waitress whom we never greeted in three years of coffee drinking hid us in the cafe kitchen; the cleaner whom we never knew of ushered us to safety through a back exit.
This past three days, Ann’s question at the BIEA lecture – who do we care about – has been constantly in my mind. And as we slip back into our mutual distrust and distance, perhaps we might remember to ask, who cares about (and for) us?