Freelance Photographer | East Africa

From Within: Westgate

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As seen in the September 23rd edition of the Texarkana Gazette:

The last time we talked, she was giving me dating advice. She told me that hers is a love story unlike any other and that I should be patient for the right guy to fall hopelessly in love with me—not the other way around.

Salons and barbershops are second only to bars (and therapists) in solving the trickiest of life’s situations. And Selinah Kioko definitely ranks with the plethora of bartenders and therapists I’ve poured out my problems to over the years.

“We’ve known each other most of our lives,” she told me in between ripping layers of hot wax and hair from my legs. “So just be patient. Love takes time.”

Selinah works at Westgate shopping mall, some 10 minutes away from my fourth-floor apartment on the outskirts of Nairobi city center. Saturday morning, my roommate had an appointment with her and I was planning to accompany and get some work done at one of the cafés on the ground floor.

“We were supposed to be there,” I thought as I fired off a frantic text to Selinah on Saturday afternoon. “Please tell me you are okay?”

“Am okay but scared sooo much! We are now hostages!” She replied a few moments later. I told her what little I could think of—stay calm and be smart. Not that anything one says in such situations will hold weight in someone else’s mind.

“We were supposed to be there.” The phrase keeps circling, even now, to the middle of my head, where one’s heart and soul meet, where the weight of the world sits.

“The only reason we didn’t go is because my roommate has malaria and canceled the appointment? Really?” I play back the butterfly effect over and over again. All the “whys” and “why nots” tumble over each other.

Sunday afternoon, I appeared on Selinah’s doorstep, chocolate and tea in hand, and enveloped her with what peace I could muster.

“Then I heard the bang,” she recalled to me from the safety of her apartment. “It was too loud. … My head was just spinning. Then there were gun shots.”

For around five hours, she was trapped inside the salon she works at in Westgate shopping mall while a group of al-Shabab terrorists took control of the building. She escaped with others from the shop when police canvassed the second floor and escorted them to safety. Today, the death toll is 68 and still climbing.

“After some time, they started shooting again … shooting, shooting … so then people started peeping outside (the shop). … They looked and then we saw three guys. At that time, one was not dead, because he was moving his feet a little bit.”

She continued to recount to me, story after story, of colleagues who were injured, of what other people heard the attackers say.

“You can’t really be happy, because you’re seeing people dead,” She said after giving thanks for still being alive. “You’re imagining, ‘I could have been one of them. What is so special with me?’ And that’s what I kept on asking myself. … It could have been my kids asking where is my mom. It could have been my husband wondering where is my wife.”

“We were supposed to be there, you know,” I tell her, sheepishly bowing my head. “Who knew you could be thankful for malaria?”

Before meeting with Selinah, I went into town to donate blood. The streets were eerily empty, even for a Sunday morning. I was alone with my thoughts until I reached the Kencom bus stage, where a makeshift blood donation center had been set up by Kenya Red Cross. People were already lined up by the hundreds ready to give. I took my place in line. We were supposed to be there.

A media outlet called and asked me to head to Westgate and camp out the rest of the day for coverage, but I told them I can’t. Not this time. “It’s just too close to home,” I told them. “Physically and metaphorically.” With six tattoos and an equal number of piercings, one would think I don’t mind being pricked with needles. I hate it. But it’s nothing compared to the price many others have paid the last few days. It’s all I have to give. So I did.

Maybe it was just dizziness, or maybe it was one of those truly profound moments in life, but when I stood up after donating, I was shocked to see people by the thousands surrounding me. Pamoja. Together. As one.

After the post-election violence that swept Kenya like a plague in 2007-08, truly something beautiful has come from this whole situation—I watched as tribal lines not just blurred but completely disappeared.

In the same way that terrorist attacks brought America together in 2001, the same will be said of Kenya after this. I wasn’t there on Saturday, but I could have been. And with this knowledge comes the great responsibility to once again rise up and make every moment of the rest of my life count for something. My blood and prayers go out to all those personally affected by this horrible tragedy. May we all learn to live and learn to love.

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7 responses

  1. Amanda

    Good words, sister. Pamoja.

    September 23, 2013 at 11:09 am

  2. Denny Slaton

    SO GRATEFUL you and your friends are alright, and praying for those still affected by this horrific event. We love you! Denny

    Denny 214.808.5230 http://www.seedeffect.org

    >

    September 23, 2013 at 11:32 am

  3. Lia Godwin Peters

    Well written Christena! Nothing I can say can surpass what you have just experienced. So happy you are safe and can report (so eloquently) what is actually going on in your beloved country. My prayers are with you and the people of Kenya. Love you

    September 23, 2013 at 12:21 pm

  4. Christena – thank you for writing this. These words are compelling “And with this knowledge comes the great responsibility to once again rise up and make every moment of the rest of my life count for something.” It’s what I’ve felt since my husband returned from Syria, it’s what I felt when I heard about Westgate, it’s what I felt when I heard about Pakistan.

    September 23, 2013 at 2:50 pm

  5. Lori Ann Miller

    Very moving and hopeful in spite of the horror. You are where God has called you and doing what He has asked of you. We will pray. So glad you are OK, Christena.

    September 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm

  6. Wendy

    Thanks for sharing. Beautiful. A true connect of the heart. Thankful for malaria as well.

    September 23, 2013 at 10:27 pm

  7. Pingback: This could have been... » Postscript

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