NAIROBI, Kenya – Many Americans watched, horrified, as the Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi unfolded. Their own memories of flying debris and shocked disbelief from 9/11, barely below the surface, rose again in indignation and fear, fueling anger toward “them.”
Many who heard the news may have been relieved that it was in a distant place – Kenya – so far away they were able to go on with their lunches and appointments without much disruption, checking over their shoulders whenever talking heads might use words they didn’t really understand like “Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen” (Mujahedeen Youth Movement). For some, however, the news was more shattering.
Jessie Yates grew up in Africa as the daughter of International Mission Board missionaries (who are from North Carolina) and went back as an adult to teach Somali refugees in Nairobi. For her, the news was more personal. “I am an American whose heart belongs in Kenya,” Yates writes from a perspective on the violence in Africa that is insider information.
In her recent musings on Facebook titled “We Are One” – a phrase that has become an expression of solidarity since the mall attack – Yates tells readers that Kenya and America are not so different. “That’s the thing about Kenya – so many tribes and languages and customs. But we are all one. We are all Kenya. One people, one nation,” she writes. Yates says the outsiders – the ones who don’t fit in – are the terrorists.
Photo by Bert Yates
“We Are One” has become an expression of solidarity in Kenya since the terrorist attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. Jessie Yates, daughter of missionaries to Africa, used the phrase as the title for her Facebook thoughts on being “an American whose heart belongs in Kenya.”
Al-Shabab, the organization that claimed responsibility for the Sept. 21 Westgate Mall siege, is a Somalia-based arm of al-Qaeda. Al-Shabab rules over “little Somalia” in the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh.
Although their headquarters is a fancy hotel, they dominate an urban slum of first-, second- and third-generation refugees who fled the horrible conditions of their own country and now consider themselves Kenyan.
Yates wants people to know that Somalis are not al-Shabab – they are victims too.
“Say the word al-Shabab,” Yates writes, “and I picture that awkwardly and shamefully placed hotel in the middle of Eastleigh, Nairobi. Say the word al-Queda [sic] and I’ll inevitably remember the second plane hitting the tower in real time, and even more so, the feeling that my heart had been ripped out of my chest when I learned the Nairobi embassy had been bombed.
“The last thing that I picture is Somali children in green and white uniforms … or the countless other Somali that I have met and befriended over the years. I don’t think about hijabs or Islam or the Q’ran [sic]. I think about the evil that is misplaced and festering in the hearts of a relatively small few.”
Katherine Walton, another child of missionaries living in Kenya, who was trapped in the Westgate Mall during the siege, also would be quick to differentiate terrorists from the rest. The man who rescued her was a Somali Muslim.
“He was such a brave man – so selfless and courageous,” “Walton said. “He kept going into the mall over and over to rescue more people.”
For Southern Baptists, Yates’ message is that “they” are not the Muslims or the Somalis.
“Those groups, and the people who adhere to those beliefs and mindsets, are like the shiny, misplaced hotel in the middle of Eastleigh,” Yates writes. “They may say they are part of the same community and some people may want to point to them as representatives of a larger body, but they don’t really fit and everyone knows it.”
Yates’ Facebook post is a reminder for Southern Baptists to pray for the people of Kenya as they recover from this most recent attack. She sees God is at work in this country and believes He will ultimately win the day.
“There is a line between them and us, it’s as clear as that grid iron fence and cobbled courtyard,” Yates writes. “I’m proud to say that I stand on this side of the line, because I know, deep down, we are stronger and we won’t be beaten.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nicole Lee is an IMB writer based in Europe.)