NAIROBI, Kenya – Westgate shopping mall reopened its doors to shoppers July 18, just 22 months after the horrific four-day siege that left 67 people dead and 175 wounded. This show of resilience and courage came less than a week before a scheduled visit to Kenya by U.S. president Barack Obama.
The Somali jihadist group, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the 2013 Westgate attack. They have continued their reign of terror with five separate attacks on Kenyan targets in the last two years.
One Kenya Baptist leader says Baptist churches are growing in numbers and maturity despite the terrorist acts. He said they are not just surviving these hard times but are now strategizing to make Kenya a training center and model for other East African nations to follow.
In addition, Baptist churches in Kenya have reached out to refugees from war-torn nations, even Somalia, the home of al-Shabab, he said.
Photo by Bert Yates
Westgate Mall was on high security as it reopened its doors Saturday, July 18, just 22 months after al-Shabab’s bloody siege.
Katherine Walton, whose 4-year-old daughter, Portia, was in a highly publicized rescue photo on the first day of the Westgate attack in 2013, is an International Mission Board (IMB) third-culture kid (TCK) living in Kenya. Walton and her children were trapped in the mall during the attack. Though they have chosen to stay in Kenya, her family still bears the scars of that day, and her reaction to the mall reopening is a mixed one.
“The reopening of Westgate was a shock. I will never be able to return to that place, and I’m not sure the kids will either,” Walton said.
Her road to healing has been slow and arduous, but she testifies that God is faithful.
“It has been and still is a difficult journey in recovery. The children have all dealt with their own issues, but on the whole have done remarkably well,” she said. “God has been really good to us, and we keep moving forward, learning more about ourselves and about God during recovery.”
Walton and her husband have planted their lives in Kenya and work alongside nationals in the business world. Their love of the Kenyan people and desire to live out the gospel among them has been a strong anchor during the last 22 months.
“For us, it really hasn’t changed our perspective on what we’re doing here and why we’re here. In fact, in some ways it’s strengthened our ties to Kenya – our love for Kenya,” she said.
Bert Yates, an IMB worker in Nairobi, has the same kind of solidarity with Kenyans.
“One of my praises is that after these 22 months, when I think of Westgate my memories of explosions, gunshots, smoke and army tanks on the move are only fleeting ones,” she said, “but the strongest memory is that the first person to call me asking if we were OK was a Muslim friend who had lost relatives in the siege.”
Yates also has mixed emotions about the reopening of Westgate, but feels that it’s a healthy move.
“As others have said, it is a way of moving on, having confidence in the country, and not being victimized, but standing up and not letting our lives be controlled by fears of terrorism,” she said.
More Terror, More Courage
The terror of al-Shabab has not slowed since the Westgate siege. There were four attacks in 2014. Another in April of this year at Garissa University College (GUC) has been the deadliest to date – Christians were targeted, and 147 people were killed.
Although the reality of danger is growing, Yates and her husband work with Kenya Baptist Theological College and are encouraged by God’s movement among students.
“The attack on GUC has led to a new round of anger and of doubt about the security in the country, but it has opened many opportunities for believers to share their trust and faith,” Yates said. “God is definitely at work on the campuses in our country.”
The Yateses are also encouraged that many volunteer teams have persevered to come and help in this time. “Many volunteer groups have cancelled their trips, but we are praising God that many groups have come, are in the country, and are coming to serve our Father in Kenya.”
The Baptist leader said, “Terrorism is a global threat and risk to all of us. These things happen, but God is bigger than the issues and the problems.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Nicole Lee is a writer for the London Bureau of Baptist Press.)