Jambo! The expression of this cheery Kiswahili greeting used throughout East Africa must have been subdued over the last week as Kenya, and Nairobi in particular, comes to terms with the devastating attack by the Somali Islamic terrorist organisation al-Shabab on the Westgate shopping centre. With 72 casualties – and counting – this is Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in which 224 people lost their lives, all but 12 Kenyan.
The tragic death of Ross Langdon, an Australian architect and his heavily pregnant partner Elif Yavuz, a couple who were devoted to Africa and its people, has been much reported and there is an awful irony in the fact that they had chosen Nairobi as the birthplace of their child. In their view there was ‘no safer place in Africa’ to have a baby. I know many people who have had babies there and all enthuse about the excellent facilities and care. Kenya is considered to be the most stable and prosperous nation in the region and its child and family facilities are inspirational to other countries close by.
This was the case even a generation ago when my late mother-in-law, originally from New Zealand, made Kenya her home in 1972 and where she raised three children, including my husband. He remembers a childhood free of any worry about security. “We [he and his brother] used to ride our bikes to Kibera [now one of the world’s biggest slums] without a second thought." He thinks he would probably let our boys do the same in a few years (once they are all over ten). I don’t know whether this tells you a lot about my husband, our sons or Kenya, maybe all three. Of course, there are security issues, as there are in any developing country. The poverty is immense and out of that is often born a desperation that drives many to crime. But, like in any big city, if you keep your wits about you, there is no more need for fear than there is anywhere else. Accompanying the busyness of the city of Nairobi is a sense of hope, of growth and a confidence within people of their place in the world that can be lacking in many Westerners.
Poverty drives countless more though to hard work and to take opportunities in order to improve their lives and those of their children. When we were last in Nairobi there were nine of us in the house so we looked for an extra pair of hands to help with some housework. Millie was very happy to have the extra income as her elder son had just started school and was in need of books and equipment. My eldest was due to start when we returned to Sydney so I loved hearing about her son’s experiences. We had a great time discussing our sons – we had five between us – and their various foibles and challenges. When my family and I left after nearly three months (including Christmas), my boys had accumulated more new toys than we could take home so we handed lots on to Millie and her boys. What my children had gained in experience though we brought back with us and cherish greatly.
There is no doubt that having children changes yours perception of the world no matter where you live, but does it change more dramatically if home is a place where security has to be planned rather than taken for granted? Olivia* a mum of two who lives in an affluent suburb of Nairobi popular with expats, admits that last week’s attack has shaken her confidence, “I used to drive around with the kids all the time, visiting friends on the other side of town, taking them shopping or to the club. Now I’ll probably stay in [the suburb] more and avoid driving through town unless I have to. We’re thinking of hiring a driver too to take the stress off going out.” When asked if she and her family will think of leaving due to the attack Olivia immediately responds “No, we love it here, life is brilliant, the opportunities for kids are fantastic, we’d probably be in London if we weren’t here and I just can’t imagine living there now."
My mother-in-law remained in Nairobi until her death in 2012, the family home an acre oasis of calm amid the busy streets and frantic pace of life outside the padlocked gate. Though many people suggested she ought to leave, especially after she was widowed at the age of 55, she chose to stay. There was no question - Kenya had become her home. Africa had worked its magic on her as it does on so many like Olivia and her family. As it clearly had on both Ross Langdon and Elif Yavuz.
*Name has been changed
Julia Cahill is a writer, blogger and mum to three boys. She scribbles about life at juliacahillswords.com