After the storm: a letter home from a friend

By Paul Dziatkowiec

NAIROBI, KENYA: By any standard definition, I am not a Kenyan. In recent days, though, I certainly have been in spirit. Physically, I am oceans away, but four days of savagery at Westgate this week served only to draw me closer. Outraged, emotionally rattled but glued to the television screen, I joined millions of Kenyans, and many millions of others, in wishing the end of the senseless nightmare. It was excruciating.

For a few years, Nairobi was my ‘home’ town during my diplomatic posting. This week, as I witnessed its pain from afar, my heart ached for ‘home’. My connection to Kenya seems to have strengthened. I remembered Westgate like my own backyard; a place I knew so well but that was suddenly so different, surreal - a warzone. The brutal truth is that any of us could have been there, shopping, eating ice-cream, meeting friends. Amidst the turmoil I realised more than ever how much Nairobi, and Kenya, and its people mean to me.

It became evident through my numerous downcast conversations with people abroad that there were a great many of us, ‘friends of Kenya’ around the world, who felt profoundly affected by the Westgate ordeal. We cheered for Kenya with all our strength. What unites us abroad with you in Kenya is a genuine concern for the wellbeing of your country, and the inspiration we draw from its people. In my case, a perceptive friend suggested a simple explanation for my distress: Kenya remains, at least subconsciously, my home. Perhaps that is true, somehow? Perhaps Kenya never leaves you, even when you leave Kenya…

There was ample time this week to reflect on my Nairobi years. Departing Kenya last year was one of my saddest moments. I took with me, though, many golden memories. One of the most salient was the image, embedded in my mind, of a people who could stare down adversity, sickness and death, and plough on, smiling, through the toughest of circumstances. To borrow a line from the legendary Kenyan author, Ng?g? wa Thiong’o, ‘life, struggle, even amidst pain and blood and poverty, seemed beautiful.’

A Kenyan may get knocked down, you see, by a cheap shot from his adversary; but will then promptly bounce back up, stronger than before. I saw it with my own eyes, during the recovery from post-election violence, and in many other contexts. The same will happen now, even as the world reels from this hideous atrocity. You are, after all, the long-distance champions - the survivors. While many might struggle over life’s trivial misfortunes, the Kenyan resolve leaves others behind in the dust – as on the running track. There is much to learn from you.

This week, Kenyans captivated international television audiences with their resilience and generosity of spirit. ‘With hearts both strong and true’, as your anthem tells us, citizens instinctively gave all they could to help others – blood, food, money and emotional succour. We, the viewers, were humbled by this natural show of compassion in your nation’s toughest hour. For me, though, it was but a reaffirmation of what I already knew well about the Kenyan people.

Rarely have I felt such sadness, anxiety, and anger as this week. And frustration was close behind: I wished to be there, to be doing something useful to help. To my regret, I could do little but wait, watch and hope that the terror would end, and that lives would be spared. It was unbearable to feel so helpless, yet so tied to this Kenyan tragedy.

Finally, I understood that the least I could do was to offer some words of support; to tell Kenyans that I, and many other friends of Kenya, had stood with them through those black days, ‘with one accord, in common bond united’. A modest, simple message is all it is, to be sure; perhaps insignificant, certainly inadequate, but nevertheless a personal, heartfelt symbol of solidarity.

Now, at a time of national mourning, my hope is that some comfort may come from the knowledge that there are many of us, millions around the world, sharing this unspeakable pain, and praying for Kenya’s speedy recovery. The immensity of your loss is felt far and wide. Thousands of miles away, I too fly my Kenyan flag at half mast today. And if nothing else, at least one thing is certain: that Kenya will overcome this great trauma, pick up the pieces and march on, stronger than ever. 

Paul Dziatkowiec, former Deputy High Commissioner of Australia to Kenya (2009-2012)