At Large

Do You Remember Nairobi?

The international left brings its selective memory to Kenya.

By 1.22.07

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NAIROBI, Kenya -- Unlike the much larger Uhuru Park nearby, it costs a few Kenyan shillings to enter the August 7th Memorial Park in downtown Nairobi, but locals gather, regardless. Vine roots a half-fist thick and bright, lush vegetation tightly woven into the park's wrought iron fencing block out some of the deafening hustle bustle of the chaotic streets outside.

Children race around the fountain, couples canoodle on benches, and families mingle on soft green grass. At the black stone memorial to those who were murdered here nearly nine years ago, however, I stood alone. No Kenyan needs to be reminded that al Qaeda suicide bombers drove a truck laden with explosives into the U.S. Embassy that once stood on this spot killing 224 people -- all but 12 of them Kenyans -- and injuring approximately 4,000 more, just as no American needs to be reminded that the New York City skyline is not as it once was.

This isn't to say other areas of some Americans' memories couldn't use a solid jog: En route to the memorial I found myself in the midst of thousands of left-wing activists, including hundreds of Americans, marching through the city as part of the opening ceremony of the World Social Forum, a yearly weeklong gathering of radicals who agree to blame all the world's ills on racist, sexist, xenophobic American imperialists before setting about denouncing one another as insufficiently radical racist, sexist, xenophobic American patsies.

Considering how much time World Social Forum attendees spend decrying the plight of the average Kenyan, it would have been a welcome sign of intellectual honesty, not to mention respect for the city hosting them, if they had filed through the park to publicly register their opposition to a local brutal act of political terror -- even if it meant mourning an American life or two.

Instead, the self-anointed, self-heralded members of the international social justice movement marched by chanting, among other couplets, "U.S. Imperialist! World's Number One Terrorist!" The most popular signs seemed to be "When Bush Comes to Shove -- Resist!" and "Every Plan for Terrorism is Made Here" with an arrow pointing down at a rendering of the White House. One man holding this last wore a T-shirt bearing Paul Wolfowitz's likeness and the slogan "Send the Wolf Back to Bush."

I wonder what their reaction would have been to Kenya's unflinching visitor center display with the artlessly descriptive title Foreign Bodies Removed from Some Clients of the Medical Association Program consisting of an entire case of small liquid-filled vials containing...well, Foreign Bodies Removed from Some Clients of the Medical Association Program, each with a small typed personal account accompanying it. For example, this from a 60-year-old Kenyan:

I was in Kenya Bus Number 126 when the bomb exploded. I sustained eye injuries and am now totally blind. On the 1st May 2000 a rusty nail was removed from my left arm. It was first noted after a routine x-ray.

And another from a 36 year-old man:
I was at the Kenya Railway when the bomb exploded. I was in a coma for six weeks. Pieces of glass were removed from my left cheek on 3rd December 1999.

Another wall celebrates the "silent survivors," children born to pregnant women -- known as "bomb victors" -- injured in the blast. A portrait of Samuel Ng'ang'a, the last man pulled from the wreckage alive, offers his recollection of "more than 48 hours of agonizing pain and anxiety. I remember how I continuously communicated with Rose Wanjiku, Kenya's Candle in the Wind." Wanjiku, a bank messenger who worked in the building next to the embassy, communicated with rescuers for three days but died before she could be rescued.

Outside a family shared an apple near a triangular steel-framed sculpture containing detritus from the truck the bombers used. Crunch, nibble, pass. It's almost as if the park's official slogan -- We can light up hope in our lives for we hold the future that is full of peace and reconciliation. When we can learn to trust life again even as we hurt, we can work towards it step by step -- has come to pass.

Apples, sadly, keep away doctors, not terrorists. Thus, Kenyans have had the unfortunate opportunity to add displays commemorating other terrorist attacks: The November 2002 bombing of the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa with a simultaneous failed rocket attack on an Israeli passenger plane; a suicide grenade attack on the Mombasa Central Police Station in 2003.

Later, walking back down Moi Avenue to the World Social Forum rally, I passed long lines of Kenyans waiting to get on rumbling public buses. A uniformed man stood at the head of each line, randomly sweeping people with a metal detecting wand, just as I was randomly checked at my hotel. For some reason the scene called to mind the inscription on the black stone memorial at the bombing site:

May the innocent victims of this tragic event rest in the knowledge that it has strengthened our resolve to work for a world in which man is able to live alongside his brother in peace.

Yet, while Nairobi is a wonderful city filled with many friendly people, nine years after the blast there is still fear. There is still inconvenience. Security culture, oppressive by nature, is as deeply entrenched here as at American airports. It is a tacit acknowledgment that life will never be the same.

I'm fairly certain Kenyans are not living in fear of George W. Bush cooking up some plan in the White House -- you know, where every plan for terrorism is made -- to blow up public buses or massacre tourists staying at local hotels. When my cab is stopped so police can search its trunk, they are looking for explosives, not Paul Wolfowitz.

After the rally, Americans and Europeans catch taxicabs out to the World Social Forum site proper, where statements of solidarity with indigenous people and plans for future action against evil war mongering American capitalists fly fast and furious. But few if any of the hundreds of seminars or panels deal with the fundamentalist ideology that turned a corner of this city to rubble. I'm sure they would argue globalization is the root cause, so why bother talking about reactionary Islamic militancy or the mangled innocent bodies left in its path? We wouldn't want to cut into the fortieth "Sink the IMF" workshop.

Meanwhile in downtown Nairobi the buses idle so long the dust in your mouth begins to taste like the diesel in the air.

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