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Terror in Kenya: literature and laughs turn into pain and loss

At 9.30am on Saturday I drove past the Westgate Mall on my way to the National Museums of Kenya. I needed a coffee after a late night, and contemplated stopping but for no particular reason I drove on…

Amid the chaos, a survivor is carried out of Westgate Mall. EPA/Kabir Dhanji

At 9.30am on Saturday I drove past the Westgate Mall on my way to the National Museums of Kenya. I needed a coffee after a late night, and contemplated stopping but for no particular reason I drove on. The mall had just opened and only one group of men sat on the balcony of Art Cafe having an animated discussion.

As the director of the Story Moja Hay Festival I had toasted the authors at a function for all the literary stars from around the world who had gathered on Friday night. In my speech I spoke of the magic of literature, poetry and the arts to inspire the young, and I announced that 3,000 children had attended the festival on Friday, breaking all our expectations. It felt like this was destined to be a festival of records and these writers would bring the magic of creativity to a new generation that would use it to interpret their world and share their dreams. I spoke to many of the writers, poets and film makers; we were happy, excited and full of enthusiasm for the weekend program.

As we sipped wine and listened to African music, Kofi Awoonor and I had a long and rather serious chat. He had just given a lecture at the Nairobi University and was all jazzed up. He said Kenyans had given up on believing in ourselves; he wanted Kenyans to thirst for power and control. He was talking about the importance of using economics as a framework for success, and I argued that it was dangerous to depend on economics, it would drive us to make short-term decisions that destroy the environment. I insisted that underlying everything we must strive for values that underpin our behaviour. I was talking about conservation of nature and the environment, and how this determines wealth. “No one would agree to a plan to demolish the Holy Family Cathedral to build a skyscraper that makes more money,” I argued. “How could you even suggest that?” he asked, his eyes were dancing, he was playing with me and I was having fun.

That conversation seems so far away now, and irrelevant.

On Saturday morning the festival opened and plays started, lectures were on, hundreds of children were streaming into the grounds. I noticed other writers arrive, but not Kofi; he had gone to the Westgate Mall to do some shopping with his son Afetsi.

By 11.30am we heard that there was shooting in the mall and we were assured that it was a robbery at the bank. As the day progressed, the festival continued, the crowds swelled but reports of injuries and then deaths began to reach us. By 2pm the helicopters were above us, and police and ambulance sirens screamed down the highway. By 6pm we were in shock, 15 people were reported dead at a location less than 3km away. We could account for all our authors but one, Kofi. We contacted embassies, police, security anyone who might know something. By 6pm we knew that Afetsi was injured and in hospital, and Kofi could not be found.

On Sunday morning it was confirmed that Kofi was among 65 dead. Africa has lost a great poet and the world is poorer. How do we make sense of this? Al Shabaab has been posting all manner of statements on social media. It makes no sense to me. Kenya is a country that is proud of its tolerance of religion and race which makes the attack so astonishing. After such an attack it is easy to demonise Somali people, but I witnessed many Somalis donating blood and volunteering - indeed many people of Somali heritage are proud Kenyans.

Trying to make sense of something so brutal is tearing Kenyans apart. Why did they attack the mall? Why are they holding people hostage? What do they really want? None of these questions have been answered. But what is certain, is that this is an attack by a small group of radical terrorists. The brutality of the attack and immediate statement by the Somali government to Kenya suggests that Somalia relations are likely to strengthen not weaken as a result. Indeed Kenyans and friends of Kenya have come out in great solidarity. But when the dust settles and the losses are counted, how will people respond?

The president of Kenya, members of his leadership team and the opposition have jointly called on Kenyans for support, and asked the international community not to issue travel advisories – revealing that tourism is the soft spot of greatest concern. Assessing the impact of the attack on tourism and foreign investments will depend very much on the success of the response by security forces. With things still unfolding as I write, it is far too early to analyse the implications, yet amazingly Kenya feels stronger. Kofi argued that Kenyans need to take responsibility for the destiny of the country. How right he was that economics are key, and yet it is clear that our values are on the other side of that coin.