a change in travel plans
Just hours before my flight to Nairobi, I received an email from the U.S. Embassy in Kenya: “There are reports of multiple explosions at Gikomba market, bordering the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi. Avoid the area and monitor local news for updates.” This was yet another notification about the stream of terrorist attacks that have occurred in Eastern Kenya and Nairobi in the past month.
In the past year and a half in Kenya, over 100 people have been killed in attacks, and hundreds more have been injured. This terrorism is in response to Kenyan initiated military action in 2011 against al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group associated with al-Quaeda. In June 2012 Kenya formally joined the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and are now actively pursuing al-Shabaab in Southeastern Somalia, and retaliatory attacks by al-Shabaab and its sympathizers are rampant.
The most recent bombings reported in Nairobi occurred about five hours after the U.S. Embassy had issued a new travel warning for Kenya. It explained that the U.S. continues to receive terrorist threats aiming at U.S., Western, and Kenyan interests in Kenya.
After receiving these warnings, I called my parents and told them that I wasn’t sure I could keep my summer internship in Nairobi. They urged me to complete my first leg to London. Everyone reassured me I would be safe, and if I needed to be evacuated I would be. But I wasn’t okay with being in a situation I might need to be evacuated from. I was going to be using forms of public transportation while I was there. I might want to go to a restaurant at some point; would that make me a target? Would walking out of my house make me the subject of the next terrorist attack in Nairobi?
Kenya became my second home last summer when I worked on a cardiovascular research team. The sounds of the rain pouring during the rainy season relaxed me. Fresh fruit for dessert was the sweetest, most delicious thing you could taste. There are colors everywhere—from the patterns on dresses, to the luscious greens of fields of tea and coffee.
And then there are the people. People who ask how you are every morning, and care about your response. People who work so hard, but are so happy doing what they do. People with huge smiles, who know how to party and have fun. People who are genuine. People who greet you everywhere with ‘Karibu Kenya’ (Welcome to Kenya) even if it’s your last day there, because they are so happy to share their country with you. People who are family.
Last summer, I met Justus. Even during the busiest of clinics, Justus took a break for chai. This is something that fascinated me, frustrated me, and that I loved about him. I don’t speak Swahili or Kikuyu, so when Justus left me alone during a busy clinic, I basically had to play a game of charades in order to do biometrics. When Justus came back, he told me to go take my tea. When I told him I could skip it since we were busy, he urged me to go anyways. So I did. After just fifteen minutes or so of food, tea, conversation, and separation from patients, I was refreshed. I felt better going back to work, and was able to be kinder and more productive with the patients. Justus taught me to appreciate the breaks in life, because they help us work harder. Everytime I get one of these security alerts, all my old partners—Justus, Tomas, Janet, and others—flash into my mind. I worry for them, and I worry for their families.
I spent all day yesterday going back and forth on the decision. Most importantly, if I chose not to go, I wouldn’t get to go back to my second home and see my second family. And then there were the logistical issues: I would have no summer plans and no funding, and it’s way too late to apply for internships.
Besides that, there was the shame: I was the only intern that was worried. We had reviewed safety and security with our national office. Our organizer had assured us that on the ground things felt normal, and people were just living their everyday lives. It was questionable whether Western media was exaggerating the danger, and the neighborhood of Nairobi we would be living in was not considered to be highly dangerous.
Not only was I ashamed to be scared of a place I love so much, but I also recognize my privilege as an American, and feel guilty for it. There has been a disproportionate amount of media attention on attacks in Kenya that have murdered or injured foreigners and expatriates. Most attacks in the past year and a half have affected Somali refugees and impoverished communities, but fail to be reported in Western media. These are people who cannot simply choose not to be in these places, yet I vacillated between getting on a plane to Nairobi or not. If I went and something were to happen, I, along with other foreigners and humanitarian aid workers, would be the first to be evacuated, not those that have been the most hurt by the recent terrorism of the country.
In the end, I chose not to spend the summer in Kenya.
Even though I was afraid of what people might think about making this choice, about admitting that I was too scared, they were supportive. I received texts and emails from friends and family members (from the US and from Kenya) telling me they were behind me, and admitting that they would probably struggle with the decision just as much as I had. There was no easy move. If I didn’t go I would regret giving up an incredible opportunity, but if I did my anxieties couldn’t handle the what-ifs.
As I sat in an airport hotel in Heathrow, London, overwhelming myself with the sadness of not returning to Kenya, along with the thoughts about my unproductive, horrible summer ahead, how to get back home to Boston, how I would make money, an opportunity arose: A family-friend who lives ten minutes outside of Paris offered to take me in. This was going to be an invaluable learning experience for me, and I decided to take on the challenge.
I look forward to meeting my new family, learning a new language, and hopefully finding another new home away from home in Paris.
So what are all the sayings? When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When one door closes, another opens…
Tomorrow I fly from London to France.
Allons-y! Let the fun begin!