I knew maybe three things about Kenya when my plane landed in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in late February: The traffic was awful in Nairobi; it was a “party city,” with the good times rolling as late—or, er, as early—as 9 a.m.; and in 2013, the city’s most upscale mall, Westgate, suffered a four-day siege by the Somali Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab. It’s the same group that attacked Kenya’s Garissa University College on Good Friday, killing 148 people.
Of the few things I knew, I knew the most about the mall tragedy. One Saturday afternoon when I had somewhere to be, I sat glued to HBO watching Terror at the Mall, a documentary about the siege.
So why go to Kenya, given its history of terrorism? If I were afraid of terrorists, I wouldn’t live in America, certainly not in New York City. Terrorism in Kenya was the least of my concerns when I booked my ticket in December. A friend had sent me a link to a glitch fare from New York to Nairobi. A plane ticket that would usually cost around $800 was only $250, including taxes. I’d never been to East Africa, and the pictures of Nairobi captured my interest. That was enough for me, but not for my mother, who couldn’t think of anything but my safety. She stopped just short of begging me not to get on the plane.
“They blow up malls over there!” she (inaccurately) pointed out when I called her from the airport.
“They threatened to blow up the Mall of America, too!” I countered from the bar.
Neither she nor I knew that the “they” we alluded to were the same group: al-Shabab.
Two days later I arrived in Kenya at 7:00 a.m. My first thought walking out of the airport? “It smells like 9/11.” I’d lived five blocks away from the World Trade Center back then, and after the buildings fell, and for months after, everywhere below 14th Street in Manhattan had this weird smell, kind of like burnt metal and something else I’ve never been able to identify. It’s a distinct smell that I would know anywhere. And there it was in Nairobi. Weird.
The traffic was worse than what I’d been told. Nairobi traffic is like rush hour in Atlanta and Los Angeles combined. Based on the distance, it should have taken maybe 30 minutes to get from the airport to my hotel. It took two hours.
We pulled up to the gate of the Hilton, a landmark of sorts. Three guards surrounded the car, peering in first, then asked the driver to pop the trunk for inspection before we were allowed onto the property. Before I was allowed to enter the hotel, my bags went through an X-ray machine and I went through a metal detector.
More or less, this was the procedure everywhere I went in the city center of Nairobi. Every big hotel has an X-ray machine, and every mall entrance has at least a guard who scans everyone up and down before they’re allowed to enter. Security guards stand at the entrances to some, but not all, restaurants. As I walked the streets, it was common to see guards holding what looked to me like vintage versions of the AK-47 I shot at a gun range once. The heightened security—heightened in comparison with America—should have made me feel safer, but I actually wondered how big a problem terrorism was, whether I was safe and whether I should have listened to my mother.
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