Mary Walker: Thoughts on Westgate Mall incident

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As many people know, there was a horrific attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September. I was not in Kenya at the time and have not felt like commenting on it — until now.

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Mary Walker

A couple of weeks ago, I was flying from Nairobi to Maasai Mara to spend Christmas with Janet, one of the girls that attended teachers college and now teaches in her home area just outside the park. At Nairobi’s small commuter airport, there is a Dorman’s coffee shop — the same chain that operated a coffee shop in the atrium of Westgate. I was early for my flight, so I decided to get a cup of coffee. When I entered, I recognized the waitress. She also recognized me as an almost-daily customer at the Westgate Dorman’s where I used to go in the mornings to read the newspaper over a cup of coffee.

I often have thought about the many people who worked in Westgate at Dorman’s or the supermarket there where I did all my shopping. But I have had no way of knowing whether they were working that day, had been injured or killed — people that I see practically every day when I am in Kenya; people who always smiled and welcomed me, even though I never left a tip.

When I saw her at the airport, I started to cry. She said that she had in fact been working that day, a busy Saturday at lunchtime. She told me that the Dorman’s employees had all survived, though one had been shot three times. She said that they were on the floor, with the chaos of the attack going on around them, for hours before being rescued. She said simply, “It was terrible.”

I told her that I was so very grateful to hear that those at Dorman’s were OK. What could I say about the 60-something confirmed deaths, or the two dozen people still totally unaccounted for almost three months later? Knowing that I live in the U.S., she seemed surprised that I had followed news of the attack at all.

She told me that the coffee shop employees had all been given other work, certainly not the case for the majority of the more than 2,000 people who worked at Westgate. Kenya does not have “social safety nets” that insulate people from economic collapse. Many more people being supported by these 2,000 employees will have been affected through loss of school fees for children, siblings and cousins; medical costs for sick or aging relatives; and living expenses for extended families who had depended on the wages earned by those 2,000 people.

I probably won’t see this young woman again but it did give me some sense of closure about the whole event, its effect on me and taking something positive from it. It is not necessarily expected that customers will leave tips in Kenya — a country where someone like me will spend more for my daily latte at Dorman's than a manual laborer makes in a day’s wages. This day, I gave her a big tip — something that I will not miss the opportunity to do for those who work so hard for so little.

Mary Walker, a 27-year resident of Clark, first went to Kenya in 2007 to volunteer at a rescue centre for Maasai girls. She has organized assistance for several Maasai young women to attend college and university in Kenya. She can be reached at mewalker99@yahoo.com.

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