BBC Media Action: responding to the Westgate attack

Senior Production Manager, Kenya and Somalia

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Jackie Christie is a senior production manager in Kenya for BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity which uses media to improve health and help people understand their rights in developing countries. She manages the team that produces weekly TV and radio debate programme Sema Kenya (Kenya Speaks), which travels around the country enabling ordinary people to directly ask questions of their leaders.

Last week’s Sema Kenya was different from our usual shows. There was no set, no desks or podiums. No analysis, political point scoring or punditry. Instead, we brought together people from all walks of life affected by the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi to speak to one another, and to the nation, about what they experienced.

The programme, of course, was dominated by moving and dramatic personal testimonies. One of the survivors described the day of the attack as just “a normal day for me” and the ordinary, mundane details in their recollections throw the horror of the event into relief all the more.

During the programme, survivor Bernard Mulwa talked about hiding behind a plant stall in the basement of the building where a frightened security guard joined him. The guard was shot and died beside him. Bernard narrowly escaped with shrapnel wounds.

Bernard Mulwa with his family at home after the attack

A supermarket worker described how she hid in a tunnel with two children who had lost their mother. “We heard a man walking toward the tunnel about three steps from where we were. I think because he didn’t hear anything, he assumed there was no one in there so he turned and left. They then continued with the shooting.”

One of the many heroes from the mall was Abdul Haji, who described how he responded to a text from his brother who had been caught up in the shooting. “It was a very short SMS saying ‘pray for me’.”

Haji joined others in the mall working for hours to get people to safety – his bravery captured in photographs seen all over the world. Even now, he can’t remember how many people he helped or the names of those with whom he fought. “In a few minutes we banded well together and we were like old friends who had been doing this job for a long time,” he said.

Trauma expert Dr Gladys Mwiti was another guest on the programme and spoke about the physical and emotional effect of witnessing such violence.

For her, talking to survivors about what they need is key to their recovery. “When we talk to survivors, we don’t use words such as ‘trauma debriefing’ because we are not the ones telling the story. It is them telling us.”

Some members of the audience who had survived the American embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998 spoke about the absence of counselling support.

Dennis Muriuki lost his father in the 1998 bombing and spoke about the long-lasting emotional scars of surviving such an attack. “We take every day at a time. You cannot say that you are completely healed. When something like this happens it returns you to the past.”

The imam of a large mosque in Nairobi closed the show with a call for unity. “What they want is for us to mistrust each other,” Sheikh Ahmed Athman said. “So these events should not divide Kenyans. Kenyans are developed people who know their rights. Islam and Christianity have the same aim - to bring peace to Kenya. Kenya is one amazing country”.

As one of the survivors remarked afterwards, this episode of Sema Kenya was the first time a number of people who had experienced the attack had come together.

And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that bringing people together in this way was perhaps a small contribution to the healing process which is just beginning.

Sema Kenya gave people the time and space to talk, and participate in a unique, if emotional national conversation.

Above is a picture of people who featured in the episode, from left to right: Richard Mayaka, a security guard who was one of the first on the scene; trauma expert Dr Gladys Mwita, who is working with many of those traumatised by the event; freelance photographer Joseph Mathenge; Sema Kenya’s presenter Joseph Warungu; survivor Bernard Mulwa; Faith Mugambi, who was working in the Nakumatt Supermarket when the gunmen burst in.

Jackie Christie is Senior Production Manager for BBC Media Action.

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