Sema Kenya: responding to Westgate

Senior Production Manager, Kenya and Somalia

This time last week we were on the eve of a shoot in Kakamega County in Western Kenya and I was asking the Sema Kenya team to dig deep. The weather was against us and the light abysmal. However, before our show got the chance to air, the whole country was plunged into a bigger drama than anyone could have imagined.

The events at the Westgate mall in Nairobi quickly made headlines around the world. Within 24 hours it was clear that this was something that was not going to be over quickly. As more and more traumatised hostages and witnesses came forward to tell their stories, verified information filled the space created by social media rumour and speculation.

Westgate is my local mall. I go most weekends to do my supermarket shopping although the crowds and parking on Saturdays often put me off. If not for a poorly cat, my husband and teenage daughter might have been there rather than at the vet. The media has repeatedly referred to it as an ‘upscale’ mall. Upscale or not, all kinds of people went there – expats, yes, but also window shoppers, families, young teens buying the latest craze, frozen yoghurt.

Sitting in the BBC Nairobi bureau watching correspondents from across the continent and Europe descend on this huge breaking story, numb with shock and constantly welling up at the images of mothers running scared with children, my thoughts turned to how we reflect what has happened on Sema Kenya.

Almost everyone on the team knows someone who was there, who was injured, who just left as it began, who was freed. Several, including myself, know of people who were killed. Our staff are themselves stunned. Morally can I ask them to put that aside and start to plan a show?

Five days on and the full extent of what took place at the mall is still unclear. How can we talk about this horror whilst we are still in the midst of it?

But we decided quickly that we couldn't cancel this week’s show. Sema Kenya is a programme which makes an effort to hear the voices of ordinary people. If we were to be silent during a time when people needed to talk and connect, then we would be failing in our duty. We also recognised our responsibility to our TV and radio partners to provide a meaningful, thoughtful response to the tragedy.

But we also had to think of the practical challenges: not least how could we safely assemble a ‘studio’ audience for the show, let alone bring together experts and government officials to answer their questions?

Our outgoing Country Director Judy Houston, her replacement Andres Ilves, who's recently joined us from the BBC Somali Service, and Africa Editor Solomon Mugera, coolly steered the team towards a new mindset. And the idea of a programme focusing on healing began to emerge.

For the first time Sema Kenya will not have a panel of experts. Instead we will have a small audience of just 25 people made up of religious leaders, first responders, counsellors, survivors. All people who, one way or another, are connected by the events which continue to play out as I write.

No set, desks or podiums. No analysis, political point scoring or punditry. Just presenter Joseph Warungu and the space to allow people to talk.


Sema Kenya's show on the Westgate attack will be broadcast on Sunday 29 September on KBC Channel 1 at 1800 (EAT) and on BBC Swahili at 1300 (EAT).

Jackie Christie's blogs from Sema Kenya

BBC Media Action's work in Kenya