Clashing Kenyans Join to Help
NAIROBI, KENYA — Come as you are and bring what you've got. That was the spirit of the day, said a volunteer worker, after the bombing that ripped apart downtown Nairobi Aug. 7.
The sudden human need has driven together - for the time being - the divided and downtrodden people of Kenya. They find the sense of community almost as bewildering as the devastation.
Journalists who arrived on the scene within minutes of the blast found dozens of ordinary Kenyans rushing toward the wreckage of the US Embassy and surrounding buildings, clawing with their hands to drag the dead and injured from the rubble.
Before the Kenyan military belatedly took charge 24 hours later, hundreds of volunteers - black, white, and Asian - worked alongside the Red Cross and other emergency workers.
Few Kenyans would pretend that such public spirit is normal. Battered by economic failure, strikes, corruption, and a collapsing infrastructure and social services, Kenya's 28 million people have become increasingly divided along class and ethnic lines since independence from Britain in 1963.
Simmering conflicts among some of Kenya's 70 ethnic groups, often unreported abroad, have killed thousands of civilians, many times more than last Friday's toll of 200-plus dead and 5,000 injured.
But bitter feuds between Kalenjins, Kikuyus, Luos, and Masai seemed to have been forgotten in the aftermath of the bomb, commentator Pete Odeng wrote in the independent Daily Nation newspaper. He hoped the spirit of unity would continue in the absence of national disaster. "The thought of international terrorists bringing their fight to our soil angered Kenyans and triggered emotions that can only be described as patriotism," he wrote.
By the day after the blast Nairobi's formidable Asian community, the backbone of Kenya's urban economy, had mobilized in strength. Christian, Muslim, and Hindu congregations came together with Rotarians and neighborhood-watch schemes to set up impromptu stalls at hospitals and the rescue site, doling out free food to dazed relatives and weary rescue workers.
By the morning of Aug. 10 thousands of people were queuing to give blood at Kenyatta National Hospital and in the city center's Uhuru Park. That evening students from Nairobi University, more used to chanting opposition slogans through police tear-gas, marched slowly down Haile Selassie Avenue singing quiet hymns. Opposite the bomb site they stopped and planted hundreds of candles on the curb
Shamba Mansour, a member of a Muslim sect, has been neglecting his tourism business this week to hand out huge fried-egg sandwiches to Kenyan military engineers and Red Cross workers at the bomb site.
"I hope people will realize that this bomb had nothing to do with Kenya," he says. "It was an attack by foreigners on the US Embassy, and it is not likely to happen again."
But the US government has angered Kenyans by issuing a travel advisory warning its citizens to stay out of Kenya. The Daily Nation editorially denounced the State Department's "impolitic and callous" warning: "Rather than closing ranks and reassuring American citizens that traveling to Kenya is not any more dangerous than visiting any other country outside the US, the US government is quick to tell its citizens to shun Kenya. We trust that Americans are intelligent enough to treat this piece of ill-advice with the disdain it deserves and accord Kenya the sympathy and assistance that it needs at this point."
The travel advisory has added to an undercurrent of resentment at the US government's immediate response to the attack. Kenyan civilians and rescue workers have complained that, for three days after the blast, the swelling number of American rescue and military personnel at the embassy - which appears to have been quickly cleared of dead and injured - made no contribution to the main Kenyan rescue effort at the neighboring Ufundi House.
The Marines and US special forces troops silently guarding the freshly barbed-wired embassy have been contrasted unfavorably with the friendly, unarmed Israeli and French rescue troops working alongside their Kenyan comrades. On the night of Aug. 10 a small number of personnel from a Fairfax County, Virginia, search-and-rescue team did join the Israeli-led effort to find those still trapped in Ufundi House.
Earlier a spokesman for the embassy said that the US government had previously been fully engaged with caring for its own dead and injured employees, both Kenyan and American, but that a 40-strong military medical team was arriving to assist Nairobi's crowded hospital staff.
In Washington, meanwhile, Reuters reported that US diplomats attending a large meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were more concerned about the need to pay more attention to Kenya's suffering ("a point of honor," one woman said) than with their own future security.
On the evening of Aug. 10, Erin Smith, a young Pentecostal lay missionary from Nebraska, found herself digging in the rubble of Ufundi House alongside Israeli, French, and Kenyan soldiers. Like a number of American civilians and missionaries living in Nairobi, she had volunteered for the Red Cross earlier that day.
"I work in the theology college, and a lot of our Kenyan people were getting upset," she says."They were saying that they didn't think America was doing anything to help Kenyan victims. I'm just glad to do whatever I can."