Shopping centres in Nairobi have increasingly become a way of life over the past 5 years - at weekends they are so crowded that I have heard of people searching for parking spaces for half an hour, then leaving disappointed and giving up.
But they are crowded in a good way. Great, newly built edifices, they are the embodiment of modernity, success, middle class living in Africa. Sparkling, modern, new - the place to be and be seen. At weekends there are promotions, competitions, fun events - all drawing in ever larger crowds.
Shopping Centres in Nairobi are not just the preserve of the wealthy, or of expat customers - they are jam packed with Kenyans, which today is a melting pot of age groups and cultures - people are mixed together - happy to be rubbing shoulders - celebrating growth, prosperity with an exciting, dynamic vibe. Shopping Centres are fashionable, edgy places, where people are dressed up - they look cool. The feeling is optimistic, positive - shopping centres like Westgate are 'the place to be'. From teenagers hanging out at the cinema or grabbing an ice cream, young kids with their mums off to buy school shoes while nagging for something from the sweetie cart. A visit to the dentist, optician, modern business lunches in cafes, singles surfing the internet on laptops - cappuccino in hand. A family lunch at a shopping centre is a weekend treat. You might be booking flights at the travel agent. Service industry staff pop into the supermarket buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread - Africans, Asians, Arabs, Westerners- Christians, Hindus, Muslims. The prospect of a trip to the shopping centre, up until now, always represented a treat in store. People watching. Fun. Buzz.
Since Kenya entered the fight in Somalia, we have received numerous security warnings - not just threats relating to shopping centres but other crowded places and events too. We read them and sigh. For the past two years they have popped up as text messages on our phones almost monthly. We individually assess the risk, do we go or not go? What is the truth in this message - but many people have no choice because life has to go on.
Fortunately none of my direct family or friends were at Westgate when terrorists stormed the centre last Saturday - but like so many others (and Nairobi is by no means a small place), I know people who were there. I have been to Westgate so often myself that I know the place well, I know my favourite stores and hangouts - have spent many fun hours there and I am left with the feeling; 'it could have been me' or worse 'it could have been my kids'. One can only imagine the horror people must have experienced to have been inside the centre on Saturday at lunchtime. Tragically, our house help's niece was working at Westgate over the weekend. Neither rich, middle class or expat, she was killed early on during the siege.
The incident resonates so much worldwide because it makes us all think -where next? Terrorism has reached a new level. I cannot help but reflect on the fact that after the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania, came 9/11. Over the weekend, this felt like Nairobi's 9/11. It makes you sick to your stomach - but also extremely proud of how the crisis was handled in Kenya - the almost unbelievable resilience and bravery of people in the face of the most terrifying of circumstances.
At this point there are still more questions than answers. As a bystander, we just continue our lives but also talk, watch TV and read accounts, desperately trying to make sense of the whole thing - even though there is no sense to it.