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Six months later: Kenya’s Westgate Mall workers reflect on a delicate recovery

Six months after a terrorist attack killed dozens at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, GlobalPost correspondent Jacob Kushner talks with mall workers about their stories of trauma, joblessness and moving on.

NAIROBI, Kenya —Today marks six months since gunmen trained by the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabaab stormed a popular shopping mall here, in a siege that left 62 civilians and five Kenyan soldiers dead, and at least 200 others injured.

The victims consisted of both Kenyans and expatriates. Their families and friends remained traumatized by the attack and angered by the government’s response, during which Kenyan soldiers looted the mall, even while bodies remained strewn about.

The Israeli-owned Westgate Mall opened in 2007. It was a popular hangout for Kenyans and expatriates alike until it collapsed during the September 2013 siege. But one group of Kenyans in particular holds a uniquely intimate connection to the mall and the event that destroyed it: These hundreds of Kenyans were employed in the mall’s 80 shops and restaurants, and depended on the mall for their livelihoods.

Their wages, small by western standards, supported their families or paid for their continuing education.

When the gunshots erupted, workers fled side-by-side with patrons. Some hid from the gunmen for upwards of 11 hours before being rescued. In small acts of heroism, some workers led others up or down staircases to safety, or out back doors.

In the aftermath of the attack, some were transferred to other franchise locations owned by their employers. But many lost their jobs entirely.

Six months later, GlobalPost asked mall employees to reflect on how the attack changed their lives and how they are coping with its long-lasting effects.

Judith Maosa, 27.
Waitress, ArtCaffe.
Westgate Mall ground floor.

Of course, everyone when they grow up, they want a white-collar job. Better pay and earn more and live a better life. I wanted to go out and get money on my own so that I can maybe release my parents from the burden of paying more (school) fees. The pay was not that good. But what kept me moving were the tips, the morale for the job, meeting new friends.

It was on a Saturday. Weekends are usually good pay for a waitress in Westgate, and as usual we woke up early in the morning, did the opening duties for the restaurant and then went to breakfast. The restaurant was very busy at nine, ten, eleven… and then from ten, eleven thirty to twelve it was really packed. There was no space for more guests. So everything was going good.

I was walking from outside the balcony of the Artcaffe to go check my coffees, my drinks for my guests outside. That’s when everything started. All of a sudden as I went inside the restaurant, we heard some bangs and we were like, “what the hell was that?” Before people realized what it was, there were gunshots. People were shooting towards Artcaffe because Artcaffe and the sister companies are the ones at the entrance (to the mall).

We started running. I put my trays down, but some of my friends were carrying their trays. Everybody was on the run, even the police, the soldiers, the security who guards the ATM. You run towards the back of the restaurant, others ran towards inside Nakumatt (supermarket). Others were running up to the rooftop, others were running down to the basement. Others even jumped the balcony. Personally I ran outside. There was a person who was behind us. I heard a big bang then he went down. He never managed to escape with us.

(My friend) was shot, his leg was shot. He was taken to a hospital by a friend of mine who was there, a colleague of mine. She knows a little bit of first aid, so she took off her apron then tied him to reduce the blood. She took off her blouse and she tied him. And she helped him escape. Now he is okay, he is even working in Artcaffe at the Junction (different shopping mall).

We lost two workers from our sister company, Urban. One was a waitress, one was a hostess.

We stayed at home for one, two months. We were being paid though we were not getting the tips. It was crazy for them to find jobs for all of us. But all those people who were working during the 21st of September, all of them, their jobs are secure.

It was not easy for the whole thing to get out of the mind. It was recurring now and again at night. During the day when you are walking in the streets and you hear a bang, you are like ‘oh, they are back again—the terrorists.’ But what I hope for them, all those people who survived, all of my colleagues… and for those who lost their jobs—may they find better jobs soon.

Jacqueline Caroline Waithira, 26.
Hostess, ArtCaffe.
Westgate mall ground floor.

I was hoping for a job in a restaurant. I wanted to be a waitress… (but my boss) he said ‘no, I’d like you to be a hostess because you are so talkative and you know how to interact with people.’ I really like working in ArtCaffe as a hostess because it’s very encouraging. I get to meet people and have a lot of experience, and also I am very talkative and very jovial—I like smiling.

Many people don’t like working in a restaurant because there are many discouragements. The slim people, the pretty girls, they usually do that (work as a hostess). Some of them, their body type is fat, so they are discouraged from working there. It’s not fair because they’re supposed to give everyone a chance to work.

But as for me I see it being a good thing working there. And also the payment is nice because usually it helps me do a lot of things, pay my school fees. (I am in school doing French). When you start working you have three months probation and when you are on probation you are usually paid 12,000 shillings ($141 per month) and after you advance they were paying 18,000 ($212). I wish they could have paid more, but there is nothing I could have done.

I was at the door welcoming the guests when something unusual happened. First I thought it was just a robbery from the next shop. But when I saw them shooting, that is when I realized that it’s serious. They were like shooting, killing. Anyone they find on the way they would shoot. We went to the second floor and people started to scatter everywhere as they were running for their lives. I entered a Casino. I stayed there for like four hours. The door was closed but we were chatting with our friends, our parents telling them ‘I am here I am safe.’

I lost three of my friends. We went to their homes, to their parents. We comforted them. It was not an easy thing. When people woke up that morning they didn’t realize that they wouldn’t come back home. It was very sad for their parents. There are some (workers) who were still missing in that building. There are some who were never found.

I had one closer friend. She was nice, joyous, born-again (Christian) and liked encouraging me in so many things. She was 25. She really enjoyed working there.
After what happened, I really felt bad. Even I had to ask myself, why her? Why did it happen to her? So many good people lost their lives. Innocent children just lost their lives.

My other friend was called Peter. He was working in ArtCaffe also as a waiter. He was 20 years, he was very young, so ambitious. He had a lot of vision. He wanted to open his own restaurant and be his own boss. He didn’t make it—he was shot. About the family, I don’t know. He never shared a lot about his family.

My third friend was Mary. She was shot at the leg. She made it. For now she is okay, she is recovering from that pain.

I stayed at home for like one month recovering from that shock. After one month they posted me to another branch. And now I am working there, still as a hostess. I can’t lie to you—as I work in there, I work with fear, because I usually imagine, “what if they come back here, to this place?”

Gladys Mwende Ikunga, 23.
Cashier, Millionaires Casino.
Westgate Mall, second floor.

The best thing about a casino, you meet a lot of people—tycoons, people you cannot meet in normal areas. People could spend money a lot, and you could be like, ‘why can’t they give me the money?’ That’s a nice thing about that place—there were opportunities. You could meet people and they could tell you just how to better your life.

My mother-in-law told me about the job and I applied. All we were given is just a test for mathematics, like two plus three, without counting with your fingers or nodding your head. If you could manage doing that then they saw you are fit for the job.

The worst part of the casino is the working hours, because I am a mother and am married. I have to be at work at seven in the evening and come out the casino the next day at four in the morning.

That day I was off. I was sleeping; I usually sleep with my phone on silent. My husband came and woke me up and told me, “come and see what has happened at Westgate.” I told him nothing can happen to Westgate. Then I saw the television, Westgate under siege. Then I took my phone found thousands of missed calls from parents, friends who knew I am working at Westgate. Everyone was just there wanting to know if I am alive.

My friends were already at work. I called… they told me they are safe… they are locked in the toilets. They can’t even get out because they can hear gunshots around them.

When I heard a blast, I knew that was all, because the blast destroyed everything. It destroyed the building. I just knew it was done.

Lucky enough, all our staff, nobody was injured. By four o’clock everyone was safe, everyone was home. But some were traumatized. I have a friend of mine who couldn’t stand even a sufuria (cooking pot). Anything cracking, she would just tense (up) and feel like crying. She told me she saw someone just shooting live at someone and she thought how inhuman that person was.

Ninety percent of all my friends are still not working. I have almost ten friends struggling to get a job. Some of them they are breadwinners in their families.

They couldn’t get us jobs. They have another casino in Mombasa. They only took two people (there), and we were about 250 staff. Still, they told us they can reopen the casino after one year. We still are hoping for the best.

I have not yet got a job since Westgate. In my family, I used to share the costs of paying the nanny, paying the water bill. I am not able to save even a single coin in a day like when I was working.

I have gone for interviews and nobody is taking me. I can’t tell what’s the problem. I don’t know if it is because I just sound desperate when I am in an interview or what. I might have sounded so desperate.

After the attack I never wanted to work in a casino. But since I am desperate for a job, if I get in a casino, I will go.

Everyone loses a job every morning, every night. I am not the first one.

Anthony Langat contributed to this piece. Westgate Mall and ArtCaffe did not respond to requests for interview.
 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/groundtruth/six-months-later-kenya-s-westgate-mall-workers-reflect-on-recovery