If we are elements moving in a galaxy, I think death is a furious asteroid headed our way. The moment we are born the asteroid that will destroy us starts to move and it continues to build momentum and a rage of mortality as it approaches us. Our course, as its course, doesn’t alter and finally one day it intercepts us and we collide. But sometimes it misses us by a whisker, grazes us a bit, shakes us to our core, we smell the texture of it’s finality, the horror of it all and then – wham! – it’s gone. But then it turns back again and starts on a trajectory towards us. Sometimes you have to wonder; how close is my asteroid?
When Professor Anne Muigai’s son, Jomo, woke her up on a Saturday morning, unbeknownst to her, her asteroid had just entered her orbit. That’s the day they would collide. It was 7:30am. Her plan was to sleep in a bit but the boy said he had a swimming gala in school, a gala she had forgotten about. She showered, dressed in a green top, black skirt and wedges. I know this because there is a picture of her in the New York Times, bleeding. She had Weetabix with milk. Ate hurriedly in the kitchen as the children looked for their shoes and slammed doors. Her husband was asleep in the bedroom. Later, as she left she might have stood over their bed and told his fetal form, “Us we have left, si we will talk later? I’m meeting Beatrice later.” Beatrice is her sister. He might have grunted something, or he might have said sawa, or he might have raised a thumb up and rolled back to sleep. We will never know, but what we know is that she picked up her black purse that contained a lot of money, a full year’s school fees for her daughter Wambui who was in Uni. The plan was to bank it. Who is it who said that when we make plans God laughs?
She piled her two sons – Jomo 9, Mwaniki 7 – into the back of her car, and strapped them in even though their own asteroids were still far away. Later on you will see how Jomo saves his and his brother’s life.
They get to school – Aga Khan Academy – but the gate is closed. The watchman stands at her window and tells her, “Hakuna function hapa leo, Madam, si hiyo ni ya next Saturday?” and she turns in her seat to ask, “Jomo, what was the date of the gala?” He looks goofy and says 28th. “Today is 21st, Jomo!” She sighs, and reverses the car. It’s too early to go bank the fees. It’s too early to meet her sister.
So they go to church, St. Francis Xavier at the corner of Limuru Road. There is a baptism ceremony going on. She stands at the back of the church, her black purse carrying the money pressed under her arm. Jomo goes down the pews to watch the ceremony, while she and Mwaniki sit in a pew. So far the gods haven’t deflected her asteroid, the status quo remains. She prays. Mwaniki is getting bored already. He’s looking around probably thinking, “Okay, this is not how I expected to spend my Saturday morning.” She figures that she can catch the 9-am mass at Consolata Shrine. At Consolata Jomo goes for confession and Mwaniki prays next to her because, well, what’s a man to do now that he’s in church? At 9:45 she really has to go because her sister is a stickler for time. She does quick math; from the church in Westlands, on the roundabout (now closed), past Sarit Center, it will perhaps take 5 minutes to get to their rendezvous point.
They were meeting at Westgate Mall. September 21st 2013.
Her asteroid was about two hours away from colliding with her.
Si they get into the car? (That’s how we Kenyans tell stories; “Si now we arrived at the venue to find ati sijui the guys were doing a drill). Anyway, she guns the car. Just as they are going down Lower Kabete Rd, behind Sarit Center, Jomo says he doesn’t want to go to Westgate, he wants to go home. The mom, not known for her patience, says “Come on Jomo, stop acting up, what do you want to eat, cheeseburger?” Mwaniki starts shouting, “Yes, yes, cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!” Jomo isn’t in the mood for no cheeseburger, he says no, he wants to go home, “You and auntie B talk for too long, take me home!” She’s frustrated so just at the junction of Peponi road she makes a split second decision that saves the lives of those two boys; she takes a left instead of a right towards Westgate. She’s thinking, “Oh crap, my sister will be so pissed off with me for being late.” She calls her sister to tell her she will be late and then calls the house help and tells her that she will be dropping off the children but she won’t get into the house, so she has to come out to pick them up at the gate.
At Loresho she stops, the boys jump out and she is reversing as she tells the boys she will see them later. Sometimes you drop your children off at school or at a birthday party and you rush through the goodbyes because you just assume that you will see them again in a few hours. There is never any way of knowing that’s the last time you are seeing them or they are seeing you. Our final moments are always so painfully unremarkable, so banal, when all the while death might be stealing on us. I don’t know what Jomo remembers of her on that particular day. I’d love to ask him if he remembers something she said, or how she looked, or what he thought. I recall my last conversation with my mother. I was in an ATM box on Limuru Road, withdrawing cash and she was asking me why I sounded like I was in a hole and I joked to her that I was in a police cell. Who would have thought that my last conversation with my mother would be from an ATM box?
Prof drove to Westgate but since she was in a big rush, when she arrived she did something she rarely did, she parked outside and not at the rooftop parking as was her routine. That saved her car. Yayy.
She ran into the mall, past people sitting at the terrace of Art Caffe, a sea of sunglasses and drinking straws and piped music. She pushed her way through the smell of coffee and croissants and lattes and the hubbub of conversation, people squinting in the sun, children swinging their feet from their chairs, a humanity facing an oncoming barrage of asteroids. Westgate was about to become our Titanic. Horror stood by. She walked fast through the floors of the mall, her wedges squeaking on the polished tiled floor. Then she rode up the escalator, staring at her phone, her purse clutched tight. At Java she found her sister, Auntie B, on her second juice. They hugged. Java was busy as it always was on Saturdays. Prof was just back from Turkana where she had been for a month on a project. When you come back from the field your hair is always ghastly so she had gone to the salon a few days before the meeting and the salonist had done a bang up job of it. She was now sporting hideous orange hair. It was like breeding Donald Trump on her hair.
They talked about many things then talked about her hair. Actually they went on and on about her hair.
“What should I do? Should I just cut it off altogether?” she asked Beatrice.
“It’s not that bad, just let it be.”
“Maybe we should go to Nakumatt and get some products.”
“The colour will eventually fade out, maybe you can just get it trimmed a little…”
Then there was a power blackout. Seconds later the generator kicked in. Then another. Then came the gunshots. Loud gunshots; of a big gun. The asteroids had arrived. Then there was an explosion. They had asked for the bill earlier and when a Java security guy came and started herding them out of the cafe they said, “But we haven’t paid!” The guy said “Forget the bill, move this way.”
So if Java is reading this, Professor Anne Muigai owes you for two juices and a cheeseburger. She is a professor at JKUAT if you want to send someone over to collect your cash. There won’t be any struggle, she assures you, that is if you can get past security.
Because y’all can’t stand stories of death, let’s just say that her asteroid missed her that day. But by a whisker. And that’s why we are seated at Java Adams Arcade talking about that day, something she says she has never talked about publicly.
“We thought it was a robbery,” she says. “We thought some thugs were robbing the bank downstairs. But this was Westgate, we were sure it would not last long, the cops would come after the thugs left, or they would meet the cops downstairs and there would be a shootout which we would see in the news later.”
They climbed over a low wall, onto the parking lot area where a cookery event had been going on. People were in clusters. A man was telling everybody to sit against the wall. There were lots of children and women.She crouched against the wall with them and her sister said, “You can’t sit there, are you mad?” and she said, “Why not?” and she said, “Because you are exposed!” and she said, “Exposed to what? Don’t be dramatic, please!” She’s a professor of genetics, so her professional life is built around the question; why?
“Were you scared at this point?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “ at this point we all thought it was just a few thugs shooting in the air to scare people. A gentleman told everybody that should the thugs come up, they should give them their phones and wallets if they demand for them. I had all that money in my purse at this time, don’t forget.”
Then came a massive explosion that threw them off their feet. A grenade had been thrown by the advancing men from the ramp. She remembers opening her eyes and they were teary and stinging. “My first thought when I came to was, I should have listened to my sister, we were exposed!” she says. She struggled to her feet, grabbed her handbag, and looked for her sister, whom she found lying on her back, blood on her face. She frantically called her name and shook her and she opened her eyes and said they had to hide. They crouched under a tent with U-shaped tables with white table cloth over them.
“I parted the table cloth to find many people hidden under there and this man, this very nasty man said, ‘There is no space here, get out!’ and as I tried to register his hostility he started screaming at us, ‘Get out! Get the hell out!”
“Was he white, black, asian, who was he?”
“I won’t tell you,” she laughs. “Anyway, we move to the next group of tables and underneath there are more people and a gentleman, an Asian man, who says ‘Come in, come in.’ There are also two little girls in there and so he puts one top of the other so that we can all fit. Then the shooting really starts, loud shots of what sounds like a really big gun.”
It’s hard to describe the sound of an AK 47. It’s blood curdling. It’s even worse when it’s a few meters away from you. “It’s this loud ugly sound that keeps going and going, tuf tuf tuf tuf…”
The Kalashnikov is the devil’s machine. I once watched some thugs being shot on Thika Road by the men in blue even though these men were in heavy jackets, caps and sahara shoes. The cops must have been trailing them for a bit because it was all peace and quiet driving down Thika road then suddenly there was the sound of gunshots, loud gunshots, and looking on my rearview mirror I saw the cops jumping out of their cars and peppering the thugs’ car with bullets, a loud ratatatataat, the thugs dying under the hail of bullets. I got off at the next exit and drove back to the scene to see the cops with the AK 47s. You might forget the sound of an AK 47 but you can’t forget the damage it does to the human body. But that sound? That’s how the devil must sound like when he coughs.
Anyway, back to Westgate, there were screams. The men with the guns were obviously at the parking lot now and they were shooting indiscriminately. Children were screaming. Men were screaming. Women were screaming. There was no gender or age to the mayhem, death was there and death strips man of all dignity, especially macabre death like that.
“I was terrified!”she says. “It’s what you would describe as horror. You are simply paralysed with it. You can’t believe this is happening. The Asian gentleman had told us to put our phones on silent, so I removed it and called my hubby. I was whispering over the noise of the gunshots and scream of people; I said, “I’m at Westgate.’ He asked, ‘You are at the gate?’ and I said, ‘No, Westgate! West-Gate!’ He thought I was at the gate. By this time the shooting was very loud and very close. I could hear people screaming, saying they were dying, some begging for their lives, you would hear someone begging them not to shoot, saying ‘Please don’t, don’t, then you hear twap! And silence. Then another and another. I was terrified, these guys were actually shooting people in cold blood!”
“I’m a scientist [first female genetician in Kenya, actually] I think logically but this wasn’t something I could comprehend. I whispered to my sister, “What is going on?” and she said, “They are terrorists!” and I asked her, “Terrorists? How do you know?” Where did she know terrorists from? She said, “Can’t you hear what they are saying? They were shouting that what Kenya is doing in Somalia is wrong.”
She tried to text her husband but she was shaking so much she couldn’t type a word, so she gave up. Her sister had sent a message to the family whatsapp group. There was lots of groaning now. Children were crying. Her sister’s boyfriend called. Her brother-in-law called. Her sister called, screaming. She remembers a child crying so much and one of the terrorists telling someone to shut up that child and the guardian not being able to get the child to keep quiet and there was a shot and the child went silent. At this point she was sure that they’d die if these men could shoot a crying child. Plus there wasn’t any sign of rescue coming many hours later. Hope was ebbing. She started praying, everybody was praying to their God now.
“He was letting Muslims go after proving they were Muslims. I remember this man standing up and saying he was Muslim and the man asking if the children were his and he hesitated before saying yes because they weren’t, and I think the terrorist realised he was lying because he told the children,‘I know you are not Muslims but will you become Muslims when you grow up?’ and the children said yes and they were told to go,” she continues. “Encouraged by this gesture one very old Asian lady stood up and said she was old and had bad knees and begged to be let go. She was asked if she was Muslim, she said no, and she was shot.”
It became silent now save for a few moans and groans and whimpers of the dying and whispers of prayers from lips of the dying and the occasional loud gunshot. “I knew this was it so I called my husband and I told him I loved him and he couldn’t accept that I was giving up, he kept saying they were coming to rescue us, he kept putting different security men on the phone to ask me questions about the men and our exact location. I called my daughter who was coming from Uni. I called my sons at home. Jomo said, ‘There are bad men at Westgate are you still there?’ and I said “No, I left, I’m in traffic coming home.” He had just gotten a new watch so he was a bit obsessed with time so he asked me ‘In how long will you be home?’ [Laughs]. I said an hour. I asked him to promise me that he will always be a good boy. ‘Will you always remember me?’ I asked him and he was confused so he said, ‘Well, yeah…’ then I told him ‘Please always remember me.’ Then he put down the phone and I could hear him call out to Mwaniki who came on told me that he was watching Ben 10 and I told him to always pray before he goes to bed and to be good. Then I hung up and we waited.”
A lady at the corner was humming the song ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. The men were still shooting randomly. A Somali guy stood up and challenged the terrorists, asking them what Islam was this that kills people. “They started arguing in Somali, it got pretty heated until they shot him many times.” I guess that exchange really irritated the terrorists because after shooting the Somali guy all hell broke loose. “You know people use that expression a lot but they don’t know what it really means when hell breaks loose. Initially he had an audience lined up against the wall now he was shooting anything and everything. It was constant firing, his gun going tuftuftuftuf and people are screaming as they are hit by the bullets, the paint on the wall over us was chipping as bullets hit it. In hospital it took a lot of work to get that chipped paint off my hair.”
“Where was your handbag at this time?”
“I had it, I was leaning on it…” she laughs. “I’m a Kikuyu like that to the end.”
A stray bullet then hit a gas cylinder and set the tent on fire. It started melting, flames dropping on the people hiding under the tables. There were screams of “We are dying here!” Everybody who was hiding under the tent was forced to flee from there and the man started shooting them but they were too many so he lobbed a grenade. “I saw a guy standing one minute and when the grenade detonated he was reduced to nothing. His tissue and blood spilled all over us. My God, it was ghastly, like a scene from hell.”
She then felt a sharp pain in her chest. She had been shot twice from behind. She went down in excruciating pain. All around was mayhem, screaming and the heavy sound of gunfire, like someone “clapping two pieces of wood in your head.” There was smoke and the smell of blood, a distinct smell of blood. A pool of blood. You never forget that smell of blood.”
“I started coughing blood, “she says. “ I was in so much pain and at some point I couldn’t breathe. My sister was holding my head asking me not to close my eyes. She was crying and begging me not to close my eyes. I knew things were really bad when I coughed blood full of small air bubbles.”
One of her lungs had collapsed and the good one was filling with blood. She knew she was dying because she could feel herself slip away. She started moving between two worlds; the first world was of the living, full of pain in the chest, difficulty in breathing, evil men with guns, the sound of gunshots, the smell of blood and sounds of the dying, and the other, the land of the dead, was filled with silence and no pain and peace.
“I only realised that I would lose consciousness because as my sister was speaking to me I would lose some words and think, why is she jumping words?” she said. “I would drift in and out. When I closed my eyes it was so peaceful and when I opened them it was so chaotic. It’s amazing how people die, you don’t feel anything, it’s like a deep sleep and you want to just let it take you over but then my sister would slap me awake and talk to me and I would come back to this bad world of pain. I was very worried that I was bleeding over the lady below me who was wearing a bright dress. But when I moved a bit to get the blood off her, to tell her that I’m sorry for ruining her dress I saw that she was already dead.”
Things quickly took a turn. Somehow, a man, must have decided that they were not going to wait to die up there so on his urging they made a break for it. She says it was adrenaline that gave her that final push for survival because was struggling to breathe now as she dragged herself across the floor, through blood, stepping on and over bodies. She recalls going back into a shop or was it Java? She recalls the sound of the gunmen hunting people down and shooting them, and the sound of the gunshots echoing in her broken body. She remembers very vaguely stumbling down corridors, hands grabbing at her, urging her to stay up, the smell of her own blood, the smell of other people’s blood, her body feeling starved of oxygen, stumbling, falling, rising, dragging herself, praying, her sister by her side holding onto her, not letting her go, some man urging them on, follow me, this way, ducking under walls, her chest on fire, breathless and then somehow suddenly, sunlight and she was on a Nakumatt trolley being pushed by some men, a tv cameraman pulling the trolley with one hand and the other holding onto his camera, the wheels of the trolley rattling against the cabro surface and her turning and upon realising that her sister was no longer with her, panicking and gasping “We were two, my sister, where is my sister?” and some officers or good samaritans running back to find the sister collapsed along the corridor. That’s the picture of her on the trolley in the New York Times. Her black handbag is by her side. Okuyu and her money will not be separated even in the final moment of life.
She recalls the writing on the ambulance that picked her up, “Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital” and that there was no space on the bed in there because it had a big box of supplies, so she sat on the paramedic chair and clung onto this big box of supplies as the siren wailed and the roads parted. The causality of M.P Shah was madhouse of the dying and the dead and the bleeding and the crying and she remembers the worried faces and the determined faces of the medics. She remembers seeing a security guard lying very still next to her and realising he was dead. She remembers turning her head and seeing a worse scene, a traumatic scene of someone a bullet had damaged in a way she couldn’t describe. She was lying on her stomach and someone was asking her her name and suddenly her Aunt was there and her sister was there and they were saying, “Honey, you will be fine, we are moving you to Aga Khan.”
Then she was in another wailing ambulance, a worried nurse next to her, pushing her down as she struggled to get up because she was feeling sick and blood was coming out of her mouth. She couldn’t breathe, she started feeling hot and then cold and she felt something choking her and she tried to stand up, holding onto the nurse and croaking at the nurse that she can’t breathe, she’s choking, and the nurse telling her to cough it out and over the wailing siren she could hear the driver shouting, five….four….three…. the revving of the engine, the swerving of the car …two…and she’s thinking, God let the person who opens the door to this ambulance not be a gynecologist because I need to breathe…one….
The door swings open at Aga Khan casualty and standing there is Dr Raj, a cardiologist who later would do a lot of corrective operations. She remembers being loaded onto a cold metal trolley and the sheer pain as she landed on it. She’s now literally gasping for the last breath. She very vaguely recalls a swift argument between two medics about anaesthesia. It wasn’t really an argument but a loud impassioned back and forth about whether to give her local anaesthesia or even morphine. A nurse kept saying loudly, two seconds…three seconds, which was basically the last time she breathed. She was panicking, thinking, I don’t want to be brain dead because lack of oxygen, I have to breathe and when she tried breathing it was impossible, she was choking and fading out. In the distance she could a voice of someone saying angrily, “You get your morphine but I’m not waiting for it….”and then a soft reassuring voice of a nurse whispering in her ear, “Sweetie, you are going to feel some pain but we need to this and we need to do this now…” and her holding her hand frantically like a drowning person and croaking, “I…can’t…breathe…” and a nurse shouting, three seconds…
Suddenly there was a sharp pain in her chest. Dr. Ruturi or Dr. Raj or some angel had just plunged a tube into her chest, a hollow plastic tube placed between your ribs to drain fluids. It was as if someone had just opened her chest wide open and air flooded in. She gasped for it. Beautiful air. Wonderful air. Shall we briefly turn to our Bibles now. In Genesis 2:7, it says, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Yes. This was the Lord, yes, but in the form of plastic tube. Can I hear an amen?
She took lungfuls of it and took it fast, like someone who had been underwater for long. “We take for granted the very process of breathing in and out. Having air in your lungs. We assume it’s natural. It’s not. My goodness, breathing is not assured. To breathe is the most beautiful feeling ever,” she says.
“Where is your handbag all this time you are taking in air?” I ask. [I’m obsessed with this handbag]
She laughs. She said some Asian guy collected everything that was found at the scene and put it in his boot for safe keeping and while she was in hospital her sister tracked her phone to the car and got the bag with all the money.
“I laugh at the person I was before Westgate. I used to run my life and the family like a tight ship; the alarm would go off in the morning and I would be up and running the whole day, everything seemed so urgent. At night I’d go to bed but not even sleep well because you are in bed but you are already living the next day in your head, planning meetings and projects and all these things seem so important right until you face your death and it dawns on you that you will never see your children again or your husband or your family.” She pauses. “I’m definitely a much better person than I was before Westgate, I’m much kinder and more loving. I don’t rush through life anymore. Because where are we rushing to?” she asks.
What did you learn at Westgate, not after Westgate? I ask.
“That we are all mere tips of what we can be,” she says. “You think you are a good writer? You can be a much much more. You think you are a great athlete, you can be much much more. We are all tips of our best versions, all of us are not exploring our fullest potential as human beings. I saw this at Westgate, when human beings were stretched to the limit, it made some people kinder, braver more compassionate. Tragedy revealed us.”
“Do you still have that handbag ama you disposed it?” I ask with a smile.
She cackles with glee. “You know, I saw it the other day underneath a pile of handbags and it brought back those memories.”
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