When Westgate Mall in Kenya was attacked last Saturday, I, like most Kenyans, was devastated.
I felt more and more beat up as the death toll increased. My younger sister studies in Nairobi and works at West Mall, a shopping complex with a similar name. She was the first person I reached out to, thinking that it was her place of work that was under attack. And, when I was visiting with her this past August, the owner of a business next door to her work had just been shot several times by a gang of young men.
As I continued following the warlike situation in Nairobi, I was reminded of 1997, when I was in seventh grade. I was attending a political rally at Jomo Kenyatta Grounds, the largest public park in my hometown of Kisumu. As soon as the main speaker began addressing the already-charged crowd, white vans arrived at all the gates. Before they could even come to a stop, dozens of well-built, machete-wielding youth jumped out and immediately started hacking people in the crowd. A huge fight ensued, and I had to run for safety. It took a good 20 minutes before I found a hiding place.
The months that followed were filled with similar attacks, fueled by politicians paying youth to kill their own people. Similar incidents have been the backdrop of other election years in Kenya: In 2007, after the general election, Kenya experienced the worst span of violence in its history. Youth were the main perpetrators, while their mysterious bosses were in the safety of their homes, watching from the TV as the country burned.
As the violence went on, many of us found we could not stand on the sidelines watching our neighbors flee the homes they had occupied for generations In Kisumu, mainly people from the Kikuyu tribe were targeted; in Central Province, where Kikuyus are from, people from the Luo community were targeted. The worst attacks were in the Rift Valley. The current president of Kenya and his deputy were indicted at the International Criminal Court as the main suspects orchestrating the violence.
My friends and I, people from different tribes, came together to start One Vibe. We ourselves had taken a stand against violence, and so we decided to reach out to youth in our communities to offer alternatives to violence—activities like music that can help them realize their potential. We chose to focus on engaging youth because they were the main perpetrators used to destabilize the community.
One Vibe is a nonprofit organization that holds an annual concert series called Unite the People. It has now grown into an Arts Mentorship program involving more than 68 people, aged 10 to 19. Every week we engage them in music and arts activities, including traditional African music, guitar lessons, storytelling, poetry, and visual art. We are trying to occupy a space that, if not filled with positive influences, could be hijacked by gang leaders or even recruiters for groups like Al-Shabab who seek the very same boys to indoctrinate.
Youth from the slums are vulnerable—especially when they have completed high school or college and have no job. According to the Kenya National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, abuse is highest among young men aged 15-29. They are often exposed to alcohol and drugs at a young age, as well as gangs and other negative influences. These issues are common in the slums because of lack of inspiration and necessary support systems.
Desperation creeps in as a result and makes them a target—for politicians, for example, who use them to terrorize political rallies. Once the political campaigns are over, youth who are now well-trained troublemakers return to their communities, where they commit crimes and are either jailed or lynched by their own community through mob justice. Vulnerable young people are also easy recruits to radical groups like Al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the Westgate Mall attack. (While the group claims to be Muslim, the motivation of the attack is not in accordance with any Muslim belief, according to Abdul Haji, son of a former security minister in Kenya and one of the heroes of the Westgate Mall massacre.)
Beyond the news headlines, what happened in Nairobi this week reveals, when you get down to it, the pain that ordinary youth go through and the damage they are capable of when that pain is manipulated and transformed into violence. Imagine how incredible it would be if the same young men were engaged in positive activities by a supportive community that would have deterred them from becoming militants? What if it was someone else who first recognized their pain, and invited them to express it in a different way?
Sometimes it takes surviving bad things in order for good things to happen. Right now in Kenya, everyone feels at peace with each other despite their political, religious, or ethnic affiliations. Throughout social media, all you see in interactions among Kenyans are messages of oneness. But just a few months a go, on the same platforms, these same people were tearing each other down mercilessly. Now that there is calm, as we continue to mourn the victims of last Saturday in Nairobi, we should also reflect on how we want to move on without violence.
Most importantly, we should reconsider reaching out to our young people and inviting them to participate in life—in art, music, and other creative processes—before they are reached by forces like Al-Shabab. We should do everything we can to help them reach their full potential.
Also by Simon Okelo: