Nairobi mall attack is a symptom of neglected youth

Children who live on Rusinga Island in western Kenya. (Photo by Jason Koenig)In Africa, and around the globe, we’re losing our young men to militancy and extremism.

The Al-Shabaab terror attack on Westgate Mall last week was like a volcano erupting. There were tremors and smoke, telltale signs that it was coming, but we didn’t heed them.

Sadly, the filthiness of the mall massacre was followed up this past weekend when, Boko Haram, a militia group in Nigeria, with similar motivations that drive Al-Shabaab, killed over forty students at a college in Northern Nigeria, many while they slept.

These stories continue to fill the news, but now we are learning how we are all part of this problem. And it’s time for us to face it head on before it deals us another big blow.

We have gone after the attackers in the past, angry and ready to wipe them out. In fact the Westgate attack was framed by Al-Shabaab as retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia.  But retaliation only seems to be strengthening their will. Our attack in vengeance is how they probably want us to react.

Instead, we should not play their games, but listen to what the actual executers of such dreadful acts are saying.

The soldiers of these wars are our own young men. We have forgotten how to keep them engaged and inspired, so Al-Shabaab is doing it for us, and then coming on TV and Twitter to claim victory like they did after the Westgate Mall attack.

But what would happen if Al-Shabaab never had any youth to send on a mission to murder innocent people? The Westgate Mall killings brought a complexity that could answer parts of this question.

While most of us work hard to provide for our families in the current unstable economic conditions, our absence in the lives of our youth create a gap. That gap allows them to seek the attention elsewhere. We could keep radical groups away from our youth by making more time for them, and involving them in activities that enhance their self-esteem and cultural identity.

Many youth in the developing world including Kenya, are constantly pulled between various conflicting cultural beliefs and lifestyles, making it hard for them to be grounded. If our youth are immersed in learning their cultural identity from childhood, they will grow knowing that they belong to something bigger than them. That’s one more reason not to join a radical group.

Members of Al-Shabaab in Somalia. (Photo from REUTERS/Feisal Omar) Young Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia. (Photo from REUTERS/Feisal Omar) 

Some of the suspected perpetrators were as young as 21 years old. We invest a lot and raise children, but in the process we lose them right before they reach their peak. Hearing stories of 15-year-old girls that had gone for a cooking competition in the mall, only to end up watching their classmates being shot irrespective of their age, race or ethnicity reminds me of an ordeal in late 2006.

A long time friend of mine named Tim and I had just finished dinner at Kisumu Yacht Club. We chatted heartily as we walked toward the car park. Suddenly my brain begun hazing off into what felt like a dream. I felt my legs go on slow motion. Tim walked past me, I tried grabbing him by the shoulders, but my hands felt heavy and unable to move.

Things were happening so fast. I saw one of the waiters who had been carrying a tray of food, strangely throwing it, and diving to the ground with it as if imitating its flight.

When I looked back at Tim, he was lying on the ground, and a slim man in a green jungle jacket was standing above him, his feet apart with Tim right between them. He was holding a walkie-talkie, similar to those used by Kenya police, on his left hand. And, with his right hand, he was pushing Tim to the ground. That’s when I realized that we were being robbed at gunpoint.

A second accomplice came running up behind me. He had an AK-47, but he was young and his hands were shaky with fear.

They took the money from my wallet and forced Tim and I into the now crowded kitchen. We were forced to lay on the ground with our faces touching the hot floor. Guns were cocked, and those who were slow to heed the order were beaten by the butt of the gun, and kicked into position. The young men walked out of the kitchen locking the door behind them. Outside, the alarm was now going off, gunshots, and sounds of men yelling at each other, “twende, twende”, lets go, lets go, in Swahili, filled the air.

Six years later, this traumatic event still lingers in my mind. But it’s nothing compared to having someone shot dead right before my eyes, as the survivors of the Westgate attack experienced.

No other youth should be exposed to this kind of horror.

That’s why we should reach out to youth before they are wrapped around the fingers of the radical Muslim clerics.

There are not enough support systems in places like Kenya to deeply engage youth in activities that can support their growth while safeguarding their culture and values of being human. These same issues are faced by immigrant youth and other disgruntled youth in the developed world.

The young men that robbed me needed money to survive, but the attackers of Westgate were determined to kill and die proud of living up to the expectations of their leaders.

Lets take our youth back by giving them something better than what Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram are offering.