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Socio-Cultural Intricacies in the Nairobi, Kenya Bomb Blast
By Mary Amuyunzu (African Medical and Research Foundation)

1999 Copyright © American Anthropology Association

A bomb exploded in the central business district of Nairobi, Kenya on August 7, 1998. The blast occurred simultaneously with another in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and both targeted USA embassies. Almost immediately the blasts were declared the results of terrorist attacks aimed at destroying USA interests. In the wake of this disaster efforts were made to rescue survivors and treat the injured. In Kenya a disaster fund was set up to pay medical expenses for and compensation to individuals and companies that suffered losses. The estimate of the damage has been put at Ksh 30 billion (US $500 million). It is estimated that between 218 and 253 people died. An estimated 6,000 people were injured, 97 are visually impaired of which 25 are totally blind. At least 15 people have been confirmed deaf. Between 175 to 200 patients will need reconstructive surgery.

An important service that is currently being provided for the survivors is counseling which is aimed at helping them to cope with the traumatic effects of the bomb blast. All who feel they have been affected have been encouraged to attend. 6 centers have been set up to offer these services and 720 people have been trained in trauma counseling. By September 30 4,204 people had received counseling, 344 children and 3860 adults. Women have outnumber men by 2 to 1.

This paper looks at the bomb blast from the victims? point of view. It analyses the social and cultural aspects that emerged in the wake of the blast that may not have been so evident. It discusses this through a case study of a blast victim and newspaper reports.

Understanding the bomb blast through the victims' eyes

The survivors of the blast mainly express fear and lack of understanding why the bombers attacked Nairobi. Mr. Musyoka, a victim said: ?I do not think I can go back to my place of work. It is too scary. I thought I was going to die. I am still terribly shaken and I can still smell blood that I had seen everywhere around me after the explosion? (Daily Nation, August 15). Another victim Samuel who was stuck under rubble for 36 hours said: ?Trapped down there in the dark, several thoughts swirled through my mind. I thought of my two children and my relatives. My mind would then shift to my two friends wondering whether they were alive.? Counselors have reported that the trauma of the blast will last for a long time. The following case illustrates some of the consequences of the bomb blast.

Argwings is a 28-year-old male who was on duty when the bomb exploded. He was working on a casual basis as a messenger with the Agricultural Finance Corporation, performing his normal duties when he heard a loud bang. His first instinct was to look through the window. He saw people running everywhere but he had no idea what was happening. In that instant, the partitioning in the office came tumbling down and the computer blew up injuring his face and his eyes. He can see with only his right eye. His doctors have told him that he should eventually regain sight in his other eye. When asked what he thought when he heard he was in hospital, he said: ?I wondered, why did it happen? What is wrong? I was confused and scared. I was also in a lot of pain.? Currently, he cannot see well and he tires easily.

Argwings is the sole breadwinner for his family. His parents died in 1996 leaving behind 6 children. As the eldest he is responsible for educating and taking care of his siblings. He plans to start his own family once his siblings become independent. He said that his siblings were very scared when they heard that he was in hospital. Argwings? most pressing problem is that he was a casual laborer at AFC and thus has not received any income from August through October. He has not paid his rent. Finding money for food and transportation to hospital has been difficult. He hopes that his employer will give him back his job at the beginning of November 1998.

Argwings has received a lot of material and spiritual support from his religious community. AMREF has also provided him with transportation to visit eye specialists. In the initial days following the blast, AMREF gave him a much needed food package (containing flour, tea leaves, sugar, etc). He noted that although he has relatives they do not offer any material support. Asked about how they reacted to his illness, he said: ?people wonder what is happening to my family. My parents died and my mother?s death was closely followed by my younger brother?s death in 1996. I am now the one responsible for my siblings and the people think there is someone trying to finish my family.? He, however, hopes that he will get well and be able to lead a normal life again.

Argwings is keen to continue supporting his siblings if he gets his job back. Reports in the local newspapers indicate that people are increasingly pulling away from their extended families. For example, immediately following the blast, Stephen?s relatives traveled to Nairobi in search of him. They knew neither where he was nor where he lived. His sister reported that: ?we have looked for him in all the hospitals but we have not found him. We do not know whether he is at home probably sick. He has not been in contact with anybody. How do you people live?? was her desperate question.

While discussing the ?personal? issues surrounding the bomb blast with an American relief worker at AMREF, she had the following to say: ?I can make some comparisons between this blast and the Oklahoma bombings. In both cases the communities were drawn together and were very willing to help.? However, in the Kenyan situation the victims have been more passive and more willing to wait for long periods before being attended to or receiving compensation. They have also been less willing to freely discuss their problems. Many do not seek counseling although the services are freely available. The question as to who is next of kin differs as well. We have brothers of victims claiming compensation whereas the dead have been survived by their wives and children. In some cases brothers-in-law of female victims rather than the children of these women have been considered next of kin. The legal conflicts surrounding claims on compensation money are proving difficult, especially for people who do not understand the local traditions.

The Nairobi bomb blast can be compared to other such blasts that have occurred elsewhere in the world including Oklahoma and Nagasaki/Hiroshima. Innocent people are usually the victims who suffer far-reaching consequences. After those who are killed, the most affected are the injured who frequently suffer long lasting effects. People who suddenly find themselves blind, deaf and disfigured have to live with the consequences of the blast for life. The dependants of the dead and injured suffer as well. Argwings? dependent siblings have suffered from a lack of food and other provisions. The burden of raising children who lost their parents in the blast has been transferred to other people. For those who were attending school many have had to discontinue their studies.

The consequences of urbanization and the breakdown of the extended family were made clear during and after the bombing. It became apparent that the extended family that has been characteristic of Kenyan communities is not as strong in urban locations. The fact that Argwings has had no support from his uncles and aunts shows that his expectations of the extended family have not been met. Although extended family members have been quick to claim compensation money from the disaster fund, many have shunned taking care of those affected by the blast. This can be blamed on the current economic hardships that Kenya is confronting. Many working people are deliberately preventing relatives from knowing where they live for fear of having uninvited guests and thereby having a strain placed on their budgets. The high cost of living, therefore, has led to individualism. Stephen?s case mentioned above illustrates that some people live in Nairobi without even close family members knowing where they live.

A cultural intricacy that has been evident is with regards to customary marriage law. The fact that a wife belongs to her husband?s family has been illustrated in situations where the man?s brother claims compensation on behalf of the bereaved wife. The husband?s brothers who are expected by their communities to take care of the bereaved man?s family are suspected of using this cultural rule to get money for their own use. This is also evident in situations where, if the deceased was a common-law wife and had property, her family often denies that she has ever been married. Thus, in this case culture is being used by her family to get access to the compensation that has been pledged by the government through the disaster relief fund.

The interesting aspect of the counseling is the fact that more women than men have been attending the sessions. It is important to note that professional counseling is relatively a new idea in Kenya. The greater participation of women, according to a counselor, is due to the fact that women are more willing to admit their worries and fears to strangers. Men, on the other hand, are reportedly spending more time drinking alcohol as a way of coping with the tragedy. Although alcohol consumption is a common pastime for Kenyans, the incidence of drinking has gone up following the blast. Culturally, African men are not supposed to grieve because this is a sign of weakness. Therefore, drinking in public places is a sign of releasing stress that has resulted from the bomb experience. The observation that the people who have experienced this type of trauma may continue to experience distress for between 6 and 12 months (Njega, media communication; Tucker et al.1997) indicates that the social and cultural issues related to the bomb blast will continue to emerge as people struggle to cope.

Conclusion

The bomb blast which has affected a wide range of people in Kenya has illustrated that the social and cultural fabric on which most communities in Kenya operate often do not apply in urban locations. The high cost of living and current economic difficulties have made people turn toward families that are more ?nuclear focused? rather than clan or kin minded. The difference between the number of men as opposed to women who seek counseling indicates that African males still find it difficult to visit professional counselors to discuss their fears and worries. The fact that the effects of the trauma may be felt more strongly within the next three to nine months implies that mechanisms to support the people to cope with the trauma need to be developed and put in place. Communities also need to be made aware of the prolonged effects of the bomb blast so that they can extend the required support to those already affected.

References

Tucker P, Dickson W, Pfefferbaum B, McDonald NB, Allen G: Traumatic reactions as predictors of post-traumatic stress six months after Oklahoma city bombing. Psychiatr. Serv. 1997 Sep. 48(9), P1191-4

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