By Ogova Ondego
Published September 27, 2013
Nairobi Alert. That is the title of the e-book I had read several weeks before terrorists attacked a shopping mall in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya, on September 21, 2013.
The book–written by Kate Bariletti and told from the perspective of a 15-year-old white American girl–touches on issues like Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, reproductive health among the youth, teenage love, wildlife conservation and the threat of elephant poaching, and extended family support networks.
The plot of Nairobi Alert begins with Megan, an American adolescent arriving in Nairobi where her father, a staffer of the Embassy of the United States of America, has been posted on a two-year service. Megan must learn how to live in a new environment and confront cultural differences: eat ugali and sukuma wiki staple, ride in crowded and speeding matatu public service vehicles, and embark on a challenging class project in Kibera informal settlement amid being on high alert in a city on which the shadow of terrorism hangs. It is from here that Megan also discovers that force called love when she gets attracted to her best friend’s brother.
Nairobi Alert ends with evacuation of the staff of the USA Embassy following a terrorist attack in the Nairobi Central Business District. The evacuation is portrayed like being conducted in a country torn apart by civil war and that has no form of government worth writing home about.
I had at first been reluctant to review the book as I felt the setting and the sort of violence depicted in it were unrealistic as far as Kenya was concerned. I just couldn’t visualise a Nairobi where you meet with armed soldiers on every street corner. Armed members of the Kenya Defence Forces–not Kenya Police–guarding large public events? Not in Kenya. High level of mistrust among the populace because of terrorists suspected to be living among the people? Not in Kenya.
I recall sending a message to writer Bariletti to express my misgivings and to explain that I hardly ever review any work of art that I find disagreeable. I had told her that I felt she was describing either Sarajevo, Mogadishu, Abidjan, Benghazi or Kigali but not Nairobi.
I was however jolted to reality around noon on Saturday, 21.09.13, when information came through social media that Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall was under attack from heavily armed men. It is perhaps that catastrophic event that claimed more than 60 lives, injured hundreds and destroyed livelihoods that has taken me back to Bariletti’s Nairobi Alert.
Bariletti says this young adult adventure published in May 2013 is “written for readers aged 12 and older and includes current issues challenging young people in Kenya.”
I find it difficult to believe that in 2013 young people born in Nairobi middle class families could be said to be sticking to their ‘tribes’; that they are not supposed to get along across the so-called ‘tribal’ divide. For instance, Wanjiru, one of Megan’s classmates, tells her: “Hasn’t Atieno talked about the dislike between peoples here in Kenya? She’s Luo. I’m Kikuyu. We’re not supposed to get along. Surely you knew?”
The characters in the story may not be fully developed into three dimensional beings through what they say or don’t say, think and do. But that isn’t to say the 145-page Nairobi Alert isn’t engagingly written.
A copy of Nairobi Alert may be purchased from Amazon Kindle for US$2.99.
One may also learn more about writer/poet Kate Bariletti and her work from katebariletti.com or by directing any query to firstname.lastname@example.org.