Spring 2015 Kenya Program Students Respond to Attack in Far Northeastern Kenya.

The following is a response from the St. Lawrence students currently on the Kenya Semester Program. They wanted to reach out to the SLU community and let everyone know what they were thinking in relation to the April 2, 2015 terrorist attack in far Northeastern Kenya.  If any students or family members have questions related to this topic I encourage  you to contact me and or the Associate Dean of International and Intercultural Studies Dr. Karl Schonberg

Our thoughts are with our Kenyan friends and colleagues who are mourning this tragedy

Matt Carotenuto
Associate Professor of History &
Coordinator of African Studies
St. Lawrence University


Jambo marafiki wangu! First off, we would like to collectively apologize for our slow posting; we’ve been super busy having amazing experiences and have not had as much time to write as we thought we would!

We’re just going to jump right in: we know there’s been a lot of concern about the events in Garissa yesterday. And understandably so! When the western media writes headlines such as “University Students Targeted in Kenya,” it’s difficult not to immediately jump to the worst conclusions. That being said, these events are quite complicated, and, more importantly, they don’t affect us here in Nairobi in any way (other than our obvious sadness at the tragedies taking place in this country).

Here is a map of Garissa in relation to us in Nairobi:

Garissa in relation to Nairobi http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-21053095

Garissa in relation to Nairobi http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-21053095

It doesn’t look that far (though it is only a little closer to Nairobi than Canton is to Boston), but in reality, Nairobi and Garissa are literally worlds apart. Garissa is on the border of the former North Eastern province (now Garissa County), one of the most underdeveloped and insecure parts of the country, which even most Kenyans avoid. There’s a popular joke here that, in North Eastern province, they ask visitors, “how is Kenya?” because it is so far removed from the rest of the country. Not only is it far, it’s quite remote in terms of access. Many of the roads here in Kenya are not well maintained as it is, but getting to Garissa is more difficult than traveling most places due to lack of infrastructure. Basically, North Eastern province, including Garissa, is a lawless area that has continually been subject to the wrath of militant Somalis. It is for this reason that, while the attack is tragic, it’s not a surprise—unfortunately, events like this are not uncommon. The only reason that the Western media is taking notice is because of the scale of the attack and because of the Christian targets.

Unfortunately, these attacks have become more common in recent years due to Western drone strikes and due to the Kenyan military’s interference in Somalia. North Eastern province is an easy target in Kenya due to its proximity to Al Shabaab’s Somali base and due to its lack of law enforcement.

Now to the good news! Our program has not operated anywhere near North Eastern province in at least a decade.

This is the United Kingdom’s travel warning map for Kenya:

Map from British Travel Advisory outlining restricted areas  https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/kenya

Map from British Travel Advisory outlining restricted areas https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/kenya

As you can see, Garissa is firmly ensconced in the orange area. Our program follows these same guidelines, with additional restricted areas. In addition, it’s important to note that a  travel advisory has been in place in some form since the 1998 bombings of the US Embassy in Nairobi. With the addition of Mombasa to the restricted areas in 2014 we now have a component in far western Kenya (Kisumu) as a replacement.

Since the attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013, security here in the capital has increased exponentially—these attacks are truly devastating the Kenyan tourism industry, and so president Uhuru Kenyatta is determined to prove that his country remains safe for foreigners. I know that every single one of us, all 18, feels 100% safe in regards to security in Nairobi, where we are metal detected and scanned before entering any mall or grocery store or restaurant or hospital, etc. Cars are searched before entering parking lots and bags are thoroughly inspected by private security firms all around the city. Honestly, we are more concerned in our day-to-day life by the crazy drivers or threat of petty theft—as we would be in any other big city in the world. As we are writing this, everyone in our beautiful house in the ultra safe suburb of Karen is happy and healthy. We’re making a potluck dinner tonight, actually, so music is blaring and people are singing as they prepare food for our Kenyan friends and professors. In short, none of us are worried. That’s not to say that we aren’t having discussions about the events in our current home country, and we are definitely taking our personal safety seriously (carefully deciding where we go on weekends, etc.), but we are living our lives as normal. In addition, our KSP administration remains alert, as always, because our safety is their top concern—as we learned last semester, when the program was canceled due to security concerns, we would not be here if it was deemed unsafe for us in any way.

All of us feel it’s important that, amidst the plethora of dramatic media articles, you hear directly from us. Within our fenced-in compound (equipped with an electric fence, barbed wire, and 24 hour security guards, as most houses here in Nairobi are), we are safe and anxiously awaiting our independent studies to commence next week. For us, it’s life as usual. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this tragedy and we are heartbroken that our adoptive country continues to suffer this plague in some areas. However, that does not change how we feel about our time here, and we urge anyone who is interested in the program to not be discouraged by this awful incident. As SLU African Studies chair Matt Carotenuto said in a post about this incident, “tuko pamoja.” All 18 of us truly feel that we are “all together” with our greater Kenyan family, especially those impacted by the events in Garissa.

Hakuna matata!

Love, SLU KSP Spring 2015

4 thoughts on “Spring 2015 Kenya Program Students Respond to Attack in Far Northeastern Kenya.

  1. Actually, Garissa is closer then you describe. It is 224 miles or 4.3 hours drive on Route A3 in Kenyan road conditions. That would make it the approximate distance between Canton and Rochester, New York.. Canton to Boston is a considerable distance away and not a good comparison..

  2. Hi SLU KSP 2015 members,

    First, let me say your concern about how people would react to the news was right on for me. I’m so glad all of you are safe.

    Second, as a 1962 alumnus, I am impressed by your blog. To think how much global communications has improved in the last fifty plus years is amazing. As with your blog, I hope efforts such as yours will lead us toward global peace. As an R.O.T.C. student, I believe the military has an important role, but we also need to give peace a chance. I believe you and your program are doing that.

    All the best,

  3. I think the idea of distance here in comparison to U.S. cities is a bit misleading—Garissa would take at least a full day of travel to reach from Nairobi due to infrastructure, traffic and other factors. I think the students are right to suggest it is much farther away in real Kenyan terms than a google map might reveal.

    Matt Carotenuto

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