“Now I’m okay,” was about all Cynthia Terotich could manage, as she sat in the casualty ward in Garissa’s hospital.
She had been contemplating the 50 hours she’d just spent crushed inside a tiny cupboard, hidden beneath a pile of clothes, with nothing but a bottle of body lotion to try to quench a raging thirst.
The sound of her friends being butchered in the courtyard outside echoed in her ears.
Cynthia, a 19-year-old student at Garissa’s teacher training college on the edge of town, spoke with the studied politeness that I’ve encountered repeatedly in the past few days in this isolated town, on the hot, dry plains that stretch towards and over the seemingly notional border that separates Kenya from Somalia.
There have been plenty of tears from the survivors of Thursday’s killings.
But when confronted by a foreign journalist, each student I met seemed too anxious to reach – more so than in any other similar situation I can remember – for some approximation of composure.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Everything is fine now.”
“Thank you for asking.”
I am very wary of reading too much into such things. But I found their politeness increasingly unbearable.
I couldn’t shake off the sense that it was somehow linked to the horrors they’d just endured; that it was a lingering echo of the instinctive, terror-driven restraint – a numbed obedience borne out of the purest desperation – that had allowed four gunmen to spend hours sifting, separating, taunting and butchering a huge crowd of young men and women.
These feel like bewildering times for Kenya. Not so much in Garissa. In this poor town on the banks of the slow, brown Tana river, the local ethnic Somali population is used to navigating the complexities of religion and identity.
They are proud Kenyans, but occasionally feel like second-class citizens, suspected by every passing, bribe-hungry policeman of supporting the Islamist militants of al-Shabab across the border.
But elsewhere, Kenya seems preoccupied by other matters; by its own hectic development, its increasingly confident, assertive sense of itself as a modern, industrialised, tolerant nation – albeit one with deep levels of inequality.
SOURCE: Andrew Harding