If you missed the news for the last couple of weeks, don’t bother watching the news clips of the CCTV recordings of the attackers of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The videos are not particularly graphic- they are plain old boring. The gunmen walk around a room, machinegun in tow for a minute and eight seconds. It lacks the excitement and suspense of an NCIS episode, yet it feels just as removed from reality.
Perhaps it is too soon to talk about the Westgate Mall Massacre so casually. It was only on the 21st September, that armed militants stormed into the Westgate Mall, killing 68 people and injuring over 150. The effects of the shooting are still being felt. Shop owners are returning to their businesses to clear the debris, and searches for individuals affiliated with Al-Shabaab continue. The pain and suffering of the injured, deceased and loved ones are barely a focus of international media. Compared to the sympathy given in the media regarding the Boston marathon bombing earlier this year, the Kenyan incident seems to be somewhat insignificant.
It is only a matter of time before the realisation we are more likely to feel sorry for those in American over Africa, manifest in an angry Twitter storm and Facebook status surge. You know the posts I’m talking about. The self-enlightened comments along the lines of “I find it sad that today an upper middle class woman in a privileged country was mugged and the world paid attention. But 300 people in Africa were threatened by looters, and no one blinked an eye.” Individuals posting statuses are merely sharing their concern about the perceived injustice in the media. However, the issue they raise by comparing the two situations is much more nuanced than they suggest.
There are a few reasons explaining the apparent bias between Western and Eastern tragedy, and for once, race might not be directly related. The psychological idea that an individual is more likely to respond to things most pertinent to them, and that people or the situations one identifies with the most is helpful in explaining this. Indeed, race may be a feature that affects your identification with others. For some, the cultural similarities and membership to the First World may determine the likelihood of identifying with the Western nation.
Secondly, attention is paid to tragedy in Western nations because the events are simply unexpected. We do not expect marathons to be disrupted by bombings, whereas it is somehow easier to accept a shooting in Kenya, even on International Peace Day. The misguided assumption of homogeneity across African states, and the broader assumption that all African states are violent are brought to the fore in this expectation. A Kenyan student in at Miami University states, “I was surprised because living in America you think shootings and things are more common… But people in Kenya are more close knit. Kenyans are very peaceful, so I was very surprised to see the violence spread there.” Unfortunately, the lack of distinction in the media between African states would appear to mean the First World was not surprised. No doubt one of the reasons Al Shabaab targeted the Westgate Mall was because the area was known to be historically conflict- free and full of foreigners and upper class citizens. In a tweet, Al Shabaab members explicitly noted their intention to get the attention of the government by targeting to strike a deal. Choosing to attack an area where violence was unexpected would raise a greater stir than places which were used to conflict. But as international onlookers, the whereabouts and the demographics of Kenya are neither here nor there; they have no bearing on our lives. Besides, the assumption that Africa is a violent place already overshadows any need to comprehend the situation any further.
This assumption of conflict and tragedy in Africa is not surprising. Many of the images supplied to us about Africa show war torn and poverty stricken areas. This imagery has become a part of our understanding of Africa and we treat the issue of poverty with a casual attitudeand as a permanent condition. For example, the use of the phrase “first-world problems” accompanied by a laugh and a comment along the lines of “think about all the kids in Africa” suggests we recognise the plight of the poor as regularly as our privilege. But if we sincerely thought about the kids in Africa, maybe first world problems wouldn’t affect us as much. Perhaps more of us would “live simply so others may simply live”, à la Ghandi.
The casual representation of this Africa stereotype, extended to poor nations in general, normalises tragedy. When an event like Kenya’s shooting does come up, we do not pay attention and seek to identify with the Kenyans because we have heard it before.
So why should we care about the Westgate massacre? Is it our responsibility to care at all? Instead of launching into an essay about a universal moral code or humanitarianism, I will leave that up to you. What is clear is that the international community as judged by media reports and the Australian response, was not overly perplexed by the incident. The sociologist Durkheim points out the potential for social unity as a positive outcome of conflict. However, societal unity seems to be missing from the Kenyan example. While the international community can send messages of sympathy and concern through national governments, it is not the same as the Durkheim’s connection between individuals and broader society. If anything, we are bringing down social unity between ourselves and Kenya, because the incident fits into our stereotypes and we do not feel the need to think beyond it. We simply do not care enough- whether this is a result of our assumption about Africa or the lack of impact the incident has on our lives. It sounds self-interested, but perhaps it would be better to state our biases than to delude ourselves into thinking we are much kinder than we really are.