Last week, the Kenyan government officially declared an “offensive military agenda,” an action that many are calling Kenya’s first war. Interestingly, this war is not with another nation, but with Al-Shabaab – an extremist militia splinter group of Al-Qaeda that has controlled large parts of Somalia for years.
Accompanying this novelty of war was a familiar national holiday: Mashujaa Day. Every October 20, Mashujaa Day, or Heroes Day, celebrates notable Kenyans throughout history. In the past, this date was celebrated as Kenyatta Day, reserved for honoring Kenya’s first prime minister, but was expanded last year to honor all heroic figures of Kenya. Unlike Veterans Day or Memorial Day in the United States, Heroes Day does not necessarily recognize war heroes or veterans – mostly because there have never been any in Kenya, before now.
The Kenyan and Somalian border and shared oceans have been under siege for months. Within the last two months alone, at least 10 tourists have been kidnapped in the region. As a very popular tourist location, the north coast of Kenya is important in generating revenue for the country. Despite Kenya’s effort to prevent further loss of income and stabilize the region, Al-Shabaab has caused a significant loss of business in the area. The group is also raiding and hijacking local Kenyan villages. Since the official announcement of military action on Sunday, Kenya has deployed hundreds of troops over the border and begun land and air artillery strikes on suspected Al-Shabaab bases.
With the onset of war, repercussions are already being felt throughout Kenya. Jennifer, a Nairobi resident and 60-year-old widow, recently traveled to her home city of Meru, four hours north of Nairobi. Because Meru is close to a few ex Al-Shabaab bases, the drive took two more hours than usual.
“There were pairs of military officers, probably more than just people walking around,” said Jennifer. “There were so many check points on the way to Meru. They would search the boot of our matatu. A few people even were frisked like at the airport.”
A manager of the Yaya Shopping Centre, a large mall popular with Westerners, noted the need for the extensive vehicle checks.
“We have to check every vehicle that comes in because of Al-Shabaab,” said the manager. “Traffic outside of and around the mall has been particularly bad this week, because of these searches. According to traveler alerts from the US Embassy, there have been viable threats on places in Nairobi that attract a lot of westerners.”
The only region that appears to be unaffected by the war efforts is Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. Resident Gigi said, “There is nothing here that the government wants to protect here, even though I know there are Somalis living in Kibera.
Despite the hardships, Nairobi residents at least hope that their toils will be recognized in the next holiday. “Heroes Day will change meanings yet again next year,” Jennifer said.