The iconic picture of a four-year-old girl running through a corridor towards a rescuer at Westgate Mall during last year’s terrorist attack remains etched on the minds of many Kenyans.
Portia Walton, 5, had accompanied her mother and four siblings to shop at the mall when four gunmen stormed in and started spraying shoppers with bullets.
Portia’s mother, Mrs Katherine Walton, 39, grabbed her three daughters and followed another woman to hide under a promotion table outside Nakumatt Supermarket.
As the mother held and prayed over her three daughters — Portia, then 4, Gigi, 2 and Petra, 1 — her heart raced as she realised she had been separated from her two sons, Blaise, 14 and Ian, 10.
Mrs Walton and her children lived to tell the harrowing tale of how their lives were spared, but the attack had initiated a deeper assault on the American family living in Kenya — it seemed the terrorists had hit her marriage.
Her husband, Philip, 40, narrates the stormy journey that has been the past year and the toll that the attack had taken on their marriage.
“On the surface, everything was good after the attack. The kids were going to school. Katherine was starting to establish new routines. I was building my company”.
In short, the Waltons had soldiered through the storm and marched on without missing a beat.
“But underneath, there was an illness that was starting to take hold in my wife and, to some degree, my children. With every new alert issued and the growing insecurity around us, Katherine was descending deeper and deeper into a state of anxiety and fear.
“Even though she saw counsellors who helped her put some of the things in place, the fear and anxiety just kept growing.
“I started to pray that she had more faith and trust in God. Couldn’t she see how God had spared her life and that of the kids through this ordeal?”
But for Mrs Walton, the experience had confirmed reservations she had had before her family moved to Kenya a little over three years ago.
Mr Walton explains that his wife, who had lived in Togo as a child, had a very different experience from his own in Burkina Faso, where he grew up.
Mr Walton moved to the US when he was 19, where the two got married a few years later before moving from North Carolina to Nairobi.
“Although we had enjoyed a good life in the US, my heart has always been in Africa. Our journey here was difficult and it took a lot for Katherine to reach the same point of being willing to return to Africa,” he says.
TERRORISTS VS POLICE
But what seemed like a settled matter resurfaced after Katherine suddenly found herself in the middle of a fire exchange between terrorists and police in the mall.
In a strange twist of fate, Mr Walton was far away in the US on a business trip when the attack happened and his wife was alone in Nairobi with the children. He learnt about his family’s plight from seeing online pictures of his daughter, Portia, running to safety.
“Eventually, we decided that it would do Katherine good to visit our family in the US,” he says.
Mrs Walton went away for five weeks and left him with the children in Kenya. During that time, she lived with her parents and then moved to her sister-in-law’s house.
“Her outlook on the matter seemed to improve. We would have good discussions over Skype but we would never talk clearly about what our future would hold,” says Mr Walton.
A year later, the family thanks God that their marriage has withstood this test.
Mrs Walton does not have much to say but to thank God, not only for sparing her life and that of her children during the attack, but also for saving her marriage.
“I am so thankful that God gave me a godly husband that has never wavered in his faith and trust in Him,” she says. “Philip has been my rock.”
The woman is also thankful for her church, the Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Sunday, the church held a service for the family and thanked God for saving the lives of Mrs Walton and her children and sparing her marriage.