I recently visited the August 7th Memorial Park at the Junction of Moi and Haile Selassie Avenues. The park is a haven of peace amidst the chaotic city bustle from which many generate their daily bread. The park is dedicated to those who lost their lives during one of the most terrifying terrorist attacks on Kenya in 1998.
On that fatefully day, two hundred and eighteen people, a majority of whom were Kenyans, lost their lives when a car bomb at the gate of the then American Embassy exploded. The Adjacent Ufundi Cooperative building was completely destroyed and shards of glass become flying missiles that only acerbated the loss of life.
Memorial museums and parks are some of the least understood spaces as they are usually associated with a specific event or series of events commemorating tragedy. Their themes are generally centred on reconciliation, forging a way forward – but the cause of tragedy is rarely far away from a visitors mind.
Kenyans often refer to the park and constituent exhibition as the bomb blast, in itself a public acknowledgment of the cause, rather than the progressive intention of most memorial spaces. They aim to empower people to reject hate in its extreme forms and promote human dignity, not just when one is confronted by the results of hate, but in day to day life.
The Park has a well-tended garden in which Kenyans from different walks of life enjoy the wi-fi, which is provided free, or sit and take time to re-energise after their toils in the city. An interesting observation was that several people were dead asleep as if they were in bed. One cannot sleep where they do not feel safe and secure. Shade is provided by a variety of trees indigenous to different parts of Kenya.
BODY, MIND AND SPIRIT
The centre piece of the park is a memorial wall on which the two hundred and eighteen people who died are listed and commemorated on a granite slab. A sculpture named body, mind and spirit made up of debris from the buildings can also be seen in the garden.
A visitor centre hosts an exhibition which has changed drastically from the last time I visited. On one wall there is a list of terrorist attacks from the East Africa region and the world. It includes the attack on the America Embassy in Tanzania which was carried out simultaneously with the one in Nairobi.
There is a gallery with personal items of the victims of the attack that includes, tie, handbag, folder and even a blood stained glove. I suspect this space presents a poignant area of the Kenyans personally affected in one way or another on that tragic day. There are also eight different flags representing the eight nations whose citizens lost lives in the attack.
Another wall has testimonies from the public on where they were and what their experience was. The disbelief, the agony of losing lives and the disruptions of their lives for what they thought would be a day, but what for some turned out to be a lifetime. There is a space in which documentaries run and is set with the traditional three leg African stools which presents a certain authentic charm to the space.
The park, in an effort at inclusivity, has named their conferencing spaces after African leaders whose works and philosophies continue to influence peaceful thought processes such as, Kenya’s Nobel Laureate the late Prof Wangari Maathai and the First African President of South Africa the Late Nelson Mandela. The Former in human rights and environmental conservation and the latter in human freedom and political liberation.
The park is a good place to remember the recent history of Nairobi. But as it tries to foster peace building, events in the world indicate that the state of the human condition is hardly changing. Just this Easter weekend Sri Lanka was confronted with coordinated terrorist attacks in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday that killed 359 people.
As memorial spaces try to encourage people to reject hate and embrace dialogue, genocides, mass murders and terrorist attacks persist, and currently at a frequency where another occurs before the last incident fades into distant memory.
However, what is important is that memorial spaces – gardens, museums or parks – can provide historical perspectives, opportunities for reflection and perhaps a cross-cultural understanding. The painful memories affect humans just the same way, regardless of their nationality or religious affiliations.
But the real essence of these spaces may not be so much to let you remember the bad and the ugly, but to challenge us to act when confronted by injustices in our society.