Have We Already Forgotten About Garissa?

by Nneka M. Okona

Hearing about the terrorist attack in Garissa, Kenya at Garissa University on Thursday, April 2nd that left 148 students dead stopped me in my tracks. It’s the kind of news that horrifies, devastates, and leaves one hopeless and wondering why such tragic things have to occur in the first place.

Unlike many other tragic and senseless attacks on people of color recently, the news coverage was surprisingly decent. I heard about the attacks from various news outlets— New York Times, BBC, Foreign Policy, Reuters, Associated Press—before I heard a peep from anyone on my timeline.

Once the tweets about the Garissa attacks did start trickling in from my followers, they were accompanied by graphic and triggering photos: the lifeless bodies of the victims.

From there it seemed like an incessant stream of the same type of bothersome photos. At one point, I had to decidedly log off, because although my attempts to dodge the tweets with photos were successful, I couldn’t escape the morose reactions at the horror of what had occurred in Kenya. My emotional state of mind was affected and heavily so, in spite of me choosing not to engage for my psyche’s sake.

Thinking about the coverage of the Garissa massacre has been conflicting for me. As if another attack against Black lives and bodies wasn’t enough of a damper, reflecting on why exactly I’m bothered floods me with emotion.

It reminds me of when Michael Brown was killed in broad daylight and pictures were snapped, showing his lifeless body lying in the street for hours, surrounded by a pool of his own blood. I remember feeling a profound sense of despair that day, and that sentiment hasn’t gone away. For a long time, I could close my eyes and see the image so clearly it made me shudder.

The sharing of images featuring slain Black bodies is done so freely by others—whether they be white people or non-black people of color—despite knowing how traumatic and anxiety-inducing it can be. These images cause a painful psychological exchange as we see respect for our lives (and deaths) is noticeably absent.

There is an implicit (and inherent) racial bias and double standard, which becomes apparent when comparing the Garissa massacre to other recent violent attacks. 

We all watched as the entire world corralled around the political cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo who were killed in Paris, France. It was a collective, worldwide mourning and rouse of support. There were protests held in solidarity, despite the fact the publication was known for producing cartoons which were often racially offensive. There was respect and compassion for the victims. There was a level of delicacy, precision, and accuracy in the journalistic reporting.

But those were White bodies, not Black ones.

There was also open discussion: declarations about how tragic the attack was on those poor, poor cartoonists who were just exercising their right to free speech. The same open sympathy was bereft for the victims of the attack in Garissa. Those who were changing their Twitter avatars to say “Je Suis Charlie,” without even speaking a lick of French, did not rally behind Garissa in the same way. 

Of course it was too much to expect the same treatment for hundreds of innocent students who were only concerned with attending classes and just so happened to be Black (and African). They didn’t cause the general public to be filled with grief and sympathy.

And just as quickly as the news of the attack became mainstream, it became a distant thought. Something to quickly be forgotten.

It’s this “othering” of Africans and the continent of Africa that has been hard for me deal with emotionally. Africa and its people are often placed into a category seen as “over there,” disconnected from the rest of the world. This translates to an overall dismissal of humanity, respect, and decency extended to Africans, often perpetuated by the media and reinforced by media consumers.

Yes, it’s true the media has a responsibility to report accurately and fairly, but Black people often get the short end of the stick in media coverage. It also doesn’t help when the lack of respect for our bodies and lives becomes a vicious cycle of denying our humanity and personhood. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to hope, to want, to need to be acknowledged; for our pain and losses to not be used as fodder for sensationalist consumption or swept under the rug.

Are we not worthy of genuine sympathy and mourning as well?

Photo: EPA

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.

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