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On September 21st, a group of masked men armed with assault rifles attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The siege lasted four days and resulted in at least 72 deaths. A further estimated 175 people were wounded; many others witnessed the devastation or have been traumatized by the loss of loved ones. Amidst these horrors, Gladys Mwiti, a member of the ISTSS Board of Directors, submitted the following riveting account of her work on the ground, one that is filled with hope and inspiration...

Center for Transformational Psychology & Trauma Expertise
Nairobi, Kenya

September 27, 2013

Dear friends and those who offer us their prayers:

Today, we opened doors to the public, if Red Cross tent flaps can be called doors!

Last night at a media conference, and on Kangai’s Twitter, we could finally tell the public “come” because we had enough help and were nearby. I was able to train a further 200 counselors yesterday.

I started the morning after waking up at 5:30 am. Why?  I appeared before the national television cameras at 7.30 am as they interviewed Raisah Virani, a 15-year old survivor of the Westgate attack. View the interview.

The interview ended at 9.00 a.m. and I quickly made my way to Uhuru Park. This will be our home for as long as Red Cross can keep the program open. We started the morning as usual with the coordinators meeting to plan the day, followed by training new staff and deploying the already-trained counselors and psychologists. The scene was orderly chaos. The blood donation crew and thousands of volunteers were coming to donate. Then we had musicians, singing or playing music so loudly that we had to hush them so that we could hear ourselves talk.

At several corners there were women with open car trunks serving sweet tea in flasks and handing around packets of milk. Guards manned the entrance and police patrolled the park. Then members of the press were everywhere, stopping us for an interview here and another one there. Many came asking, “May I talk to a survivor?” Our answer, “No! Our job is to care for survivors, yours is to check with the Red Cross desk. They might get someone for you.”

Then something funny happened. When I ended this training, the team was so happy that one of then rose to give a vote of thanks. We have a Kenyan way of “raining flowers” from the sky and then clapping hands. One woman asked me, “Doctor, what kind of flowers do you like?” My response: “Red roses. After all, today is my birthday.” Yes, indeed. Yesterday was my birthday, but I had almost forgotten. Right there, the whole group broke into singing “Happy Birthday” right in the middle of the throng. Yes, we may cry and mourn our departed, but in our beautiful Nairobi, it is always great to know that lovely things surround you wherever you look. For all those reading this, Uhuru Park is surrounded by many flowering trees, the kind you see only in Kenya. For the grounding exercise we practiced, many of the group used the flowering trees as a non-threatening object.

While I carried on with the training, one of our coordinators, a young PsyD forensic psychologist, deployed our teams for the day. When we completed the training, my team of 200 took a break and then were put into teams and sent out. Sixty went to venues in the city while others formed groups with reporting civilians. By the end of the day, a cumulative total of 1,000 persons had been seen.

Today, 80 counselors and psychologists went to many locations including our favorite coffeehouse/café where everyone gathers with laptops, iPads, coffee, good friends, a book, or family. These joints are such fun. Many people’s favorite eatery was in the Westgate Mall and today, we sent a team of six to see the 39 staff members of that cafe. Another group waits at the mortuary with the bereaved families -- still no bodies were delivered today.  As the families wait, our team waits with them.

So, our 80 clinicians covered many locations, including intervening with families at Uhuru Park. One site that still needed teams today was Radio Africa, the workplace of one of the victims killed in the siege, the well-known journalist and TV and radio personality Ruhila Adatia-Sood. By the end of the evening, we had seen another 1,000 people.

Kangai's twitter feed is packed with people saying, "Please, keep on. I need you to see my friend's family ...,” and so on.

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Gladys Mwiti, PhD is a member of the ISTSS Board of Directors and the Chair of the Kenya Psychological Association. She is also the founder and CEO of Oasis Africa, an indigenous counseling and training organization based in Nairobi, Kenya that has been equipping professional and lay counselors since 1990. Over the past 19 years, the organization has provided professional services in Kenya, Eastern Africa and the greater African Continent through the church, schools and community organizations in response to psychological trauma following disaster. 

Gladys K. Mwiti, PhD.
Consulting Clinical Psychologist & Trauma Specialist
Founder & CEO | Oasis Africa | P.O. Box 76117-00508