Grieving cross culturally: the complexity of the Kenyan attack

OPINION | Tamie Davis
Wednesday 8 April 2015

Tamie Davis is a CMS Australia partner who lives and work in Tanzania with university students. She wrote this reflection on the attack by Al-Shabaab at Garissa University in Kenya last week. According to news reports, when the gunmen arrived, their first target was an early morning Christian prayer meeting. Of 29 students there, just seven survived.

Kenya is a world away from Tanzania in some ways. To an Aussie they might seem awfully close, nestled one on top of the other in East Africa, but Africa’s bigger than it looks on a map, both in terms of geography and the cultural differences from place to place. So a terrorist attack in northern Kenya does not automatically affect the university students I work with in central Tanzania. But Garissa wasn’t just a terrorist attack.



It was a terrorist attack on a university campus, which meant those who died were a lot like the university students I work with. Moreover, Christians were targeted and the first to fall were those from the same family of student groups that we work with, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES: FOCUS in Kenya, TAFES in Tanzania, AFES in Australia). For the university students I work with, though they did not share a nationality, these slain students were ‘our people’.

The day after the attack I was conducting a seminar on pain and suffering with TAFES students in Dodoma in central Tanzania. It was a planned part of their Easter conference but it found new resonance in the light of the Garissa attack. We talked about the different causes of suffering that we see in the Old Testament – suffering brought by God, inflicted by Satan, experienced as a result of foolishness, etc – and we added that in the New Testament there is another category: suffering for being a Christian. You could have heard a pin drop in the room.

At Garissa, the role of the victims’ Christian identity seems fairly clear. We have reports of sorting Christians from Muslims, and even of Christians being shot immediately upon being asked their religion. I said to my students, ‘They could have denied being a Christian and escaped with their lives.’ This broke the students’ silence. To them, it was outrageous, unthinkable, absurd, even laughable to shed your Christian identity.

Grief is a funny thing. It requires great sensitivity, and in cases like Garissa, which have garnered some international attention, great cross-cultural sensitivity. A Kenyan colleague wrote on her Facebook page, ‘Must we keep sharing the photos of the slain students… Must we???’ and overwhelmingly the respondents said, ‘No!’

Though customs differ from tribe to tribe, the general advice I was given when I came to Tanzania in 2013 was that when you go to comfort the bereaved, you speak about normal things, anything other than the deceased, in order to take the mind of the grieving off their loss. Indeed, while funerals are solemn and focused on the person who has passed away, I’ve been to events in the days between the death and the funeral which are filled with raucous dancing. Many Kenyans who commented on my colleague’s Facebook thread felt that the pictures were simply too sad. They did not want to continue to see them. They are already grieving and in pain; to see the pictures triggers even more.

In contrast, many of my Australian Facebook friends felt the pictures must be shown, to raise awareness as they felt the media coverage had been paltry, as if African lives do not matter as much as the French who lost their lives in the Charlie Hebdo killings.

There are very deep questions here, about how grief works in different cultures and how grief works on a global scale. This grief is not limited to Kenya, for the Garissa attack is a world event, but it is a Kenyan event in a way that it is not Tanzanian or Australian. We must learn to express solidarity that honours the slain and their families and their particular cultural background. We must learn to grieve with them without allowing our own grief to overshadow theirs.

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