Most of the Free Presbyterian missionaries in Kenya frequently shopped and ate at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, the scene of the horrific terrorist attack that occurred on September 21, 2013.
“I was so sobered when I heard the news, having gone there so often,” FPCNA missionary-at-large, Rev. David DiCanio said. “We’ve sat so many times on the small balcony where the terrorists entered.”
DiCanio, who spent three years teaching in Kenya for the Free Presbyterian Church of Northern Ireland (FPCU), said that he and mission board officials had dinner on the small colonnade of the Artcaffé, the popular restaurant where terrorists lobbed grenades and entered with assault rifles.
Dr. Mark Allison, chairman of the FPCNA mission board, Paulcy Cange, a board member, and George McConnell the chairman of the missionary council and member of the FPCU mission board were present at that meeting.
“As we sat eating, we knew Kenya was under threat by terrorists, and western malls like Westgate, particularly, were named as prime targets,” DiCanio said. “Paulcy remarked to me as we were eating that it would be very easy for terrorists to drive right up and jump over the railing where we were seated! It’s hard to believe that is exactly what happened!”
“You never expect such a thing to happen,” Paulcy said. “Thankfully none of our missionaries were there. The Lord certainly knew all that.”
Margaret Russell, a 30-year veteran missionary in Kenya under the FPCU, said that the missionaries lost a dear friend in the attack, a woman whose husband supplied the construction materials for the BCFC Christian Academy over the years.
“I was texting him with an order that morning,” Russell said referring to the owner of the store who lost his wife in the attack. “We didn’t have clear information at the time, but the rumor this side was that she was on her own and her husband communicated with her until 3pm on mobile phone, but then nothing. A short time later they found her body in the mortuary!”
FPCU missionary, Noreen McAfee, said about the death, “It is a terrible ordeal for the family; we feel so sorry for them.”
FPCU missionary, Gillian Gillespie, remarked that Kenya was deep in mourning, and that two of her workers were affected by the shootings.
Eric, a worker in her compound, thought he had lost his uncle who worked at the Nakumatt supermarket in the mall. But, he called a day later to say he was hiding, and police found him and brought him out safely.
“Tears of sadness turned to tears of joy,” Gillespie said upon hearing the news.
A neighbor of Gillespie’s other worker, Janet, was not so fortunate. They were devastated when they received news that their son was one of the employees killed at the Nakumatt. “They had to travel to Nairobi to identify the body,” Gillespie said. “… All of Kenya is in shock.”
According to news reports, this was the work of the Somali terrorist group, al-Shabaab. “They have threatened such an attack for the last 2-3 years since Kenyan forces went to fight in Somalia,” Russell said. “And, this time, they succeeded.”
Kenyan forces entered Somalia on October 16, 2011, along with the Ethiopian and Somali military, because al-Shabaab had kidnapped several western tourists and aid workers inside Kenya. The invasion started after two women with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) were kidnapped at a refugee camp in North East Kenya, near the border with Somolia.
“Although there are crimes throughout the world, developing countries are definitely more volatile,” DiCanio said. “We need to keep our missionaries in prayer. The whole thing is just sickening.”
“Any of us could have been there,” Russell said about the mall attacks. “But God is sovereign!”