ECU alum in Kenya

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For ECU alum in Kenya, terrorist attack hits close to home

Oct. 4, 2013

By Jackie Drake
For ECU News Services

When Lindsay Gardiner Takkunen first heard about the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya, the news hit close to home.

Takkunen, a 2002 graduate of East Carolina University, lives with her husband and two sons in Nairobi, not far from the upscale mall where Somali militants led a four-day siege that resulted in more than 60 deaths. Though she and her family were out of town when the attack began, they had shopped often at that mall, and recognized several spots in the pictures that came out in the aftermath.

“Oddly enough we were out of town, just enjoying a regular weekend,” she said. “We could’ve been there. It’s scary to think that it could have been us, but we’re thankful that it wasn’t.”

Takkunen’s sons ride motorbikes competitively, and the family was getting ready for a race in a town called Nakuru, two or three hours outside Nairobi. They were having a practice run when the terrorists first stormed the mall on Sept. 21, a Saturday, firing guns into crowds and setting off explosives.  

“We were sitting and eating lunch and someone asked if we had heard what happened at Westgate,” she said. “I immediately got on Twitter, because I follow a lot of local news outlets. I kept refreshing my feed to get as much information as I could. I was just trying to make sense of it all. It was surreal.”

'It really hit home'

“It’d be like if you heard the Greenville Mall was attacked. That’s when it really hit home.”

After ascertaining that her friends and relatives were okay, she began to think of the students on her swim team. Takkunen works as the swim director for Braeburn Schools, a system of seven British private schools in Kenya and Tanzania. 

Originally from New Jersey, Takkunen came to Greenville to be on the swim team for ECU. Her husband Markus, who is Finnish, grew up in Kenya. Takkunen lived in Kenya for a little while when her parents went there to do missionary work. That’s when she and Markus first met as children, though they were not close at the time due to a difference in their ages.

Takkunen’s parents served as “dorm parents” for Markus’ dormitory. Years later, after Markus and some of his friends came to the US for a visit, the two reconnected and began dating. They were married in 2003, a few months after she graduated.

The family has been living in Nairobi since 2009, and before that they lived in Zambia for a few years. Markus works for a non-profit called Food for the Hungry. Both of their sons, Jet and Jaiden, were born in Nairobi, the city the family has come to call home. 
Such an attack was a shock, Takkunen said, as violence of this level does not usually happen. 

Disruptions in a normal life

“Living here, I don’t think it’s any different from any city in the U.S.,” she said. “I consider my life pretty boring actually, in a good way; I drive to work, I go to the store, I pay bills with my cell phone. You can get everything you need here in Nairobi. Daily life is similar to anywhere else. It’s really quite normal.”

Despite occasional travel warnings, daily life continued undisrupted.

“You take precautions but you go on with your day,” she said. “Then all of a sudden this happens.”

More than a week after the attack ended Sept. 21, as many as 39 people are still reported missing. Some of the attackers were killed in the standoff with Kenyan security forces, but some may have escaped. There was so much destruction in the fight that a large part of the building eventually collapsed.

Takkunen’s family was able to reach their home unscathed that Sunday. Normally there are many traffic stops and police officers on Kenyan roads, but the roads looked pretty deserted to Takkunen, and she realized most of the officers had been called in to the mall.

Only a few students from Takkunen’s school were in the mall when it was attacked, and they were able to escape.

“But some schools lost many students, quite a number, unfortunately,” she said. “The students have lost some mates, and they’re trying to work through that.”

Takkunen has not been back to see the mall since the attack, partly because of traffic, which she says is “crazy on a good day,” and also due to barricades as the investigation continues.

The mall had three stories, including a grocery store, a movie theater, a kids play area, coffee shops, banks, restaurants and offices. 

“It was a beautiful mall,” Takkunen said. “It’s one of the nicer malls I’ve seen, in the U.S. or anywhere else. It was a place where anyone could be on a typical Saturday.”

A community responds
Nairobi is a large international city, “but it’s still a small community,” she said. “After the attack, we’re starting to see how we were all affected.”

Takkunen says the community response was immediate and positive. When the Red Cross asked for blood, so many people showed up that they had to come back another day. A major cell provider set up a number for people to send in donations from their phone, and Takkunen says over half a million has come in.

Most people returned to work or school the Monday of the attack, Takkunen said.

“Everyone is still a bit cautious, but life goes on,” she said. “A lot of students have been out for funerals of family members. It’s still very fresh for everyone.”

Takkunen said she is afraid this attack will hurt Kenyan tourism and the people in the industry who work month-to-month, and their families.

“Kenya is such an amazing country, with so much to offer,” she said. “It would be a shame if people said they’d never come here because of what happened. It’s not common. No one could predict this. Violence can happen anywhere. Kenya is a beautiful place and there are so many amazing sights to see.”

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