September 11, 2001
Malimili, Kenya. East Africa. Peace Corps.
Henry Mabya, dear friend and neighbor, is urgently yelling my name outside my crude wooden gate. It is the gate separating my home and yard from his. My tiny domicile sits inside his property. It is odd behavior for Henry to be doing this. We enjoy such malleable borders and an acquired familiarity that a quick rap at my door shares news or a last-minute dinner invite. I yell to Henry that he is welcome, of course.
Henry opens the outer gate and meets me at my door. He is sweaty, agitated. He looks frightened, eyes wild. Instantly, I know something is terribly wrong.
Henry’s face is tight, his voice sharp and pinched..it all points to bad news.
Shelley…they have hit your trade center.
Huh? Wha? Trade Center?
Yes. A pilot has flown a plane into your trade center.
The World Trade Center, Henry?
Instantly, I picture an Idaho crop duster with a confused pilot. A small incident. One or two dead. Sad.
Shelley, it was a COMMERCIAL jetliner.
There were two…three actually…one flew out of Washington, D.C. Weren’t your parents flying out of Washington, D.C. today?
Henry’s eyes are on mine, searching, his concern palpable.
My body goes cold.
The room spins. Commercial jetliner. More than one. Planned.
Henry had heard the news via Kenya radio up the road sitting in his duka, open late for villagers to stop and buy sugar, lard, shoelaces. He had ridden his bicycle with purpose, through mud and brush to tell me the news. He knew immediately I was unaware because of the way I was “reading so quiet and peaceful” in the window.
My parents were fine. Stuck in Washington, D.C. but unscathed. I somehow broke through the jammed phone lines to reach my uncle in Portland. I learned later he had no idea my parents were safe. He was simply telling me what he knew I wanted and needed to hear in the moment.
The following morning, my students in the local school had questions.
Madame…we are so sorry for what has happened to your country. Are you ok? Are you sad? Who did you lose?
It was unfathomable to these teenagers that I hadn’t lost at least one family member. They were all still stinging from the recent embassy bombing and the threads severed for so many of them in an instant. We had an unplanned geography lesson that day–one stretching from Idaho to Washington, D.C. to Malimili, Kenya. We cried together, their concern and compassion melding with my grief.
It was a full month following 9/11 that I saw my first images. It was the swan diving victim on the cover of International Newsweek that brought into living color what was, for many Americans in the Peace Corps, experienced as recorded reaction from horrified witnesses on the street.
I returned to the U.S. two months later when my service ended to a changed America. It was an America drenched in patriotism and strong rhetoric of retaliation. I remember stepping off the plane in Seattle and being welcomed home. Another moment in the midst of sorting through the nonsensical tragedy that is 9/11.
As much as I felt the sorrow and devastation of American loss, I longed, powerfully and more often than I care to admit, for a return to my cement hut or my Kenyan classroom. Kenya felt somehow smaller to me in that moment, something I could grasp. America was bigger than I remembered, and it was angry and barbed. It felt like everything I wasn’t.
But I managed to make it through the myriad of choices–toothpaste, movies, menus, buying a new car. I waded through the talk shows and range of political discourse speaking from a place of reaction to the unthinkable.
I’ve managed to whittle down my America to something I recognize and hold as my own. I choose, when I can, to listen to those who speak civilly of compromise.
And I choose to live each moment.