Widow of Nairobi Bombing Helps Others Heal

Doreen Ruto speaking
Doreen Ruto from Nairobi, Kenya, now a student in EMU’s Conflict Transformation Program, tells her story at a Summer Peacebuilding Institute luncheon meeting.
Photo by Jim Bishop

As her husband dressed for work the morning of Aug. 7, 1998, Doreen Ruto suggested he change shirts. She found one that matched his suit better.

Several days later, that shirt helped her locate his body on the floor of the city morgue in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Beyond the Rubble” was the title that Ruto – a diminutive, lively woman in a lavender dress and head-scarf – gave to the account of grief and healing that she shared at a recent Summer Peacebuilding Institute luncheon. Ruto is a beginning student at Eastern Mennonite University’s Conflict Transformation Program, which has brought 170 people from all continents together for the annual institute, May 3-June 15.

Many have powerful stories to tell, SPI co-director Pat Hostetter Martin noted.

Ruto, a former secondary school teacher, and her husband, Wilson Mutai — both from rural Nandi families – had moved to Nairobi for careers with the Teachers Service Commission, where she still works in teacher training and management. She was on leave that August morning, at home with the couples two then-young sons and recovering from a miscarriage two weeks earlier.

She heard “a shattering noise” and suspected a transformer had blown. Moments later, her nine-year-old saw the first TV report of the bombing five miles away that targeted the U.S. Embassy and destroyed all but the shell of the commission high-rise where Mutai had worked on the fourth floor. “I panicked,” Ruto says. Her husband was among 224 killed.

Her year-old baby kept asking for his dad: “One of my greatest discomforts was how do I explain to him where this person is?” After she returned to work, Ruto and surviving colleagues had to go through bloodstained files littered with glass shards. She found her husband’s imprint on a blasted door.

“I asked myself what is it that I had not done. Was it a curse? What did God expect of me?” says Ruto, a Pentecostalist. She read the entire Bible in six months. Additionally, “I wrote a long letter to Wilson because I needed to talk to someone about my pain.” Having finished the 15-page letter, she observed a mourning tradition: “I packed his clothes, put them in a suitcase and apologized to him for evicting him from his house.”

As permitted by Nandi custom. Mutai’s family of origin insisted on pocketing his entire inheritance, causing a painful estrangement common among Kenyan widows.

She found healing in assisting fellow-mourners, becoming vice-chair of a survivors’ group. She learned of EMU’s conflict resolution programs during a conference with bombing survivors in Oklahoma City. In 2002, she participated in EMU’s STAR program for trauma healing. She hopes to obtain her masters in conflict transformation degree in 2006 and use the skills gained to help other survivors of terrorism.

“Terrorism takes all forms,” she says. “For me, poverty and starvation are other forms of terrorism.”

When U.S. customs officials asked Ruto the purpose of her visit, she replied, “to study peacebuilding.” An official inquired, “Peacebuilding between whom?” Ruto recalls, “I wanted to say ‘between you and me.'”

She says many Kenyans fear U.S. “anti-terrorist” policies will hurt their country. “We now have ‘are you with us or against us?’ This continues to drift us apart.”

Aaron Wright, attending SPI from Liberia, said Ruto works so hard helping other terrorism survivors that she often lacks time to rest. “I’m going back with her story,” said a man from Nepal, where widows are also struggling.

Watching news of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Ruto unconsciously searched the crowds for friends’ faces. That year in New York, she gave a victim-impact statement at proceedings where four men received life sentences for the Nairobi bombing. Her testimony was not legally relevant, however, because the men were only tried for the 12 American deaths – not those of more than 200 Africans. Ruto notes the average compensation for Nairobi bombing widows was $10,000, compared to a $1.6-million average for World Trade Center families.

Most Kenyans did not want the Nairobi terrorists executed, however. Recalling that Oklahoma City murderer Timothy McVeigh went to his death expressing no remorse, Ruto says a life sentence allows more time for regret.

Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer from Harrisonburg.