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A Garissa Survivor On Her New Life in Italy And Her Message to Fellow Kenyans

Two years after surviving the massacre at Garissa, this Kenyan student tells us about recovering from trauma and her plans to spread peace.

It’s been 2 years since Cynthia Cherotich witnessed 147 of her classmates killed by Al-Shabaab militants at Garissa University in northern Kenya. She survived the massacre by hiding in a cupboard under a pile of clothes—only emerging two days after the attack. Today, Cherotich is completing her studies at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia in Italy and considering a career in Kenyan politics.


The 21 year old student was one of 25 Kenyan students given the opportunity to study in Italy after the Garissa attack—part of a partnership between the Kenyan Government and Italian Embassy in Kenya.

The attack was the deadliest since Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the United States embassy in Kenya 1998, which killed 213 people. It also came a year and half after Al-Shabaab terrorists targeted a Nairobi mall killing 67.

OkayAfrica spoke with multiple survivors who were not ready to go on the record about their ordeal. Cherotich, though still fearful, felt that it was her duty to tell the world her story as a way to advocate for nonviolence. We reached her in Florence.

Placide Magambo for Okayafrica: Tell me about your memories of the day your school was attacked?

It is like yesterday. It was the worst day of my life that I’m always trying to forget. Unfortunately it always comes back in my mind or through nightmares even if I avoid thinking about it. Whenever I talk to my colleagues who were there that day we try to avoid talking about it but it is something that cannot change. We have no choice but to face the consequences of what we went through.

How do you feel since moving to Italy?

When I was still in Kenya it was not easy—I was always afraid that it could happen anytime again. Since I moved to Italy I felt like I am away from the danger. I am trying to recover from those bad memories. I try to smile with my friends, but of course I miss home and my family and my colleagues at Garissa.

Garissa memorial. Image courtesy of Cynthia Cherotich

Did you feel like you wanted to go back to Garissa University when it reopened?

No, fortunately I was already here in Italy and I didn’t feel the courage to go back to Garissa. Neither did my colleagues who survived Garissa. We were all traumatized by what happened to us but they had no choice—they had to go back. I feel sorry for them. I know how all of us were afraid to get back there.

How did you commemorate the second anniversary of the terror attacks at your school?

I got together with my colleagues to remember, and we kept in touch with our colleagues at Garissa during the memorial ceremonies. I am glad that our principal Ahmed Warfa mentioned that the security measures have been strengthen to protect the students and the staff. It is not easy to forget and the wounds on our hearts and bad memories are still fresh but I hope that with time we will recover. I wish that my colleagues that survived the attack would get the same opportunities like I did so that they focus on their studies without fear of another Al-Shabaab terror attack. Let’s hope that it will not happen again.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Cherotich

Do you face a lot of challenges starting new life in Italy?

Yes I do, especially at school learning in another language that I never knew before but I am adapting quickly to the change and I am glad that I am improving well, as I am studying literature and languages here. I love that challenge of learning as many languages as I can. Beside the school it was really difficult to get used to the food here, but mostly I cook for myself —Kenyan food—even if it is not easy to get the ingredients.

What is your dream of the future after you finish your studies?

I could go back to Kenya, but I haven’t yet decided what I will do. I am interested in politics—I feel like there is a lot that I can contribute so that our countries can stop conflict. There are unnecessary conflicts based on politics and religions that kill lots of people. I would be happy to see our families living together as one regardless of our differences. I remember when I was a little girl how we were threatened by the post-election conflict in our country when so many people lost their lives. The same story is still happening in neighboring countries whenever elections happen. The youth should refuse to get involved in these kind of conflicts. I experienced that horrific situation when Al-Shabaab attacked my school and it is because of the propaganda based on wrong politics and beliefs that the youth get manipulated and involved in terrorist groups with bad intentions. Again, the victims of that terror attack were the youth. It is time to change our mind and work hard for peace and stop the violence.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.