Kenya Watch, Uncategorized

Shopping Malls and conspicuous consumption

A guest post by Jocelyn Bogdan. Follow Jocelyn at @jocienyc1

The first time I went to a mall without my parents I was ten.  I was in fifth grade and going to the mall with my friends represented the ultimate freedom.  We bought magazines, ate in the food court, and generally acted like obnoxious ten-year-old girls.  Over the next few years, malls continued to represent freedom to me.  I remember the first time I ate with a friend in a mall restaurant, a chain restaurant, of course, without our parents.  We felt so grown up.  I remember, at twelve, trying on the fanciest dresses we could find at Macys, pretending we had somewhere to important to go.  And I remember hours spent lounging in the fancy Saks bathroom complete with couches and arm chairs.

Twenty plus years later, I feel grateful to live in a city mostly devoid of shopping malls.  I pity my teenage self-confined to the suburbs where malls and movie theaters were really the only places to escape the monotony of our homes.  In affluent suburbs, generally, consumerism runs rampant — shopping probably tops the list of leisure activities.  And yet, thankfully, somehow, malls have started to fall out of fashion.  The commercialism and consumerism is still there, but malls have given way to artificial “town squares.”  Collections of shops and restaurants connected by sidewalks rather than shoved into one fancy building.  The posh malls of my childhood have fallen into disarray.  Saks and Macys replaced by discount shops and malls that once were filled are often empty on Saturday afternoons.

It makes me happy knowing that my 17-month-old daughter lives in a city where playgrounds, parks, museums, and coffee shops serve as meeting grounds.  It gives me hope that she won’t spend her formative years suckered into consumer culture, buying Mac lipsticks and issues Entertainment Weekly that she’ll read with friends in a fancy bathroom waiting for their rides home.

And yet, my husband (and daughter) is Kenyan.  And I’ve spent enough time in Nairobi to recognize for all its multiculturalism, it’s thirty years behind America in many ways.  While our generation struggles in the US, knowing we may never achieve the economic comforts of our parents, in Kenya our generation is our parents’ generation.  Young people with college degrees buy cars and houses, eat out, order take away, go on fancy holidays, and don’t worry about student loans or lack of retirement savings.  While in New York our friends live in tiny apartments, shoving two or three children in one bedroom, housing among the rising middle class in Kenya allows each child to have their own rooms and leaves an extra room for a live in nanny.  Childcare in Kenya is so affordable it’s an afterthought, whereas in New York parents consider leaving their jobs rather than spending $4,000 to put two kids in daycare.

And then of course, there are the malls.  Shunned by twenty and thirty-something city dwellers in the States, malls are on the rise in Kenya and the rest of the developing world.  Never mind that the prices in nearly every shop are outrageous, they’re still, allegedly, the place to be.  I’ve spent time at Village Market and Westgate and the only purchases I’ve ever made are chocolate cake and Indian takeaway.  I wanted pretty hand-blown wine glasses but the price tag for a set was too steep.  Jewelry that costs 80KSH at a craft market where the money is handed directly to the designer is sold for $20 in a mall’s fancy foreign owned shops.

In the weeks leading up to the Westgate attack there were articles about Marks and Spencers, Clarks, and other British companies expanding to Kenya- foreign companies infiltrating the developing world — a supposed mark of success.

There’s been a lot said in recent days about how Westgate was a great equalizer, a place where rich and poor rubbed elbows, a sign of economic success in the developing world, a haven from the  mean streets outside; a symbol that privatization was outpacing the public sector and setting the country was on the right path.

But let’s be honest.  Malls in America, malls in Kenya are soulless places.  They are places where companies lure people in with overpriced clothes and coffee.  That Kenyans and expats alike are willing to spend $6 on chocolate cake, $15 on eggs florentine, or $30 on a fancy top is not a mark of success.  It’s unfortunate.  That commercialism has found its place in the developing world is not something to celebrate.  The idea of privatization outpacing the public sector is nothing to be celebrated.  It’s a wakeup call to the public sector to step up.

Perhaps it’s symbolic nature is why Westgate was targeted.  But let’s not pretend that malls are sacred places where countrymen come together, sipping coffee sharing thoughts and ideas on how to build a better world.  Malls are designed to suck our money.  They may provide comfort to expats looking for the some sign of home, promise to young Kenyans with rising salaries, and freedom to teenagers, like my younger self, trying to escape their parents, but they’re not the future of Kenya or any other nation, they’re hollow and superficial.  The success of corporate commercialism is not the success of a country.

A day after the siege ended, it’s impossible to comprehend what happened at Westgate.  A lot of what happened is still unknown.  What we do know of the horrible loss of life and the horrors victims experienced is unspeakable.  The loss of income for those who worked in Westgate and supported their families is also tragic.  If Westgate does represent a sacred, hallowed place it does so only in the memory of the victims who suffered and lost their lives this week.

I haven’t been in Westgate in three years, yet I’ve seen it in my head, over and over these past few days.  The shops, the cafes, the parking lot, the children’s play space.  I look at my daughter and feel incredible gratitude that she’s safe in our apartment shielded by both her young age and our distance from the events.  I look at my daughter and think of the children in Westgate and cannot imagine.  I want to hug her and never let her go.  But I know from experience, for those of us lucky enough to be spared, those feelings will eventually pass.

It will take time, but Kenya will recover.  Every day New Yorkers go to work under the shadow of the city’s new Freedom Tower, Londoners get on the tube, and backpackers dance in nightclubs in Bali.  Eventually normalcy will return to Nairobi.

But returning to Nairobi’s malls won’t be the marker that Kenyans are stronger than their attackers.  Supporting foreign owned companies and buying overpriced lattes isn’t a sign of perseverance.  For whatever malls may represent to attackers, they are not the future of Kenya or any country.  Kenya needs a strong, trustworthy government.  It also needs to look inward, rather than outward to move forward.

Maybe in the next few weeks, middle class Kenyans and perhaps even expats will grab a mandazi for breakfast, rather than a banana muffin.  Maybe in the next few weeks Nairobians will meet for a Tusker at a local pub rather than a latte at a foreign owned cafe.  Maybe they’ll take their children to the park that Wangari Maathai fought so hard for, or to the forest to appreciate the true beauty of their city.  Walking through Village Market this weekend may feel like an act of defiance, but maybe a better act is buying a chapati and chatting with the man who made it.


One thought on “Shopping Malls and conspicuous consumption

  1. Simon says:

    I know you wrote this last year – but it is such a pleasure to read such a balanced and honest view from an American regarding the mundanities of living in Nairobi even though it is in reference to such a tragic event!

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