A group of students, mostly from Kenya, gathered in Beijing on April 18 to hold an unofficial candlelight vigil to honor the memory of the 147 people killed at Garissa University College on April 2 in northern Kenya.
While the global media, including Chinese media, initially covered the news of Garissa massacre widely, the interest rapidly faded. As many pointed out, worldwide reactions have generally been much less noticeable in comparison to recent incidents of similarly large losses of lives.
This combined lack of visibility in the news landscape prompted Kenyan and other African students to react in Beijing, despite being thousands of kilometers away from their home countries. Thus, on April 18 a vigil was organized in Chaoyang park in central Beijing to pay tribute to the victims and their families.
A vigil in a city that forbids protest
Beijing is home to one of the largest communities of African students, who often live in dorms on campuses and create their own tight-knit communities that cross countries of origin and language. The idea of holding a vigil for Kenyan victims came from Brand South Africa country manager for China Tebogo Lefifi. The site is set up to promote that country's image.
Lefifi tells Global Voices that she was inspired “by many people posting on WeChat [the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp] complaining that the world is not taking a stand on the 147.”
In addition, she says an email from Africa2.0 Kenya Chapter, a foundation for African initiatives, commenting on the Garissa violence reminded her that she belongs to the generation that Africa has been waiting for to implement positive change. She is not satisfied with the Twitter-based awareness campaign #147isnotjustanumber, as she says the naming of victims is inadequate to bring about a positive outcome. She believes it is more important to organize the African communities to voice support for their Kenya friends.
In the end, the vigil was organized by Lefifi and three other Kenyan female students. One of them, Tina Kinuthia, explains how the idea eventually took shape:
We think African and Kenyan lives matter, this cannot fall into oblivion so we created a WeChat group where very rapidly we had about 100 people who also shared the poster we made for the vigil in their own circles. Some even used the WeChat to send messages to be later written on paper cards and sent to the families of the victims. But we had also a lot of people trying to sabotage the event, saying we shouldn't do something that has no official permission.
We had no money, no sponsor so we decide to organize ourselves limit to one hour to avoid problems and went for it.
While organizing a public vigil may sound like a rather simple idea to implement, there is very little tolerance for manifestations of public sentiment, even grief, in China's public space without a long and complicated process of securing official authorizations. In this case, the students decided to be creative and design an event that would allow for their feelings and concerns to be expressed without causing unnecessary trouble for the participants.
The organizers spread the word on WeChat and through offline conversations for people to gather discreetly in Chaoyang park, one of the largest in the business part of Beijing. Technically, gatherings of less than 500 people do not need a permit in that park, while having a vigil even in front of the Kenyan embassy or in another commercial place would require cumbersome bureaucracy. One of the instructions shared on the WeChat group says:
The optics should look like a normal picnic in a park. Bring some blankets.
Another participant reminded that:
There is usually a gathering of 50 yoga practitionners in the park, and they don't have a permit.
As Tina Kinuthia explains:
We wanted a gathering in an open space, because this is also where vigils were organized in Garissa and Nairobi and we wanted something spontaneous.
The event included a reading of original poetry, a candlelight mini-memorial with a minute of silence and also the creation of cards addressed to the families of the 147 victims to be mailed to Kenya later.
The vigil's impact
Fortunately, the weather was good on April 18 in the late afternoon, as the students started to gather at one entrance of Chaoyang park to commemorate the victims. Nearly 70 people, including students from Africa and China, sat in a remote corner of the park in front of a make-shift altar with candles. Soon, Kenyan students began to deliver short speeches expressing grief but also concern at the future of Kenyan society. Several speakers insisted that Kenya must overcome its differences and learn to live together despite differences in culture, ethnicity and religion.
This was followed by a reading of several poems written in English specifically for the vigil. One poem by Amina Jarso, a Kenyan student based in Beijing, reads:
Her soul wanted to speak,
To ask of her accused crime,
She wanted to reason with him,
If only he'd give her more time.
His eyes bloodshot with anger,
Her eyes teary with fear,
He fights to silence his conscience,
She struggles not to shed a tear.
They pause and inhale together,
Two heartbeats synchronizing ,
the gun between has no pulse,
An intruder in their first meeting.
Let's listen much more closely,
To the gaps of words unsaid,
And give the 147 back their names,
So their memories won't just fade.
While another poem said:
Face down helplessly I stand,
Tears hitting hard the unarmed ground,
147 the number lingering in my mind,
Remembering they will they will not be around.
After a rather emotional part, participants were asked to write messages and seal them in envelopes that would be mailed to the families of the victims to carry messages of hope and demonstrate that the world — even in Beijing — would not forget them.
At this point of the vigil, a security officer for the park came to announce that all candles should be blown out and that the people should vacate the corner of the park. One student tried to negotiate and buy some time to allow for the completion of the vigil, but the guard remained standing by, informing her superiors by walkie-talkie and urging everyone to leave.
Chinese perceptions of Garissa and the vigil
There were around 10 Chinese participants at the vigil, a mix of students, professors and friends of Kenya. Tina Kinuthia explains how some got involved:
We got great support. A person who runs a travel agency saw a posting in Jinru Feizhou, volunteered to translate the poster and shared in her community, this is how we got Chinese people coming.
One participant is a former student of Nairobi who still remembers a few words of Swahili and said she came because she felt that:
Nairobi is part of my home, and I care about Kenya.
Another Chinese participant explained that:
Most of the people around me are shocked, we even had a discussion in our class on how to avoid such things happening, and what should be the role of government, universities and students?
As one of the African organizers points out:
Chinese people seem well aware, but without a platform to mourn and support Africa, there is no place for them to express themselves.
While the WeChat group is still active, the event is also taking on a second life in the offline world. The Africa 2.0 Kenya office will distribute the cards to the families of the victims and has requested the framed picture used for the makeshift altar to hang in their Nairobi office as a tangible sign of worldwide solidarity.