On August 7, 1998… Twenty-five years ago, I woke up at 5am in my apartment in Alexandria, Virginia to the sound of an NPR host explaining that there had been an explosion at the US Embassy in Nairobi. Little did I know at the time how my life would be shaped by the events of that day.
I moved to Nairobi a few weeks later to join the USAID regional mission. I wasn’t a survivor of the bombing and can never fully understand what the survivors and responders experienced. However, I did become part of a community that was forever changed by the events of that day. Here are three of the many things that I learned from that community.
1. Leadership matters. The Embassy community was led by Ambassador Bushnell who modeled strong, compassionate leadership providing guideposts about when to push on, when to rest, and how to care for each other. I have often thought of her example when I’ve led in a crisis or provided counsel to others.
2. Trauma literacy matters. Understanding acute and vicarious trauma reactions and normalizing discussion of these reactions is the first step in becoming a trauma-informed organization. If there had been greater trauma literacy at the time, more could have been done to mitigate the impact of the bombing and its aftermath.
3. Having a trusted “mirror” matters. Most of us will be changed by experiences like this. Some of those changes are positive. Others, less so. But those changes can be hard to notice when you’re focused on getting through the next hour, day, or week. I was fortunate to have people who I trusted to serve as a mirror so that I could begin to catch glimpses of the ways that vicarious trauma had changed me, and who gently invited me to consider whether those changes were serving me. I had others who tried to hold up a mirror but hadn’t taken the time to build a reservoir of trust. Those conversations were less productive… to say the least. If you are a survivor of crisis/trauma: who is your mirror? If you care about someone who is a survivor of crisis/trauma: how are you building trust so that, maybe, with enough time and care, you can be a mirror?
To all those whose lives were changed by the US Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, may today bring you more healing than yesterday and tomorrow, more than today.
Lynne Cripe is Chief Executive Officer at The KonTerra Group. As a social psychologist with 20 years’ experience in international relief and development, she has particular expertise working with organizations and individuals to foster resilience in the face of challenges and crises.