Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Abdul Haji: If such a girl can be so brave -- tales from inside Westgate Mall

NAIROBI -- A Kenyan man with no formal police training rushed inside Nairobi's Westgate Mall as terrorists gunned down shoppers on Saturday, Sept. 21. 

Abdul Haji didn’t know that his actions during the next several hours would thrust him into the international spotlight -- or that pictures taken of him inside the mall would go viral. In an interview with NTV, Haji gave a full account of what happened the day Somali al-Shabaab terrorists stormed Westgate Mall.  (Story continues after video...)

Haji said he went to the mall to help his brother who had texted him, saying he was trapped inside. At the time, Haji did not fully understanding the severity of the situation. When he arrived, he saw gunmen shooting people in the parking lot. 

Armed with his own handgun, Haji and four other men made their way inside where they witnessed a ‘massacre.’ Haji said he went inside because he had one mission: save his brother. He did not know he and the other men with him would become heroes to hundreds of people.

A little girl's bravery

Haji's mission began on the fourth floor where he helped convince people hiding in shops that it was safe enough for them to leave. Haji and four others made it down to the first floor where the gunmen continued shooting. It was there he saw a woman hiding behind a table. He asked her to run toward them. But she couldn’t. She and another woman had two babies and a little girl with them. That little girl would soon become a monumental source of inspiration to Haji. 

Haji convinced the woman and the little girl it was safe enough for her to run to him. It's a moment captured in a still photograph that went viral. The girl, three, maybe four years old, is seen running toward Haji’s outstretched arm. It's a moment Haji will never forget.

“This little girl is a very brave girl,” he said. “Amidst all this chaos around her, she remained calm. She wasn’t crying. And she actually managed to run towards men who were holding guns. I mean, seriously, this is a very brave girl.” 

Her bravery inspired Haji.

“I was really touched by this,” he said. “I thought, ‘If such a girl can be so brave, there’s no reason why we cannot sustain our courage.’” 

A terrorist's taunts

After helping the little girl and those she was with to safety, Haji and the other men moved on. They threw tear gas -- likely obtained from official Kenyan police -- toward the area where the gunmen were, which effectively caused them to retreat. Of the 16 terrorists, Haji saw one. 

“He looked very much Kenyan,” he said. “He appeared to be speaking Swahili to us. And he was taunting us.” 

“Kuja! Kuja!” the gunman said, which in Swahili means “come.” Haji said the shooter was urging them to come closer “so they could engage us in a fight.” 

“I was very angered by what he had done and by the fact he was making a joke out of this whole thing,” he said. 

Haji said his anger turned to determination. He was determined to defeat the men responsible for the bloodshed he had witnessed. Haji said after the pictures of him inside the mall went viral, he had two choices: remain quiet and protect his privacy, or speak out. He chose to come forward in an effort to shame the men responsible for terrorizing his beloved city. 


Teachings of Islam

Haji said Muslim leaders have since reached out to him, thanking him for coming forward and asking him to tell the public that those who were responsible for the Westgate attack do not represent Muslims as a whole.

“What I saw done at Westgate Mall was contrary to the teachings of Islam,” he said. “It’s almost become a cliché, people are saying Islam is a religion of peace and all this, but it is true. Islam teaches us that if you save one life, it’s like you’ve saved the whole of humanity. If you take the life of somebody, it’s like you’ve taken the life of the whole humanity and you will be judged by that.”

So what about Jihadists who are hell bent on fighting for their religion? Haji spoke on that as well.

“To see these people who have caused so much damage and wreckage and they call themselves Jihadists? I mean, Islam also teaches us about the rules of engagement in Jihad. And one of the paramount rules of engagement during Jihad is that you cannot kill a woman, a child, an elderly or an innocent person. So where are they getting their doctrine? And why are they trying to drive a wedge between a community like Kenya, which has been living peacefully amongst each other?” 

Haji said he's heard reports that the terrorists only targeted non-Muslims, but Haji witnessed a number of Muslims who had also been killed. Haji said he thinks al-Shabaab terrorists want to wage a psychological war, causing fear among religions.

Media have reported al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack because they want Kenya’s military out of Somalia. 

“Kenya is in Somalia because we are trying to bring peace,” Haji said. “They can’t tell us we are killing Muslims in Somalia. When al-Shabaab was trying gain power in Somalia, who were they killing? Somalia is 99 percent Muslim. They were fighting against somebody in Somalia, and they were Muslims. So what gives them the right to kill Muslims? It’s just ridiculous.”

Haji: I am not a hero

Haji was inside Westgate Mall for hours searching for his brother. After receiving a text that his brother actually made it out and was safe, Haji pressed on. 

“I’m not quite sure what motivated me, but I would say that I was in the moment,” he said. “I was angered. For the lack of a better word, I was really pissed off for what had happened.” 

Haji said he saw people paralyzed with fear. Some injured, some not, but he couldn't just leave them. He said he felt compelled to help as many people as he could. 

And he did. 

But while others call him a hero, Haji says he is not. 

“I don’t think I’m a hero. I think I did what any Kenyan in my situation would have done to save lives – to save others regardless of their nationality, religion or creed,” he said. “I did what any other human being would have done.”

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tanzania, East Africa: You can't drink the water, but you'll end up eating dirt

They say home is where the heart is. If that's true, my home is in Tanzania.

I may be a white girl from Missouri, but I believe somewhere in me are African roots. I'm more homesick for Tanzania than I ever was for America.

Tanzania stole my heart 10 years ago, and after returning from a second visit, it's apparent she's not giving it back. 

My love for this foreign country and my desire to live there makes no sense. Life in Africa is hard, and by all accounts my life in America is not. I have a good job. I have hot water. It's clean. And I'm never concerned that my electricity is suddenly going to go out.

Life is good. And yet my heart aches to return to a country where some simply struggle to survive. 

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

In Tanzania, if you're a foreigner, you're discouraged from even brushing your teeth with the water. And don't even think you're guaranteed a sit-down toilet. The bathrooms I became familiar with ranged from a quick pit stop in the bush on the side of the road to squatty potties with buckets, hoses and squeegees that perplexed me at first. (Actually, they still do.) On occasion there was the sit-down toilet that I greeted with as much enthusiasm as one might have a long-lost friend. But the reunion was always bittersweet because there was rarely any toilet paper. I've been camping enough to know how to make this work, so hamna shida! (Swahili for no worries.)

In America, our roads suffer the occasional pothole. In Tanzania, to say the roads are bumpy is an understatement. Potholes can be as large as your car, and as you travel along, it can feel like you're a ball in a ping-pong machine. In the dry season the roads are dusty. The grit gets in your mouth and you become accustomed to the occasional crunch of Tanzania's red, dry earth between your teeth.

Looking east, en route to Pahi from Dodoma.

One particular drive left me so heavily covered in dirt that a friend told me I looked as if I had applied the wrong color of makeup. It blanketed everything, including my hair, which felt thick and heavy like I had a week's worth of hairspray up there. That day I learned what I'd look like as a red head.

While I don't particularly enjoy eating dirt, and while I like my face and hair to be clean, I was in Tanzania and it felt like home -- not the home I've known, but the home that will be. And that made me happy despite the dirt, the heat, the crazy-looking bugs and large lizards -- even the lack of toilet paper could not diminish my love for this country.

Siku moja nitarudi na nitakaa -- natumaini. One day I will return and I will stay -- I hope.

In the video above I highlight some of the work me and a team from Evangel Church in Kansas City, Mo., did this past summer. We toured a facility in Dodoma, Tanzania where Wycliffe Bible translators work to translate the Bible in native African languages. We also traveled to the village of Pahi where we helped build the first Assemblies of God church in that area. 

The people in the video are extraordinary. I wish I could have told all of their stories. Perhaps that's another reason to go back. :)

Friday, August 9, 2013

This week Kansas City reminds me of Tanzania with random cattle crossings

This week Kansas City has made me feel like I'm back in Tanzania. 

On Wednesday a truck carrying pigs overturned near Cameron, Mo. This doesn't happen very often, so of course it made the news -- news I have to write. My lede? "It was no squealing matter..." Cliche, but it made me chuckle.

Courtesy: Cameron Police Department

Then today I come to work and see we're covering an overturned cattle truck. I see a lone cow wandering aimlessly on the road on the TV at my desk. He's silouhetted in the beam of two headlights. It's a peculiar sight for city slickers (of which I am not), so this too makes the news -- news I have to write. My lede? So boring I don't want to retype. But what I wanted to say was something like "A #moooooving violation has shut down I-70..."

In Tanzania, I don't know how often they move livestock in trucks, but cattle crossings along the highways are common -- every 20 miles or so. It's not unusual to see cows munching on grass beside the highway. I'm perplexed by how they know not to wander into oncoming traffic. 

Annnd another story that reminded me of Africa this week comes from Indonesia where a plane ran into a cow on landing. One thing came to mind: #groundbeef.

Watch a video rendition of the cow vs. plane accident below. 

It's weeks like this that I enjoy my job. :)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hey! Give me my iPhone back! Tips to outsmarting phone thieves

If you’ve ever lost your phone, you know that stomach-sinking feeling. Thick, heavy waves of angst wash over you. Palms sweat, your heart pounds and that flutter of panic threatens to erupt like an angry volcano.

Forget about Facebook. Your bank account is on that phone!

Email, contacts (when’s the last time you memorized a phone number)? Essentially, your life is on that little gadget you carry in your pocket, purse, or if you’re like my sister, your bra.

If that little gadget goes missing, there are tools to help you find it, but you have to be smarter than the crook — and sometimes technology itself.

Over the weekend my mother and I discovered her phone was not where she last left it, which by the way was the hood of her car out in Podunk, Arkansas, while we were on a wild plant dig-up expedition. We've taken lots of adventures. Some we can talk about. Others, not so much. We left Saturday's expedition with plants in tow, but not her phone.


The first thing we did when we realized the phone was missing was try and locate it using Find My iPhone. But that setting had been disabled. “Device not found” is the message that came back.
Sounds sketchy, huh? We thought so too. But all hope was not lost.

Years ago, my mother and I connected on Google Latitude, which tracks and displays your location with people you invite. Mom rides a Harley, and I wanted to keep tabs on her when she’s out and about on long rides — especially alone. Since the Find My iPhone setting was disabled on her phone, we looked at Google Latitude. Her phone was seven miles away — so off we went — albeit hesitantly.

Two dirty, disheveled women on a mission to get a phone. What would people think when we started knocking on doors? There was only one way to know.

Driving down a long stretch of gravel road, we pull into the driveway of a home with big barking dogs, chickens, goats and cars — some working, some not.

Never mind the big Mastiff leering at me, my mom’s phone was missing! And Google Latitude said it was at that house. I hop out of the truck and open the gate. I was going in! But then out comes this guy. He was big. I am not, but I was armed with determination.

I didn’t know whether to be firm or put on the charm. I tried a mix of both. He was helpful, but he did not have the phone. Or at least that’s what he said. We had no way of knowing.

He told us about a few of his neighbors. After knocking on a few more doors, and dodging a feisty little dog that had his eye — and almost his teeth — on my ankles, we got a tip that led us six miles away to look for a lady who worked at the Dollar General store.

Long story short, that lady at the Dollar General store knew who had the phone. It was her nephew. She made a phone call and told the people we had GPS tracking on the phone and knew where it was. (Close enough, at least.)

She sent us back down the road to where we just were to another home we had not visited. Apparently Google Latitude’s location is not exact. It was off by about a quarter mile.

Phone and cigarette in hand, a woman came out and returned the phone. She wasn’t very chatty. And we didn’t ask questions. We were just happy to get the phone back — and grateful to the lady who admitted knowing who had the phone.

Lessons learned

Set short time increments for passcode. While my mother had a passcode set for her phone, whoever found it accessed it prior to the phone locking. Mom has since changed the passcode lock from an hour to 15 minutes. Once you set the passcode, if you (or someone else) wants to change the amount of time when the phone is set to lock, you need the passcode, making it more difficult for the average thug off the street to manipulate your phone.

Erase data after failed attempts. You can set your phone to erase all its data off after 10 failed passcode attempts. If you have children who use your phone frequently and have trouble remember the passcode (or if you operate your phone while intoxicated), this option may not be a good idea for you.

Disable ability to delete apps. Having Google Latitude or other tracking apps downloaded on your phone will do you no good if the person in possession of your phone can delete the app. Disable the ability to delete apps by going to Settings > General > Restrictions > Turn off “Deleting Apps.”

While it may be true we rely entirely too much on our gadgets, they can sometimes provide us with the opportunity for a little adventure. And I’m always up for an adventure.

Previously posted on, where I bang out stories whilst chained to my desk next to a big window that taunts me on nice weather days.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Wait! Who just stole my spotlight!?

"If you wanna steal my show, I'll sit back and watch you go.

If you got something to say, go on and take it away."

Those are lyrics from Toby Mac's "Steal My Show," featured in the YouTube video below.

The first time I heard this song I was driving, my thumbs tapping. As the chorus played again, I started thinking. 

So many times we try to do things ourselves. We try to move mountains and jump over impossibly high hurdles. We attempt to achieve the impossible on our own. And fail.

Or we succeed and are left feeling empty.

It doesn't have to be that way. 

When I consider letting God "steal my show," I think about how much better my "performance" would be -- in everything. However, God would never steal anything from us. He's a gentlemen -- a friend reminded me of that this week. Our Heavenly Father would never force His way on us. He gives us the choice. He gives us free will to decide: let Him work in our lives -- or not.

For myself, I've found that when I've given God room to move and breathe in my life, I have more peace. That's not to say things don't get convoluted and difficult. I'm pretty good at throwing a monkey wrench into things from time to time, but fortunately God is more than a gentlemen. He's our Abba, our Daddy, who wipes up spilled milk, cleans our tear-stained faces and dusts off dirty our britches when we fall. 

What a relief!

Still, I think I would be responsible for fewer milk messes if I invited God to steal my show -- all day. Every day. Besides, sharing the spotlight with Him -- no, GIVING the spotlight to Him takes the pressure off. And I don't need anymore pressure! :)

If you haven't yet, listen to Toby Mac's song. It's a good one!