As jihadist militants sowed death and horror inside Westgate mall last week, Nairobi’s Jains became the silent heroes of the days-long emergency effort.
The Jain community, whose small Indian religion upholds non-violence as a sacred principle, opened their doors at the onset of the attack on Sept. 21 claimed by Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab group.
As the crackle of gunshots filled the air, the Oshwal religious center just 100m away was a haven where survivors, relatives, security forces and journalists were sheltered, treated, counseled and fed.
“We have a lot of space and numerous parking places,” said Bhupendra Shah, a senior member of the Visa Oshwal community.
On the Saturday that the raid was launched, “I made a round, I saw soldiers and policemen standing, who where hungry and thirsty,” Shah said.
“We sent e-mails to request help, and donations started to arrive on Sunday morning,” Shah added.
Within hours the Jains mobilized like an army and tapped into their formidable economic power.
Families brought liters of juice freshly squeezed at home, a sporting club donated eight vans packed with food, an industrial bakery and a top retail chain gave tonnes of bread and water bottles.
The Jains have only 12,000 members in Nairobi, a city of 4 million with a large population of Indian descent, but among them are the chief executive officers of Nakumatt, East Africa’s retail giant, and other top companies.
On the second and third days of the brutal siege, Oshwal volunteers served about 15,000 meals inside their religious center, an imposing ochre building of Hindu architecture surrounded by sprawling grounds.
Three times a day, the red vests of the Red Cross, the green ones of the St John ambulance service, the camouflage gear of the elite forces battling the mall attackers, mingled in the lines.
Police officers bristling with assault rifles and journalists with cameras also got in line for a plate of food, taking a short break as the siege dragged on.
Serving this exhausted crowd on the front line of one of the worst attacks in Kenya’s history were 400 Jain volunteers working in shifts to welcome their visitors.
A first aid center was set up in the underground car park to ease the burden on the city’s overwhelmed hospitals.
The Oshwal center also made space available to teams offering psychological counseling to traumatized survivors and bereaved families, or helping people to report a missing person.
At least 67 people, including children, are so far confirmed to have been killed in the attack, that also left dozens wounded and 61 people are still reported missing.
“Jain is one of the oldest religions in the world,” Shah said.
“Our religion says ‘do not kill, don’t have anger,’ ‘respect any form of life,’” Shah added.
Jainism is thousands of years old, a religion whose philosophical roots date back to ancient India and are inspired by the same principles of tolerance that influenced Mahatma Gandhi.
Most of its followers are vegetarians or vegans and some of them even refrain from eating roots and tubers in order not to kill insects.
Jain monks sweep the floor in front of them and cover their mouths with their hands as they walk to avoid stepping on or swallowing the slightest creature.
The community is estimated at barely 5 million worldwide.
Conspicuously absent from the temporary crisis management hub set up at the Oshwal were the Kenyan government services.
“When you live in Kenya, [help from the government] is the last thing you ask. You have to rely on yourself,” Shah said.
“Not a single person from the government came to ask what they could do,” Shah added.
Yet the Jains’ efforts did not go unnoticed, galvanizing good will among other religious communities and in some cases even breaking down the prejudice that permeates Kenya’s complex social fabric.
“The important thing is that all Kenyans came together as one, as Kenyans, people from all origins, all communities came to help,” said Miten Shah, another member of Oshwal’s Jain community.
“I never thought the Indians could be so generous,” an African Kenyan who survived the attack said.
A week after the bloodshed, as the nation took stock and licked its wounds, hundreds of people were back at the Oshwal center for a marathon ecumenical prayer vigil for the victims of the massacre.