Jet-Crash Tragedy Rocks Kenya From the Slums to Its Skyscrapers

(Bloomberg) -- Once a year, Abdullahi Ibrahim Mohammed would scrape together enough cash to fly from Saudi Arabia back home to Kenya to visit the wife, parents and three children he worked long hours to support.

This year he didn’t make it.

The 36-year-old dairy worker was one of 157 people killed Sunday when an Ethiopian Airlines plane bound for his hometown, Nairobi, plunged into a field near Ethiopia’s capital. It’s a tragedy that shocked the world and led to the grounding of Boeing Co.’s 737 Max jetliner, but one felt especially acutely in Kenya, which lost 32 citizens -- more than any other nation.

“He called me on Friday and said he would leave Saudi on Saturday,” Mohammed’s mother, Kaltuma Yahya Abdallah, said in an interview in her home in Nairobi’s Kibera, one of Africa’s largest informal settlements. “He asked what he should get me and I told him anything would be suitable.” It was the last time they spoke.

Jet-Crash Tragedy Rocks Kenya From the Slums to Its Skyscrapers

University lecturers; a diseases specialist; employees of General Electric Co. and TechSoup Global; a national soccer official; migrant workers sending vital remittances -- they were just some of the Kenyan victims of the crash. Their life stories point to the wealth of initiative, dreams and talent found in East Africa’s business hub that also hosts the United Nations’ regional headquarters.

Regional Influence

“Kenya’s regional influence can be seen through this -- the caliber of the people who perished,’’ said Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations at United States International University in Nairobi.

Thirty-four other nationalities were on board the Ethiopian plane, whose crash was the second involving a 737 Max 8 jet in just five months. The scheduled route from Addis Ababa, the seat of the African Union, makes it popular with diplomats as well as business travelers and led to its nickname of the “UN shuttle.” Many of the dead had been due to attend a UN summit.

Kenya’s capital is also home to the regional headquarters for companies including Toyota Motor Corp., Google owner Alphabet Inc. and Coca-Cola Co.

Who Kenya lost: some of the East African nation’s dead

  • Agnes Gathumbi, a professor at Kenyatta University’s department of educational communication and technology
  • Isaac Mwangi, a lecturer at the same university department
  • Hussein Swaleh, an official from Kenya’s Football Federation
  • George Kabau and Cosmas Rogony Kipngetich, engineers with GE Africa
  • Grace Kariuki, a specialist in non-communicable diseases working with Kenya’s Health Ministry
  • Anne Musyoki, regional lead for Africa with TechSoup Global
  • Anthony Ngare, deputy director for communications for the Kenya National Commission working with UNESCO
  • Cedric Asiavugwa, a law student at Georgetown University

Like Mohammed, several Kenyan victims had left the country to pursue careers but retained strong connections to home. Remittances outstrip tea exports and tourism as Kenya’s main source of foreign currency and help drive the fast-growing economy. They hit $2.94 billion in 2018, about 50 percent more than the year before.

Back in their Kibera home surrounded by members of the close-knit Nubian community, Mohammed’s family said his wife and uncle had left for Ethiopia to learn more about the crash. The family accept there may be no remains to bury.

“Our life will change but what can I do?” Abdallah said, describing a son who cracked jokes, never held a grudge and would regularly wire money and send medicine for his diabetic father. “We have to accept what happened.”

In many other homes and offices across the nation, Kenyans are coming to terms with similar losses.

“It’s a traumatic period for Kenya,” said Munene, the professor. “People should not lose hope despite the sadness. As a country we are going to recover.”

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