My daughter Sophia, who was 2 years old at the time, enjoyed riding the mechanical horses in the food court. Because of its perceived safety, the mall was popular with families with young children.
For me, the mall was a sanctuary, a bastion of western commercialism to escape to after weeks-long reporting trips to various war zones around East Africa. On Saturday, Somali terrorists stormed the mall, killing at least 60 people, injuring 175 and bringing the war to the heart of Kenya, a mostly stable and peaceful U.S. ally. The Kenyan army has been fighting Somalia's al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebel group, al-Shabab, in and around the Somali capital, Mogadishu, for the past three years. The rebels say the mall attack is revenge for the Kenyan offensive.
Somalia has been embroiled in more than two decades of civil war, and its homegrown Islamic terror movement is a product of the country's anarchy. With no government or economic prospects, young Somalis have latched onto radical leaders espousing a Taliban-like doctrine.
On a reporting trip to Mogadishu with troops from the African Union, I interviewed some al-Shabab fighters who had been captured on the battlefield. The foot soldiers I met, like those who stormed the mall, were teenagers with AK-47s who had known nothing but war their whole lives.
For all of its opulence, the Israeli-built Westgate mall was a ripe target for terrorism. On any given afternoon, the mall's popular ArtCaffe restaurant is typically packed with western diplomats, journalists, aid workers, businessmen and missionaries. Armed guards man the mall's entrances giving shoppers a semblance of safety. Cars entering the underground parking garage are swept for bombs. But the terrorist cell on Saturday showed that all the security was largely just for show.
An American photojournalist friend who, until recently, lived with his family in Nairobi emailed me Saturday to say that he was safely back in the states.
"Thankful that the kids aren't there," he wrote. "I was sitting in ArtCaffe with a colleague earlier this year telling him that I'd never go back there. Too easy a target."
Many Sonoma County residents likely know someone who has visited Nairobi and perhaps the Westgate mall. Anyone who has traveled to Kenya to work, volunteer or to see the country's famed wildlife would have passed through Nairobi. The gleaming mall is hard to miss.
"It's one of those places that everyone goes to," said Santa Rosa real estate agent Alice Kibwaa, who is from Kenya and has visited the Westgate mall on trips to the country to see family. She arrived home from one such trip on Friday. Kibwaa was at a shopping center adjacent to the mall on Thursday, two days before the attack.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "Everyone is in shock that something like this could happen. All those people died for no reason."
Fortunately, none of Kibwaa's family or friends were harmed in the attack. The loved ones of at least 60 victims are not so lucky.
Matt Brown, a staff writer for The Press Democrat, was a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, from 2008 to 2010. Email him at email@example.com.