Joseph Mathenge hadn’t planned to be at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2013, when gunmen — now associated with Islamist terror group Al Shabaab — infiltrated the shopping center and started shooting en masse in a blitz that resulted in 67 deaths.
The Kenyan photojournalist, who last month won African Journalist of the Year at the 2014 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Awards, was with his son, Geoff Kihote, en route to take photos at a wedding. Geoff had been diagnosed with bone cancer, and the assignment was to help pay for his treatment in India. It was at that moment that Mathenge got a call from a friend inside the mall.
“I happened to be in a dilemma, because a friend of mine just called,” he recalls. “She was trapped in Westgate, held hostage by terrorists, and here is my son. I had to actually think about it. “
It was his son who told him they had to go.
When they arrived, they found chaos. People were streaming out of the mall, ducking for cover, at a time when they were trying to find a way in.
“There were gun shots being fired all over as we tried to look for access into the building,” recalls Mathenge.
Once inside, Mathenge and his son took turns taking photos and helping injured hostages. They also communicated with security and police forces to direct them around the mall.
“I told (my son) to be cautious and to be focused, because any minute we could be shot,” says Mathenge.
With security, they located the friend who’d originally called, and moved them out of the mall. At that point, they left the scene. The father and son pair spent about eight hours in the mall.
“We went to the car, transmitted our pictures to newsrooms, and then we went to a restaurant where we sat down and had coffee without talking to anybody. That was our way of actually settling down our minds,” says Mathenge.