Fatima Mohammed walked 32 days from her drought-ravaged farm in Somalia to the relative safety of the sprawling Dadaab refugee settlement in northeastern Kenya. There were days, she told me, when they were so thirsty that her children couldn’t walk, and the adults would ferry them ahead, returning to carry two more children at a time in their arms.
Drought is no stranger to the Horn of Africa, but Fatima said that during rough periods in the past they had received help from aid agencies, support that kept them alive until the rains returned. “This time, al-Shabaab won’t let them in,” she said, referring to the Islamist group that controls parts of Somalia, “so when our animals started dying our only choice was to stay and die ourselves, or else start walking to Kenya.”
And so they trekked across the desolate stretch of African bush, all 11 in Fatima Mohammed’s family, often walking with other families in large groups to dissuade attacks from wild animals and bandits. At the end of May they arrived in Dadaab, what is usually dubbed “the world’s largest refugee camp” in breathless media reports.
It is huge, but it’s really three camps in close proximity. When they opened two decades ago, at the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, they were designed for 90,000 people in all. Today the complex hosts upwards of 390,000 refugees, plus at least 60,000 people not yet officially registered with camp managers. United Nations officials say newcomers continue to arrive at more than 1,300 per day. Most of the refugees are Somalis, though among the old timers there are small groups of Ethiopians, Sudanese, and others.
As the newcomers flock in, much of the media has focused on the easy to report story of how aid agencies provide immediate assistance. It’s a quick story: just find the lines that form before dawn. People are standing around, or squatting in the dust waiting to get photographed, fingerprinted, evaluated, and then to receive food, a tarp, cooking pots, jerry cans and donated clothes. They can’t escape the cameras or they’d lose their place in line. But the images the scene generates reflect refugees as passive victims, aid “recipients” or “beneficiaries.” That’s not all there is to the story, however.
Along with malnourished children, photos of refugees sitting or passively waiting are part of what some disparagingly call “famine pornography.” Yet while it’s easy to cynically chastise the media for chasing the most visually dramatic story, in my experience most journalists do so because they believe that’s what will most readily move hearts and liberate credit cards back home. Unfortunately, this reinforces the well-founded belief that misery sells.
I wanted to tell a different story, one that showed the dignity of the refugees, so I wanted to head toward the Somali border to interview people before they got to the camp, where the focus would be on why they had left and their courage and determination to reach safe harbor. When I asked my ACT Alliance host, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), about doing so, they said there was a convoy of United Nations officials headed out that way to survey possible sites for installing a reception center closer to the border. With luck, we could tag along, taking advantage of the police escort the U.N. convoy would have. It’s a dangerous area, teeming with bandits and one or two lost Al-Shabaab fighters, and is patrolled by both Kenyan soldiers in tanks and APCs as well as troops from the Transitional Federal Government–the Somali “government” backed by the U.N. So no expats move through it without police escorts. The trouble was the head UNHCR official on the journey was a jerk, and didn’t want to stop on the trip out. So we passed by several groups of refugees walking along, and all I could do was shoot from the window of the moving car. High shutter speed, vibration reduction on, a sort of Hail Mary shot, especially since the sun was behind them.
We got to the border, looked at a lot of dust, and then headed back. Now the U.N. official was willing to stop, but it was hotter and the refugees had all stopped to rest. The U.N. people were taking pictures with their mobile phones as they handed out water and food to the refugees, and of course a Belgian television crew comes along to shoot at just that moment. We’re back to the passive pictures of people sitting around.
It was a frustrating day, so I started whining about doing it again. Finally, my last day, I paid a fortune for a vehicle and driver (with all the media in town it’s a seller’s market), forked over some “incentive pay” for two Kenyan police escorts to get up early, recruited a Somali translator from one of the camps, and set off toward the border on my own. What’s interesting is that we had a harder time finding refugees. People who live close to the border said they’d seen the numbers fall off in the last few days, which could be the result of various factors, including changing conditions inside Somalia and shifting migration routes across the semi-arid plains. How that jives with U.N. figures that show a slight increase in “new arrivals” at Dadaab is beyond me, though some newcomers may, in fact, have been staying with relatives in the camps for several weeks before getting around to officially register. There are also some enterprising refugees who’ve tried to register more than once in order to receive double rations. (That means their kids get vaccinated twice, something that doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières pointed out was not exactly good health policy.)
Anyway, on my solo quest to find traveling refugees, we finally came across two men and a donkey cart. We stopped and shared water and food with them, though one of the men clearly didn’t like my Costco-purchased granola bars. Their story was typical: fleeing drought they’d set out for Dadaab, endured all manner of hardship, and just two days before had sent the women and children on ahead on a bus. With their meager possessions piled on the cart, they were following behind. After we talked, they started on their way again.
Some people arrive at Dadaab in really bad shape, and some of the kids are dramatically malnourished. I wanted to capture that as well, but am always searching for a way to do it that doesn’t just turn the kid into an object of pity. That’s tough, because severe malnutrition is pretty pitiful. But in the hospital in the Hagadera Camp I shot Asio Dagene Osman caring for her 7-month old son, Minhaji Gedi Farah. While showing the sunken face characteristic of malnutrition (the eyeballs don’t shrink with dehydration so they seem relatively larger), the mother’s love is also evident. Suffering has context.
Much of the media coverage of Dadaab focuses on what the U.N. and NGOs are doing to care for the refugees. That’s an understandable spin, as foreign journalists largely depend on aid workers for access, information, and often even housing, food and transportation. “Media relations” work is an important part of aid agency operations. If you’re nice to the reporters, maybe they’ll mention your agency in their coverage. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works well for both parties. How it works for the news consumer is a bit more problematic. Even good reporters, like Nick Kristof, can at times suffer from a journalistic Stockholm Syndrome and see problems as they are defined by NGOs, with their own particular perspective, and see the solutions to hunger and poverty as precisely whatever the NGOs are currently peddling. (This is especially true, in Kristof’s case, if the NGO is headed by an English-speaking do-good westerner, ala pre-scandal Greg Mortenson, because the reader can more easily relate to otherwise exotic issues if they’re seen through the experience of someone “like them.”)
Because of this, what’s often left out of coverage is how the poor help the poor–probably because the poor don’t have media relations officers. So the quiet but significant help that refugees get along that road from local villagers (who are all ethnically Somali) isn’t as photogenic as a U.N. official handing out food. Nor is the story of how, within the camps, long-term refugees receive the newcomers warmly, despite cultural differences.
The ACT Alliance is the camp manager for Dadaab, and the head of LWF’s operations there, Anne Wangari, helped me understand this.
“Refugees have been coming here since time immemorial, but the new refugees are different than the old refugees, who have been living under Kenyan law for 20 years. They know the usefulness of queuing and a bit of patience. But queuing and courtesy are foreign to the new arrivals, who want to go to the food distributions with a weapon,” said Wangari, a former Sister of Loretto. “Yet when the newcomers arrive hungry, the refugee community goes out of its way to receive them and give them supplies, food and clothes. This has happened in all the camps. When the United Nations stopped giving biscuits, the old refugees went to the shops and bought biscuits. They let the new arrivals settle on their small plots. The sense of sharing from the Somalis, and among the Muslims, is great.”
Another part of the story that’s under-reported is the economic and political context of what’s now officially a famine in some parts of Somalia. It’s not just drought. As the Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen observed long ago, famine and democracy are incompatible:
Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence… they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press. … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have.
While on this trip I was reading Thomas Keneally’s new book, Three Famines, which underscores this point. In the case of the current situation in the Horn of Africa, Christian Parenti’s new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, which I haven’t read yet, makes the case for how “climate fascism” is exacerbating suffering. The Somali refugees are victims of a perfect storm of weather and politics. “It’s a combination of war, climate change and very bad policy, particularly an embrace of radical free market policies by regional governments that mean the withdrawal of support for pastoralists, the type of people you saw with their dead cattle,” Parenti said.
While that part of the story isn’t covered in most news reports, the news of the refugees’ plight, broken weeks ago by the BBC, has provoked an avalanche of aid agencies flocking to Dadaab trying to find a contribution to make. A lot of this is what’s called “donor-driven aid.” When headquarters gets enough calls from people who have seen the suffering on their televisions, asking what (fill in the blank) is doing to help those starving people in Africa, then word goes out to the regional office to find a way to spend money there. So Anne Wangari and others, who’ve been toiling in the trenches long before the media invasion, have to not only deal with their increased work load, but also wrestle with the onslaught of new NGOs looking for a piece of the action.
While tending to malnourished babies may be considered “sexy” (MSF recently closed media access to its hospital in Dadaab’s Dagahaley Camp for a while as it was difficult to get their work done with so many journalists milling about), the work done by groups like the ACT Alliance are what make the place tick, even though the daily tasks aren’t always exciting. Take streets, for example. Wangari told me that when they took over camp management four years ago, the refugees had so encroached on the “streets” running through the camps, expanding their thorn bush fences to make their small compounds a bit more spacious, that it made movement through the camps impossible.
“The streets had become so narrow that a vehicle and a donkey cart couldn’t use same road if they were coming from opposite directions. If a donkey cart and a jeep meet, who has to back up? I’ll tell you, it isn’t the donkey cart,” she said. Wangari and her team worked to convince the camps’ elders of the need to restore wider roads in order to insure efficient delivery of supplies and services, as well as a way to create a needed buffer should fire break out in the camp. “It wasn’t easy, but when they understood it, the elders pushed people back, and at the end everyone was excited. The aid agencies were very happy because they no longer had to wait for the donkey cart to reverse, something that wasn’t going to happen anyway.”
The ACT Alliance camp management team in Dadaab also wrestles with thorny issues like the relationship to the “host community”–the Somali-speaking local Kenyan population that has suffered from the refugees’ enormous environmental footprint. And it trains and supports Community Peace and Security Teams, a community-based self-policing group in the camps. Along with initiating elections for refugees to practice a form of self-government, it’s part of working to make Dadaab more than just a warehouse for a surplus population. Indeed, as is the case in many such camps around the world, refugees receive some services–like education for girls–that they may not have received back home. Yet in such long-term camps, where people have lived for two decades, why should a young person want to study if they only see a future of just living in a refugee camp? I asked Anne Wangari.
“A few weeks ago we saw South Sudan reborn,” she said. “Yet back in the 80s and 90s, it was a hopeless case. Many Sudanese children grew up in refugee camps inside Kenya. Today we see those same children taking on difficult roles in their new country. It’s possible for the children born here, who are different than the children who have only known gunfire, to go back home and change their country, if only we can assure that Somalia is stable. The education we’re giving the children in the camps is not going to go to waste.”