Review- Rawlence, “City of Thorns”

Ben Rawlence, “City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Biggest Refugee Camp” (2016) – This had a lot of potential to be awful. A white Brit, from the liberal-hawk Human Rights Watch (and an adviser to the Liberal Democrats in the UK, apparently) writing about Dadaab, a refugee camp of around a half million people, mostly Somalis, in the north Kenyan desert.

But it’s pretty good. Rawlence is more or less completely missing from the book, and instead we follow the lives of a number of refugees. Some of them, like Guled, are recent arrivals. Some, like Nisho, were born there- the camp has been there since 1992, so whole generations have been born inside. We follow the lives of men, women, young, old, Muslim, Christian, Somali, Sudanese, and Ethiopian. We see them try to make it in Nairobi or Mogadishu and generally find their way back.

The camp is run by the UN and the Kenyan government. The UN wants to ameliorate harm and provide a basis for NGOs to do the same (and do the other stuff NGOs do, like posture for donors). The Kenyan government wants to contain the refugees, and corrupt actors within it — which is to say, most actors in it — want to profit off of them. You can tell Kenya has come in to its own as a wannabe regional power by how it tries to set up its own Somali breakaway puppet state, Jubaland, using American-provided bombs and war-on-terror rhetoric alongside recruited refugees.

What no one except the inhabitants of Dadaab really want is for the people there to prosper and become independent. The NGOs would lose donors and connections, and more pertinently the Kenyan government and cartels would lose a profit source. Much the same goes for Somalia- a united, strong Somalia doesn’t benefit as many non-Somalis as the current mess does.

Rawlence does a good job of portraying the people of Dadaab as resourceful without giving in to the siren song of inspiration porn. They work themselves to the bone and find numerous hustles to keep themselves alive, and gain more than the bare life of UN rations. Porting, scavenging, peddling, building, running bus lines, making soccer leagues- the Somalis in the camp aren’t lying around waiting for handouts.

But an array of structures keep them from flourishing, not just international connivance. Clan matters tremendously; Guled is chased out of several marketplaces for trying go do porter work while belonging to the wrong one. Ethnic, national, and religious boundaries are high and lethal, and while Somali gender roles aren’t as stringent as some, they’re still quite strict on women and particular on interaction across combined gender and clan/religious lines. One mixed couple, Christian Sudanese and Muslim Somali, dodge lynch mobs and threats until they both sink into drink. The constant hustling for survival both breaks down traditional institutions and makes the trust boundaries that the surviving institutions create extra important.

Rawlence’s time frame coincides with the rise of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda aligned Somali militia; Guled fled from them to the camp. Dadaab is caught between al-Shabaab and the Kenyan government. Most of the refugees just want peace and opportunity. The camp-raised have an especially poignant attachment to UN values of process, gender balance, etc. But enough of them are angry or scared — or have the wrong clan ties — to let al-Shabaab in. Once bombs start going off in Dadaab and gun massacres happen in Nairobi shopping malls, the Kenyan government cracks down with the usual brutality of crooked states with little legitimacy. This, of course, drives more refugees into the arms of the militants.

It’s a big damn mess, and Rawlence puts little spin on it other than to express anger and derision towards the major players and admiration for the people of Dadaab, ordinary human beings living through an extraordinary situation. Seems like a good approach to me. ****’

Review- Rawlence, “City of Thorns”

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