Dawn came twice to Nairobi that morning, once when the sun came up at six, then two hours later when the sun and moon aligned in an annular eclipse, the sun flickering like a halo round the blacked out moon. Starting in West Africa and sweeping across the continent, the eclipse sputtered out over the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Somalia where refugees were streaming across the border into Kenya and its neighbors, or had left their homes for camps inside Somalia. This exodus has been going on for over twenty years, but in the last two years, driven by war, drought, and the resulting famine, in which one out of ten Somalis may die, the number of displaced persons has swollen to almost a third of the country’s entire population of 7.5 million.
The heartland of that exodus is the vast refugee camp complex centered around Dadaab town in Kenya’s North Eastern Province—at 450,000 people and growing at the rate of over 1,000 people a day, the camp is Kenya’s third largest city, and the biggest refugee camp in the world. But many thousands of Somalis choose not to go to the camp and head straight to Nairobi to the neighborhood of Eastleigh, which Kenyans have nicknamed “Little Mogadishu.” That’s where I was headed as I walked to the corner to catch a matatu, a dirt cheap minivan so crowded I had to hang out the doors. Eastleigh, Dadaab—over the past two years, they’ve been cardinal points on the compass of what K’naan, a Somali rapper, calls “a violent prone, poor people zone.”
But that’s only one part of the story: as Andy Needham, a deeply informed, canny, and humane Irish Aid press officer working with the UN, put it: “Journalists come to the camps because the story’s right in front of them. It makes for good photographs like, you can take one look and see the problems for yourself. But refugees in the city—and let’s be clear here, there are thousands of them, most of them undocumented, hard to trace, hard to reach out to—that’s a story that goes almost untold.” And I could see what Andy meant: in Nairobi, there were no camps, no food distribution centers, and so the refugees disappeared into the city—for if you went to Nairobi rather than Dadaab, you had to make it on your own. There wasn’t a lot of obvious drama that would appeal to Western media, no “suffering chic” to spice up your story.
But in following “the story” over the last two years in both Nairobi and the camps, I came to understand a basic paradox that was true of both urban refugees and those in the camps: no matter how hard the refugees’ lives were—starving children, bodies wracked by fevers, head-scarved Al-Shabaab members (the Islamic militia that controls much of southern Somalia) cutting off hands for petty offenses, burying women up to the neck and stoning them to death for adultery, passing out AK-47s to children as the top prizes in a Koran recitation contest—the refugees knew full well that there was always another step down. Like Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear, who disguises himself as a mad beggar to survive the violence of civil war, and then sees his own father wandering blind, his eyesockets bleeding because his eyes have been plucked out, they too knew that “the worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ And yet that brutally perverse truth was also the source of much resilience in the face of suffering—yes, a starving child was terrible, but also terribly ordinary. One refugee woman whose house had been blown to pieces by a mortar told me, “I would starve for my children.” But she knew full well that if she died, the chances increased that they would die.
This calculus between the awful and the ordinary is always at work in Nairobi, so that one of the most dangerous things about the city is how deceptively functional it can seem. Carjackings, muggings, kidnappings, murder—Nairobi was so crime-ridden that the locals dubbed it “Nairobbery.” As the matatu jerked and revved over potholes, that calculus was engineering both a traffic jam and a riot, both of which I’d get trapped in later that afternoon: for if you got caught in the traffic jam, you got caught in the riot—a riot in part sparked off by tensions between Somalis and Kenyans, their not so willing hosts.
Eastleigh is a madly bustling place of dirt poor Somali refugees and immigrants, as well as prosperous traders and shopkeepers. All over Africa, Somalis have the reputation for being among the best entrepreneurs in the world, tough bargainers, with a nose for real estate and the cash in hand to pay for it—which quietly terrifies ordinary Kenyans. That the vast majority of refugee Somalis are suffering just as much, if not more, from the way their more prosperous brethren drive up rents and property values, is a fact most Kenyans, hard-pressed themselves, don’t have the luxury to take in. Kenya should be for Kenyans—and so the joke going around Nairobi is that soon the Somalis are going to buy the State House.
And then there’s the talk about pirates: did you see what they did in Lamu? They kidnapped that old woman in a wheelchair who died, they almost killed that British couple a few years back when they threatened “to burn their two people’s bones”, they shot that Englishman right in the chest and kidnapped his wife. But the assumption that many Kenyans make that pirate money finances everything Somalis do has a darker undercurrent: Somalis look down on Africans, Somalis think of Kenyans as Kaffirs, Somalis were slavers in the old colonial times, nowadays they bring guns into the country. They oppress their women, they’re lazy, they’re dirty, they’re drugged-out hoodlums always chewing khat leaves (a mild, cocoa leaf-like stimulant), they bring crime and war. And weren’t Somalis responsible for Al-Shabaab that was kidnapping and killing NGO workers and reporters, threatening Kenya with jihad, and refusing to let in food aid despite the famine that was killing their own people? Hadn’t they made Eastleigh into a Shabaab outpost? Even now, to protect the borderlands, hadn’t the Kenyan army been forced to push deep into Somali territory to hunt them down? Yes, Somalis were violent extremists, they were terrorists, they were outside agitators and infiltrators and needed to be stopped before their anarchy and chaos and piratical ruthlessness hijacked the Kenyan ship of state.
James Brown was blasting over the bus’s speakers, exhorting us to “Tighten up!” American soul and pop were ubiquitous in Nairobi—Motown, Michael Jackson, even a disco-era BeeGees hit like “Stayin’ Alive” that now rang in my ears like a comment on Nairobi traffic. But traffic was also a sign of immense vitality and relative prosperity: a lot of cars meant money to buy cars and maintain them, it meant jobs, it meant the first signs of a middle class. Ordinary Kenyans have the reputation for civility and hard work, and they deserve it. For despite some Kenyan’s views on Somalis, and the epic corruption of the government, Kenya had nonetheless allowed close to half a million Somali refugees into the country—a display of exceptional generosity, given the impoverished state of many Kenyans, and the Fall of Rome mentality of the Big Men, the ministers of President Mwai Kibaki’s government, who adhere to the motto, “Now it is our time to eat.” One day Kimani, a burly ironical driver at my hotel who worked long hard hours, pointed out to me in the careening traffic a government-purchased Mercedes—chauffeur-driven, of course—that carried an MP, what he called “one of the Wabenzi.” “You see,” Kimani smiled, “Wananchi in Swahili means the people. So the Wabenzi are the people of the Mercedes Benz.”
Of course the aid agencies that supported the refugees were big business in Kenya, providing good paying jobs. So it wasn’t only altruism on Kenya’s part. And the Kenyan government did have legitimate worries about Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militia that controls much of southern Somalia, and until the recent Kenyan invasion of Somalia, had begun to show signs of wanting to export jihad into Kenya—not to mention ruining the tourist industry by kidnapping Western vacationers from Kenyan beaches. But what jihad meant in a day to day way, as one refugee boy explained to me, was “no games, no soccer, no music, no movies, and higher trouser legs.” “Higher trouser legs?” I asked. “Yes,” said Mohammed, who bore the Prophet’s name, “they thought my trousers were too long so they cut them off.” According to the Sahih al-Bukhari, a canonical collection of the the Prophet’s sayings, “The part of a garment which is below the ankles is destined to be in hellfire.” But Kenyan worries about security, or fashion for that matter, didn’t explain the deplorable condition of the roads. As the matutu gamely jolted along, now up on the sidewalk, now straddling a ditch, avoiding oncoming cars by a hairs-breadth, the closer we came to Eastleigh, the scruffier things got: whatever modicum of public services extended to other more Kenyan parts of Nairobi hadn’t made it out here.
Unseasonably heavy January rains had deepened the potholes into huge craters of mud so that the road was more like a flood plain than a road. But in keeping with Shakespeare’s axiom, a flood was better than the streets’ usual condition: unpaved, dusty, choked with debris and plastic bags, whenever the wind blew, Eastleigh became a maelstrom of trash and grit stinging the eyes and choking the lungs. And then there were the garbage heaps piled high as my neck and extending half a city block, the rotting methane smell and rich funk of decay made worse by the damp fetor of the rains.
The matatu let me off in front of one of the cinderblock, open air malls that looked to have sprung up overnight. No Pyramids of Giza, they were wholly functional structures that at five storeys tall looked top heavy and precarious. But they stocked as many goods as Pharaoh and his graverobbers could wish. Partly financed by remittances from the Somali diaspora, in the past five years Eastleigh had grown into a huge commercial center in Nairobi—and one of the most prodigious money machines in all Africa. I walked stall to stall, ogling the vast flow of stuff—in the mall basement, in the jaws of forklifts, huge imported bales of household items and clothes from China, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, and the Arab Gulf states were being opened by their various owners and carried upstairs to individual stalls. I pointed to a black-lacquered elephant, a kind of stool, and, enunciating as if I had pebbles in my mouth, asked WHERE? The clerk, a young woman in a conservative white hijab, drawled back, “That thang? Hey Mama, where’s that from? India, right?” It turned out she’d been born in Memphis. “Near Graceland.” “You like Elvis?” I asked. She shrugged, as if to say, Too old. At another stall selling plastic-wrapped dress shirts, the clerk literally lay on top of the merchandise piled any old way to the ceiling. He reclined on the heap, fingers laced behind his head, elbows akimbo, the picture of kingly prosperity and ease. But what you saw in the street, along with the new hotel that had a working elevator and marble tiled bathrooms, was a man in ragged khakis, squatting on his hams on top of a garbage mound, sifting through his fingers a few grains of rice left over in a burlap bag. At least there were rice grains to be gathered. Not even he was at the bottom, for as I was learning, the bottom was a long way down.
“Do you have an appointment for an interview?”
“No, I don’t have an appointment.”
“So you haven’t registered to get your UNHCR mandate?”
“No, I haven’t registered.”
“Then you have to come back in two weeks time for an interview.”
“But how will we live for two weeks? We have no money, my son is sick, he needs help now.”
Or you would hear variants so gruesome that it was difficult to believe you were hearing what you were hearing: “We had to flee from Congo, my neighbors’ daughters were raped, the men who did it came back in the morning and threw the girls’ heads in our yard. We need food, we need money.”
“I’m sorry that happened, I wish I could help you. But you’ll have to come back in two weeks.”
And though it sounds heartless, what more could one say? I sat in on many hours of such UNHCR intake interviews and Alan, who conducted them, was unfailingly polite, professional, sympathetic. Between us and the refugees, and their desire for a UNHCR mandate—a document that would make their refugee status legal in Kenya and give access to medical care and free primary school for their children—was a sheet of plexi-glass and a computer. The huge workings of the bureaucracy that Alan functioned inside of was invisible. He was the human face they appealed to, and Alan was the one who had to tell them over and over again, I’m sorry but…
As one refugee put it who had learned the system only to be denied refugee status: “We come to UNHCR as if she were our mother. We ask her for bread but she gives us a stone.” But it turned out to be more complicated: he was a Rwandese Hutu who may have helped in the genocide committed against Tutsis. He didn’t allude to this, he presumed UNHCR should presume that he was innocent. But how could Alan presume that? How could Alan presume that this man hadn’t cut down his neighbors with a machete, and was thus a criminal, and was thus in violation of refugee status? UNHCR was not a mother. Nor was the man a child. But he continued on with his life, no doubt knowing that there was always something worse than not having your UNHCR mandate—as any Tutsi, or Somali for that matter, could tell you.
At an interview center in Eastleigh, accompanied by Rika Hakozaki, a calm, quiet, immensely capable UNHCR press officer from Japan, I met many Somalis, particularly women, who had only the vaguest notions about their rights of asylum: issues of protection came up again and again: clan warfare didn’t end at the Kenyan border, not if you lived in Eastleigh. But there were other, more shadowy kinds of violence. A young ethnic Somali woman from Ethiopia had just finished reciting a story, in a completely rote way, about how she and her husband had fled government thugs in Ethiopia and were now on the verge of starvation: “My husband was working here as a taxi man, but he was beaten up, and now he cannot work. We have no money. We are living by what I can make from selling cigarettes on the street.” Her tie-dye guntiino, a long flowing dress in vibrant yellows and reds that she knotted like a sari over one shoulder, clashed with the emotional flatness of her voice.
And then the woman, her eyes narrowing, glanced at her husband and said something in Somali to Idil, the young Somali woman who served as my translator. Idil looked at the woman’s husband who kept his eyes averted. Rika traded glances with me when Idil told us, “She’d like to meet with you in private.” Somali women are subservient in public, and this was beyond startling—in fact, to take that kind of liberty with your husband, the undisputed ruler of the household, was almost shocking. And when she first sat down, it had surprised me that she wore nothing to cover her arms and shoulders the way most Somali women do. Her husband, who had been a former professional soccer player, but whose every gesture now seemed wracked by pain, only grimaced a little, and he and her son left the room.
“There is something I need to tell you,” she began, “that I don’t want them to hear. It is my secret and you must not tell him.”
Rika assured her that we would say nothing.
“A Kenyan policeman stopped me two years ago and asked me for my ID. He told me that it was a fake and he said he was going to arrest me. I thought he would take me to jail but he took me to a place and raped me.” Shame and anger flooded her voice, she held out her open palm to us and said, “How can I say this to my husband? And now—now I have grown sick.” Rika and I looked at each other, and I think both of us knew what was coming. “I went to the hospital. They tested me. I tested HIV positive. And now that I am sick, and it is hard to work, my husband beats me. I tell him to go to the hospital because now he is sick but he will not go. I have been living this way for eight months. I want to get away from him and his family. Please, can you help me.”
Rika, looking deeply concerned, said, “We will do what we can. Give us your phone number and address. And here is my phone number and email. You will have to come to the UNHCR offices for an interview. All right?” Rika and Idil and the woman locked eyes, and then the woman got up and left. What I put down to her husband’s shyness had turned out to be—at least if you credited her story—something more like hate. Rika said, “Her story does not quite add up the way she told it. But we will find out if it is true, and if we can, we will help her.”
And I understood exactly what she meant: the fact that her husband left without an argument, the time lag between her visit to the hospital and the rape…but that presumes that there’s money to go to a hospital, that rape is a crime that can be prosecuted, that there’s a police force that doesn’t commit rape.
In a 2007 study by Cawo Abdi of the place of Somali women since the civil wars broke out in the 1990s, rape has become so prevalent that women have taken to wearing pants, the tighter the better, under their robes. And if a woman admits to rape, she runs the risk of being ostracized, divorced, or even married off to the rapist. No wonder most women keep that knowledge to themselves. So the fact that the tie-dyed woman told us she was raped was exceedingly brave…and yet UNHCR had to follow procedure to make sure the woman wasn’t lying. For it sometimes happened that refugees would all come in telling the same story: as Marje Mellegers, a Dutch UNHCR worker in Nairobi, told me: “Word gets out fast if a certain story helps someone get refugee status or special security measures. There are times when you find that everyone you interview is telling you the same story until another story comes along. Of course, the problem isn’t whether or not they’re lying. The problem is that they all need help and that they’ve gone through things that are probably as bad, if not worse, than the story they’ve made up because someone else told them it works.”
In my interviews with refugees and my visits to health clinics and schools, mainly talking with women and children, two starkly contrasting pictures of their world began to unfold: A pre-civil war Somalia in which religion and culture were separate, and the Hobbesian present, in which life was indeed “nasty, brutish, and short.” In response to such constant insecurity and fear, Islamist conservatives had managed to erase the boundary between culture and religion, and had induced a kind of cultural amnesia in many Somalis about their pre-civil war mores. This was directly expressed in the stricter and stricter prohibitions women were being subjected to, most visibly in the way they dressed. According to Abdi, pre-civil war Somali women wore a full-length dress much like the woman who said she’d been raped wore—a light garment leaving the arms, shoulders, and part of the back bare that makes sense for nomadic life because of the need for constant mobility and different kinds of tasks, like weaving grass mats, tending livestock, constructing and dismantling huts, cooking, and caring for children. Following urbanization, women also adopted a very sheer dress worn with a bra and a slip. To cover their heads, they wore light scarves over their hair, again leaving the face, necks and shoulders uncovered.
The Somali woman Rika and I had talked to still dressed in the old way: the traditional way, in fact, before the fundamentalists erased the past and replaced it with a new past, one untainted by Western ideas, and based on a radically conservative interpretation of sharia, Islamic law. But now, what was striking in this woman’s style of dress—a style that had once been the norm and long sanctioned by nomadic tradition—was how unusual it had come to seem. For she was vastly outnumbered by women who had adopted—or been forced to adopt—the jilbaab, a long, thick, flowing dress with a veil covering the head and shoulders and falling all the way to the knees.
Because of the clan wars and the use of rape as part of those wars, and because every woman’s honor became synonymous with clan honor, one could see how this astonishing transformation in dress had come about in less than twenty years: to protect women, they needed to cover up. And to hide the fact that covering up their women meant male clan members were anxious about them being raped, this anxiety took on a religious cast that emphasized the need for moral virtue in women. So if women didn’t cover up, and embrace conservative notions of women’s honor, they were asking for it. And if they were asking for it, then they brought dishonor to the clan, to themselves, and to Islam. And so a new world for women was born, a world that many fundamentalist imams would like to think is the world as it should have been and now forever must be, free of colonial histories, Western cultural influences, and in the case of Somalia, the country’s own cultural history.
This cultural amnesia didn’t extend to everybody, of course. Idil, my translator, had embraced both Somali culture and Islam, while insisting on the difference between the two. So while she was always modestly covered up, when she wore a jilbaab she wore a stylish one. She also liked to dress in brightly colored sequined shawls and head scarves to set off the long gauzy tunic of her guntiino tie-dyed in midnight blacks and blues. Her style of dress was worlds away from the austere black chadors, full-length cloaks covering the head and shoulders, that many women in Eastleigh wear. She was completely at ease with Westerners like me, while scrupulously observing the hadith about not shaking hands with men. And yet there were aspects of Somali culture that she was less than enamored with, particularly in regard to women’s reproductive rights.
On the same day the riot occurred, she invited me to the apartment she shared with six other family members. But on the way, we stopped at the maternity clinic where she occasionally worked, a low cinderblock building with a muddy yard surrounded by a cinderblock wall. Inside was almost like outside: the walls were unpainted concrete, the floor a poured concrete slab, the corridor almost bare except for some worn benches and chairs. The maternity ward held twenty beds in all, each with a green mosquito net bundled in rope above the bed, the mattresses broken backed and stained, the springs groaning ancient coils. Seven young women reclined in bed, and two or three female relatives circulated among them, bringing food, water, whatever the pregnant women might need.
Sister Sankali, the head nurse, who wore only a simple bandeau around her head and a faded flower-patterned blouse and skirt, told me, “We perform 60 deliveries a month. It is always hard to do follow-up. The men, you see, the men do not come the day that their wives deliver. Only the women are here to help.” Where are the men, I asked? “It’s not part of the culture that a man should be present. So they are at home drinking tea,” she said, a little razor-nick that made Idil smile.
Idil and the Sister led me through the rest of the clinic: no fancy machines, no IVs, no wheelchairs, no fans or air-conditioning.
The counseling room—a desk, a chair, a simple lamp, one window covered with wire mesh, an ancient computer. Sister Sankali sighed when I asked her to tell me the main problems she faced. “We are terribly understaffed. We would like to do more family planning, but we have only two technicians, two clinicians. And then Somali men,” she shrugged—“let us say that they are resistant.”
Idil continued: “Somalis value large families, some men have several wives, whether they can afford to keep them or not, and the women have almost no rights. So when I first started working for my aid agency, they sent me to religious schools to talk about HIV and family planning. In one class I was telling the women about means of contraception when a man claiming to be a sheikh stood up and said that I was talking against the Koran and Islam, and that none of these methods can be used. Then he accused me of being a spy. And so I told him that forcing women to start feeding a baby Nido infant formula so that she can again become pregnant is against Islam. And I reminded him that the Koran says that women must wait for two years between births.”
“And was he willing to wait two years?” I asked.
She laughed: “What do you think?”
Sister Sankali nodded: “If a woman wants to use contraception, she must hide it from her husband. So we give DepoVera shots every three months so that their husbands can’t find out. And since everything comes from God, and when a woman fails to get pregnant, we simply tell her to tell her husband, God has written it. Unfortunately, that also is the case with HIV. If you have a Christian who tests positive, you will need to spend a long time in your counseling session. But if it’s a Somali, you tell them the news, they say, ‘If that is how God wills it,’ and that’s it. No follow-up, no questions.”
“And because we Somalis are refugees,” said Idil, “we come and go—so it is hard to change the way people think when you only see the women once or twice. The young men are more receptive than the older ones, but it takes time.”
Sister Sankali nodded. “Just a few months ago we had a woman come into the clinic who needed a Caesarean section. But the men in her family did not want that.”
When I asked her why, she said, “Women are meant to bear children. If you deliver a baby that way, then that means you will probably have to deliver a baby that way again. So her husband kept refusing until it was too late. Then, to save her life, we not only had to take out the baby but her uterus. That means, of course, that she can no longer have children. So her husband divorced her and she went back to her family in disgrace.”
Sister Sankali frowned and shook her head: “And we had an even worse case, the one that haunts me most. We told a Somali woman early on that her baby would be too big for us to deliver it here. We told her to go to a regular hospital because she might need special surgery. But when her baby came due, she came here. We told her that if she wanted to save her and her baby’s life, that she needed to go immediately to the hospital. And so she took a matatu to the hospital, but when she finally got there, she didn’t have enough money, and so she came back. And by then it was too late to do anything. And so she died.” Sister Sankali’s voice grew soft. “Her husband came by the next day and asked where his wife was. He didn’t even know that she was dead.”
Later, at her apartment, Idil told me how she did not fit in “at all well” with the way Somali men believe that their women should behave. “For one thing,” she said, “I dress to please myself”—in stark contrast to the other women in her apartment building who had adopted the fundamentalist’s faux-tradition of the chador. But her distinctive sense of style had drawn attention. “I’m now receiving anonymous phone calls. A man’s voice tells me, ‘We know you are a good girl, but you need to stop dressing the way you do.’ So now I am afraid to go out at night on my own because I do not want my brothers to be responsible for defending my honor if I am treated disrespectfully or even raped. If a girl is raped, everyone avoids you, no one will marry you, so girls who are raped do not talk about it. And of course the rapist can always bribe the police or deny that the rape ever happened.”
Life had not always been like this: Idil was born in Mogadishu in 1984 when her father had worked for Siad Barre, the last recognized head of the Somali government. “We had a five bedroom house, a sitting room, two bathrooms, and my dad had two cars, a Landcruiser and a Toyota Corolla.” Now she and her sister, a nurse, were the sole support of their extended family of seven: they were all crammed into a two bedroom apartment in a cinderblock building next to a mud compound full of broken-down busses. The bathroom was a hole in the floor, the kitchen nothing but some pots and pans and a charcoal brazier—no running water, electricity wires swooping in through the windows. They had to haul their own water upstairs and boiled at least 20 liters a day for drinking water. And yet they had decorated the sitting room (which doubled as their bedroom) with brown marbleized tile, painted the walls a faded yellow, and strung from the cracked ceiling wedding decorations shaped like stars and glittering paper balls. Light green curtains patterned with green roses hung in the windows.
“I grew up a tomboy,” she said. “I was Daddy’s girl. He gave me the same education as my brothers and he told them that they needed to do household chores the same as my sister and mother. I got into fights, I was not afraid of boys. Other fathers did not go out to dinner with their wives, they left the women at home and went off with the other men. But my father and mother always went everywhere together. They would promise us that if we finished our suppers they would bring us a treat home when they came back from the restaurant. And if we were good, they would take us to the beach on Fridays, the boys the same as the girls. So it was natural for me to do the kind of work I am doing, helping women know their reproductive rights.
Idil paused, then said, “I am both an insider and an outsider and that is OK with me. When my father died two years ago, we were already living here. We had to leave Mogadishu because it had gotten too violent. My mother was working for an NGO in Uganda so it was hard for them to see each other. Then my father had a car wreck and went to a bad Somali doctor and his lungs collapsed because his doctor prescribed the wrong medicine. Just after he died, a man met me in the street and said that he knew my father, and that he had promised me to him in marriage. And I told him, Not for the rest of your life, and then I went to the police station in Pangani, but the police said, ‘You Somalis sort out your own problems.’ So now I stay home at night.”
She pointed to a Bollywood poster of her favorite movie star: “I used to like him but now I prefer American film stars like Tom Hanks.” And I could see why she would like Hanks, his bland, unthreatening smile. “When I marry,” she said, “I will have to marry a Muslim.
“And will he have to be a Somali?” I asked.
“No, not at all. But if he is not a Muslim already, I cannot marry him unless he accepts that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his Prophet.”
“That sounds hard on the fellow, don’t you think? I mean, what if he’s someone who’s more of a good man than most people who are Christians or Muslims. Wouldn’t that make a difference?”
She smiled and said, “Well, if he loved me, he would have to convert. Islam is something that I feel that he must feel too.”
The antithesis of Tom Hanks, the Bollywood movie star was stripped to the waist, had clearly worked out in a gym, his pecs and biceps and abs sharply defined bands of muscle. He had slicked back black hair and ravishing white teeth. I glanced over at Idil’s battered desktop computer which had just received a message and saw that her email user name was “chasing liberty.”
I changed the subject: “How are you getting along financially?”
“The money we bring in is not enough. We pay rent and electricity. We have to pay certain things and not others, and then pay the others when we can.” She shrugged. “My uncle is a good man but he spends all his time chewing khat. My brothers have not worked for two years—they look for jobs, but there are no jobs, except with NGOs like mine. To work for a Kenyan business, you need a Kenyan work permit, and they are almost impossible for a Somali to get—unless you have 50,000 shillings for a bribe. It is only my sister and me.” She looked at me fixedly. “Everyone I work with thinks I grew up in the West, I guess because of the way I dress and the way I think. I want to leave here. The only hope for someone like me is to get out of Kenya, out of Africa.” But then her hands lifted in a gesture of dismissal: “But I cannot leave. I must stay here and help.”
On the way back to my hotel from seeing Idil, I managed to get caught in a traffic jam and riot. Muslim demonstrators and police and local Kenyan shopkeepers battled it out in front of me, throwing rocks, their faces tranced with rage and fear, the shouts muffled by the rolled-up windows of the taxi I was lucky enough to be riding in, tear gas hanging over the city in a greenish pall. A man across the street, scrabbling in some brown, shriveled shrubs for a stone, began kicking at the dirt out of frustration. While the Wabenzi tooled around in their government-purchased Mercedes Benzes, he couldn’t even find a rock to throw.
Although I felt panicked, I tried not to show it to my driver and friend, Joseph, a tall, roguish fellow who had been driving me day after day through Nairobi’s inch-by-inch-hoot-the-horn-every-second traffic with a skill and nonchalance that was pure artistry. He casually opened the glove compartment, handed me a handkerchief, took out another one for himself, wet both of them with his water bottle (Mt. Kenya blazoned on the label), and we sat there, handkerchiefs pressed over our noses and mouths, coughing, tearing up, while he mocked me in a sly, good-humored way about my journalistic pretensions: “Ahhh, Mr. Tom, you journalists like all this.”
Windows rolled up, doors locked, I sat there hyped up on the drama of rocks smashing in shop windows and windshields, the tear gas smelling like overripe lilies and battery acid. The riot was sparked off by the detention of an Islamic cleric from Jamaica, Abdullah al-Faisal. And while the fellow had once preached that Americans, Jews, and Hindus should all be killed, the Muslim community had rallied behind him, not because they liked his politics—in fact Muslim leaders condemned them—but because he’d been arrested without regard for his civil rights.
In a newspaper photo the next day, one wounded policeman holds what looks like a white handkerchief to the gunshot wound up near his throat, the blood discoloring his green sweater, his maroon beret weirdly vibrant against the dazed looked on his face. A demonstrator masked in a balaclava waves an Al-Shabaab flag, another holds a discharged tear gas canister that the security forces had hurled into the courtyard of the mosque. This was the first time in the history of Kenya, a Muslim worshipper told me next day, that the sacred precincts of a mosque had ever been violated in this way. So this marked a new low for the security forces, even for Kenya.
And one had to wonder, if they were trying to contain a riot, what exactly was the point of hurling tear gas into the mosque? Hadn’t it literally forced the demonstrators out into the street where the battle went on for hours? And rather than containing the violence, the police had simply retreated when the demonstrators picked up the tear gas canisters and hurled them back at the police. Abandoning any attempt at control, the cops in their Darth Vader riot gear huddled in a doorway and let the demonstrators and citizen mob hurl rocks at each other. One young demonstrator dressed in a white robe sopping with blood was carried off by two men while a police chopper circled overhead. Joseph looked at me, I looked at him, we huddled down into our seats to wait it out, our eyes watering, the two of us sporadically coughing while rioters surged back and forth. Then he leaned forward to turn on the radio and cranked it up full volume as Beyonce began to sing “Naughty Girl.”
Up in Dadaab near the refugee camps, as my eyes flickered open in my tent a little before first light, the first thing I saw through the gauze of my mosquito net was the high perimeter fence surrounding the UNHCR compound. In the cool before dawn, I had a few moments to let my thoughts wander, and I found they sometimes wandered back to that man on the dump I’d seen in Eastleigh. For a moment, I’d considered asking him how he’d ended up there. But since no one talks to men on garbage heaps, especially not mazungus, I kept on going. Maybe he’d passed through one of the camps near Dadaab on his way to Nairobi, his relatives had moved by the time he arrived, and he knew no one who could help him. Maybe he had enemies in Dadaab, someone in a rival clan’s militia who’d shot his father or brother dead right in front of him, and so he was scared and had fled the camp for Nairobi. Or maybe he was the one carrying the gun, caught up in the tit for tat killings of clan revenge: “They came to my house, they took my brother, my husband, and my son into the street and shot them in the back of the head in front of my house.” And an almost identical story: “Gunmen broke into my house and didn’t even bother to take my brother out into the street. He had been playing soccer with some other boys, and when he won the game, the boys fought. And then three hours later, there they were: they pushed me aside and shot him dead in front of me.” And since so many of their menfolk had been killed, it was their sisters, wives, and daughters who told the story, eyes under their head scarves unblinking, voices toneless and flat, faces deadpan—never a sign of weepiness, no waving of arms. I’d heard versions of these murders so many times that I found myself almost hurrying them along to get to the end.
But whether he’d been in a militia or the victim of one, my garbage heap man probably had no papers—for if he had his UNHCR mandate, he wouldn’t be squatting on the dump, he’d be here in Dadaab where at least he’d have a ration card and wouldn’t have to be perched on a garbage heap pincering rice grains between his fingernails. His fingers had moved with almost mechanical precision, and his face wore the abstracted look of someone gardening.
But men on dumps are everywhere, you can’t think about them too much, the problems they pose are too disturbing, and then too common to be disturbing for long. People—even people threatened by drought and starvation—have to get on with their lives. And yesterday morning in Hagadera market, how normal it all seemed, even cheerful in the vitality of buying and selling. I wandered among the sheet metal stalls that were selling sugar, cigarettes, soda pop, sacks of rice and canned goods, firewood, electronics, jerry cans, pots and pans, and in one part of the market, goats and camels. A crowd of men gathered around me when I asked a tall, loose-limbed fellow herding a few goats through the dust, how much one would cost. He gave me a broad easy smile, his beard dyed bright yellowish red by henna, and reached out to shake my hand, telling me his name was Abdi Hussein. My translator, a young man named Ali who had grown up in the camp as a child and was now a married man of twenty-five with a wife and his own child, told me it costs 1,200 Kenyan shillings, about $12. “But no one wants to buy goats or camels,” said Abdi, “because if you cannot feed them, if they die of hunger and thirst, why would you waste the money? A year ago, a goat costs twice as much.” When I asked him how many wives he had, he said that he had two wives and seven children. “And the henna in your beard, why do you do that? “Ah, my friend, for Beauty!” I told him that he was indeed beautiful, but that I’d cut off my beard because it had way too much gray. Abdi said, “And you, how many wives and children do you have?” Doing my best Henny Youngman imitation, I told him, “One wife, one child—and that’s more than enough!” Everybody laughed uproariously, and I had to hand it to old Henny. But despite this seeming normalcy and the international appeal of Henny Youngman jokes, bandits, kidnappers, and rape were also part of the daily round. Just last week a UNCHR Landrover had been carjacked in Hagadera, the driver kidnapped, and still no word of his whereabouts. The week after I left Kenya, the online news told how two women aid workers had been kidnapped just outside Dadaab, their driver shot in the neck.
Out over the desert’s red sandy hardpan studded with thorn and acacia trees, the ground was heating up. Soon the air trapped inside the tent would grow claustrophobically hot, the desert pulsing like a migraine. I quickly dressed, shaking off mosquitoes scouting along the hooped ribs of my UNHCR tent, the fabric the same light blue of the sea off the coast of Mogadishu where in a few days I’d visit some of the camps for the 1.6 million internally displaced Somalis, what the professionals call IDP camps.
Meanwhile out beyond the UN fences in Ifo, Hagadera, Dagahaley, and the new camp, Kambioos, the refugees were also readying themselves for the day—but a day of waiting, particularly for the new arrivals. As many as a thousand a day had been arriving for several months, the lucky ones by bus, the others on foot. These came off the desert in rough shape, walking day in day out, sometimes for weeks through desert bush that erases any boundary drawn on a map—an advancing tide of refugees moving through country where mainly lions and hyenas and nomads have their territory. On foot, in trucks, in mini-vans, over red sand roads that turn to thigh-deep sinkholes in rain, and in the current drought hide rocks and craters that can snap axles and blow out tires, the women wearing jilbaabs, the men’s faces plastered with red dust, the refugees clutch their cell phones (cellphones are so cheap, even refugees use them), waiting for the call from their kin already in the camps.
Scavenging marabou storks perch in the thorn trees, their pink heads bald because, as I read in a bird book, “a feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood when the bird’s head was inside a large corpse, and the bare head is easier to keep clean.” In the heat haze scarfing the rocky desert, the marabou’s eight foot wingspan shadowed the refugees’ progress toward Dadaab, as they carried bundles under their arms or pushed broken-down carts, often women alone shepherding children. One grandmother, accompanied by seven children, told me how bandits had attacked their bus. “They made us get down and then they beat the bus driver and robbed him of our fares and took everything they could carry. And then they beat the men, shouting at them that God is as great in Somalia as in Kenya, that they were running from God, running from their country.” And it wasn’t only bandits, it was also the Kenyan police. Because the border has been officially closed since 2007, a refugee rights lawyer told me that the average police bribe to get across the border was $50 for an individual, $300 for an extended family. Given the low wages Kenyan police are paid, whatever the effect of the recent invasion of Somalia by the Kenyan army, whether it will result in the establishment of a buffer state between Kenya and Somalia, the rumored Jubaland, police extortion at the border will continue to be a problem.
But still they came, braving bandits and rape, exhaustion, hunger, and thirst, corrupt cops, and perhaps worst of all, Al-Shabaab militia members demanding “taxes” in the form of goats, chickens, household goods, jewelry, whatever could be seized in the name of Allah. They’d gather at Ifo Field Office, at the entrance to the Ifo camp complex that had been extended in the past two months (along with a new camp, Kambioos) to handle almost 60,000 new refugees. They huddled hour after hour under a UN canopy to shelter from the sun, they lined up for reception and registration: Needles stuck in arms against polio and tetanus, vitamin B and C eye-dropped into the mouths of children, interviews in cubicles, biometric scans of face and fingerprints, fingerprints inked the old-fashioned way into a dossier, more questions and answers, questions and answers, any security issues, any known enemies…and then they’d be given flour, cooking oil, salt, sugar, soap, a kitchen set, jerry cans, woven grass sleeping mats, baby blue tarps, and a chance at a second life on a plot of ground the size of some people’s living rooms. They’d be housed in tents much like the one I was staying in, only there’d be as many as seven people living in it. They’d be living in a camp in Section x, Block x, Plot x.
From my first visit back in 2009, to my visit now 18 months later in 2011, the population had exploded from 280,000 to 450,000—and this in a camp that was originally built to hold 90,000. Two generations had grown up in the camps from when they were established in 1991-92. This was year 0 for Somalia, the year when Siad Barre lost control, the dictator whose ruthlessness and skill in pitting one clan against another, held Somalia together as a functioning state. But after his overthrow, the country devolved into a permanent state of clan warfare, resulting in the foundation of Dadaab. Given such a world, one consequence of camp life is that nobody ever dies. On one of our drives back to the UN compound, a UN rep told me: “Nobody reports a death—I mean, think about it from their point of view: they’re not getting enough food as it is, and if you admit that someone’s died, that means you’ve one less mouth to feed, and your rations are reduced—and only an idiot allows that to happen.” And so the dead are taken out into the desert bush and buried in shallow graves. During the rains, the bodies often wash up to be devoured by hyenas who eat everything, even the bones—their scat chalk-white from the calcium.
I was told by many refugees that UNHCR rations, distributed every fifteen days, often lasted only ten days. So what do you do to make it through the other five? Of equal importance, meat and milk are regarded as important staples in Somali diet and these weren’t provided by UNHCR. Which is where my tentmate, Yoko Kuroiwa, and his NGO, International Lifeline Fund, ILF, came in. Yoko had the notion that by creating paying jobs, the refugees could provide these things for themselves.
By now the sun was clearing the horizon, and the makeshift, concrete slab of the tennis court behind the tent swam up through the dawn twilight. I could hear Yoko, still asleep, breathing softly—in contrast to the strangled groans of agony or joy he gave each evening on the court whenever he made or missed a point. “I am the black sheep of my family,” Yoko had told me. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy for not living in Japan. They think I want to be famous, a movie star. Like Angelina!” (Yes, Angelina Jolie had visited Dadaab just last year—and I heard one aid worker jokingly accuse another of “pulling an Angelina.”) While the glint in Yoko’s eye was both self-sardonic and exacting of others, when he laughed his completely unbuttoned laugh, he had the gift of putting everyone at ease. I loved watching his wild, savage forehand smashing down through the air: nothing could stop him from pursuing a point, he put his whole heart into every shot.
By now our tent was unbearably hot, Yoko was up, and we made our way to breakfast and then the motor pool. Yoko and I climbed into one of the twenty or so Landrovers trundling through the exterior compound gate swung open by a machine gun bearing Kenyan policewoman who told me one morning with an amused grin, “One day I will be a journalist too!” The vehicles convoyed over deep rutted sandy tracks to the edge of Dadaab town where we picked up an escort of machine-gun toting Kenyan police. The convoy returned to the camp for lunch, headed out again for the afternoon, and returned for the six o’clock curfew. No matter where you went, you always radioed back to base who was in your Rover: no one wanted to be left behind.
“Dogfish 1 to Base, we have Yoko from Lifeline and one journalist from New York.” Yoko handed back the shortwave transmitter to our UN driver, who would drop us near the outskirts of Hagadera. As we bounced along, Yoko told me, “I’ve always been a bit odd…I went to high school in Iowa, to college in the Netherlands, and I worked in Thailand for 6 months with some Burmese refugee kids. After that I worked as a journalist back in Japan”—Yoko shrugged, as if to say, Who hasn’t worked as one?—”but then I got a fellowship from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be one of fifteen people to work in a program called ‘Peace-Building.’ And that’s how I ended up in Dadaab the first time in 2009. I left for a while, and now I’m back as the environmental program officer for International Lifeline Fund.” When I asked how big an organization it was, Yoko said, “It’s small, the smallest one in Dadaab. I’m it.” So Yoko’s was the smallest NGO of all in this city of aid workers that had grown up inside the ever expanding city of refugees. In this alphabet soup of mega-aid agencies—WFP, CARE, MSF, ADEO, LWF, and who knows how many more, all under the umbrella of UNHCR, Yoko’s ILF was as informal as it got.
It wasn’t an easy task Yoko had set himself: Rather than receiving aid, Yoko understood that most refugees wanted steady work. But with the exception of jobs in the camps themselves, tending to your goats and chickens, and selling things in the market, refugees went unemployed. Their educational opportunities were almost nil once they finished secondary school in the camps. And with no country to go back to and unable to legally work in Kenya, what was the point of school? Nor could they leave the camp and find work elsewhere: that required a movement pass. And because refugees could only obtain a Kenyan work permit by paying an immense bribe, movement passes weren’t handed out to look for work.
So two generations had grown up in the camps, knowing they had no future, with the result that the refugees both hated the word refugee and yet saw themselves that way: in a study by Awa M. Abdi, a refugee was quoted as saying: “…when we are told, ‘you are a refugee,’ we see it as if we are despised, weaker and less than other people. It depresses us every time the word is used…” No wonder Somali elders reported to camp authorities that Al-Shabaab was having success in buying fighters by handing out $300 per recruit. As Anne Campbell, the UNHCR head of Dadaab in 2009, told me: “The youth have almost nothing to do here, and have had 19 years to do it in.”
We were dropped off in front of an iron gate surrounded by bush and made our way through a nursery to a concrete building partially sheathed in scrap CalTex oildrums. There the refugees were busy making cooking stoves. By kneading together red and black soil with dung—”the dung helps hold the heat”—and making bricks from this concoction that was then fired in a kiln, the refugees had produced over 25,000 stoves by strapping several bricks together and fitting a metal jacket over them to make them stronger and more durable. Yoko told me that firewood collected from the bush around the camps is getting harder and harder to find, the acacia and thorn trees vanishing into the open pit cooking fires. Donkeys hauling wheeled carts piled high with wood parade through the market, but wood keeps soaring in price: since UNHCR doesn’t give out wood, you have to get wood somehow. It was the women’s and children’s job to gather it, but the further afield the women had to go, the more rapes occurred (there were even reports of children being raped, both girls and boys). So what with the huge influx of refugees, Yoko told me, and the ongoing deforestation, and more and more women being raped, the stoves, if they were used correctly, would help the refugees use less wood and so spend less on it. They would help preserve the wood supply. And because women wouldn’t have to forage so far out into the bush, the stoves would keep them from being assaulted and then having to hide their suffering for fear of shame. It was a simple idea Yoko had, but it had a substantial ripple effect. And the stoves were well designed for heating up the women’s griddles in order to fry flatbread or to set pots boiling to make porridge.
Yoko expected a lot from his employees—before they began to get paid, they had to put in a month probation to learn the skills needed. He employed men and women in the factory, a substantial departure from Somali culture in which women and men often live and work in separate spheres. He insisted that the refugees show up on time, work hard, and he kept neat ledgers on how much his workers produced, their timesheets, and rate of pay. He’d had some trouble early on with one employee who’d tried to stir up his fellow workers against Yoko when it came to light that the fellow had lied about coming to work, and so Yoko had been forced to fire him. “But things are running smoothly here. The big problem for us is making sure that the stoves are used correctly. When we deliver them to the camps, I just learned yesterday that the refugees aren’t being given proper instructions on how to use them. So today we’re going out to check on them.”
We set out walking in the hot sun for the outskirts of Hagadera, where new refugees had just settled. We passed by a housemaking party in which several men were busily tying acacia limbs together for a frame, covering it in plastic bags, tarps, WFP food sacks, and other recycled materials, along with some mud to hold everything in place. Men herding goats passed by and would lift their sticks to us in quiet greeting, kids came up and said hello, a few asking for money, but more to break the ice than out of any real expectation. As we walked along, Yoko’s Ethiopian assistant, Chel, told us how one night government troops had shown up at his house, forced his family to come outside, then hacked his oldest brother to death with a panga while his parents and sister fled one way, and he and his other brother fled another. “We walked through the bush for five days, sleeping maybe a half hour a day, until we came to the border and a camp there. I do not know what happened to my parents or my sister. I have not seen or heard anything about them since I came to Dadaab seven years ago.” And just yesterday, he told me, some Somalis had come to his house, and shot at his brother but missed. I asked him why they’d shot at his brother, and he shrugged and said he didn’t know. “It could be because we are Christians, and Somalis are Muslims.” “Is there a lot of trouble between Christians and Muslims?” I asked. “Yes,” said Chel, “there can be. Just last year, some people set fire to our church.” But then he said that the neighbors, both Muslim and Christian, put the fire out.
We went household to household, each compound consisting of a sleeping hut, seven or eight sleeping mats to a hut, a separate lean-to for a kitchen, and maybe a couple of pens for a goat or some chickens. The inside of the huts was often decorated by colorful scraps of cast off UN packing materials: smiling women in colorful robes surrounded by flowers, a sylvan scene of elephants grazing in the bush. At each hut, Yoko observed how the stoves were being used, and patiently explained that the wood had to be placed on top of the wire in the front of the stove so the stove would draw better and thus burn more efficiently. Out of all the kitchens we inspected, only one woman seemed to be using her stove correctly, and it was hard to say if that was merely chance. But Yoko was patient with this setback. As we walked back to the factory, he said, “We will have to start making daily trips out to make sure the stoves are being used properly. When we deliver them, we will have to spend more time teaching them how to use them.”
When we got back to the factory, I was surprised to discover that Yoko had arranged for a rehearsal of a play about how to use the stoves: Yoko and I sat down to watch, as the factory workers hurried to their places. One woman fanned an open fire until a man playing a worker at the factory happened by and told her about the stoves. Then a refugee, playing a donkey hauling a cart with a stove in it, kicked up his heels and gave a little heehaw as he and his driver pulled up to the woman. They took the stove off the cart, put it down in front of her, and began to instruct her in its use. Then an older man began to dance, jumping high in the air and clicking his heels together while the whole ensemble joined in a song written by the group for the big finale. Everyone was in high spirits by the show’s end, and Yoko instructed everyone to wear costumes, saying proudly to me, “The idea for the donkey was mine!” The tall young man playing the donkey looked a little shy, but also proud of his role: he promised to bring a belt tomorrow to wear as a tail and to make ears out of scraps of canvas. The show was to be performed tomorrow at a competition, and everyone was excited by the prospect of winning: at last year’s competition during a festival of culture, they’d won first prize.
As we walked back through the middle of Hagadera to meet our Landrover, I let Ali, my translator, go to visit some friends. This was a mistake, of course, since it meant that Yoko and I, two mazungus, would be walking alone in a large bustling town where only last week a CARE driver had been kidnapped. The anxiety was low level but constant. To do what Yoko did required courage: nothing could be easier than to put a gun to his head and push him into a van bound for the Somali border.
We crouched in the shade of an acacia tree to wait for the rest of the convoy to arrive for the trip back to the UN compound. Chel’s story, and the story that one of Yoko’s female interns told me—her husband had died of drought, Al-Shabbab had “taxed” away their livestock, on her bus ride to Dadaab, the bus had been robbed, a bandit had pushed a woman riding on top of the bus so that her screaming baby wriggled out of her arms, fell to the ground, and died—such stories showed me how tough these people were. And yet I couldn’t help but feel an underlying hopelessness in their situation: Gunmen came into my house and my brother, my husband, my son … and so they kept coming to Dadaab, they got their ration cards, they entered into a limbo of waiting and dependence.
As for being resettled to a foreign country like the U.S., which has taken in many more refugees than other countries, the chances are slight: only now, in 2011, a good 20 years after the camp’s founding, were the refugees who’d arrived half a lifetime ago in 1991 become eligible for resettlement. If you made it through the rigorous screening interviews for health, and the proper psychological and vocational aptitudes required to make a go of it in a radically different world, there was the almost interminable wait for a plane flight to be arranged to the host country: Ali, my translator, an extremely capable and likeable young man who spoke excellent English and had a good work ethic, had been waiting for two years for seats to become available for him and his wife and child. “The average wait,” he told me, “is three years. I’ve waited so long now that I have to take the physical again. But perhaps in another year or so…” He trailed off and looked down at the ground, Hagadera sprawling out around us, the call to prayer echoing from a loudspeaker.
In 2011, out of nearly half a million people, less than 3,000 would be accepted worldwide.
Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital when Somalia was still a nation, is the poster city for what WikiTravel.org calls “the most lawless and dangerous city on Earth… Even with guards, the likelihood of being injured, kidnapped, and/or killed is still very high, including potentially by said hirable guards… Traffic drives on the right.” As far as I could tell, traffic went every which way—and yes, I grant you that Mogadishu’s walls are bullet-pocked in three sizes: thumb size for AK-47s, fist size for .20 caliber, and both fists for .50 caliber. But just as in Nairobi and Dadaab, people go about their business, the women dressed in jilbaabs, babies in their arms, the older kids running in the streets, some laughing and shouting, some clearly starving, their ribs made that much sharper by their swollen bellies; and the men dressed in trousers or jillabas, some wearing head scarves, the older ones with henna-dyed beards.
On our approach to Mogadishu, the UN plane banked away from the coast, high above the sea, so that we could make our landing approach over water, and avoid anti-aircraft fire or a rocket propelled grenade. There, far beneath us but rapidly growing larger as we descended, I saw a Trans-Avia transport plane downed in 2007, one wing shot away or crumpled when it crash landed. It had been towed to one edge of the runway and was now being used as a storage container for khat, the leaves of a shrub that everyone chews in East Africa to get a little lift. So why not use it as a warehouse? It was a cargo plane after all, and as I stared across the tarmac, the cavernous hold looked to be a smart way of making do.
Bill, the UN security officer, gave me my choice of flak jackets: Baby blue or dark blue? whichever matches your eyes, darling … I chose baby blue, and as I fastened the velcro straps, it reminded me a little of a baby’s bib—only heavier—like wearing four of those lead aprons the dentist puts over you when you get your teeth x-rayed. I put on my helmet, also baby blue, with its rubber chin strap and adjustable inner plastic housing that I never got quite right so that the helmet kept sliding around on my head. Wear all this on a torrid, humid day—the only kind of day there is in Mogadishu—and your sweat drenches you in less than a minute.
My mind kept running on two tracks: the images of Mogadishu as a place where the average lifespan of a person was reputed to be 17 minutes from the airport to the city center if you lacked an armed escort, where khat-chewing militias spread death from machine guns mounted on Toyota pick-ups; and the scenes of women and starving children at a feeding clinic, where the mothers took their children for food aid and medical care.
We went through a gate into a whitewashed courtyard overflowing with women and children, some of them sitting on bleachers, some on the ground, others standing in lines and holding their infants. The women talked among themselves, their children in their arms or playing nearby. A nurse dressed in a chador was giving instructions through a megaphone about who should line up where so that their malnourished children could be weighed and evaluated for further care. As always, no fathers were present—children were women’s domain—and the only men at the clinic were the supervisor and two assistants. One of the men wrote down the weights of the children placed by their mothers, one infant after the next, into a blue plastic tub that, suspended from a hanging scale, would pendulum back and forth as the baby squirmed and gawked—a peculiar, senile famine-gawk that I’d seen before in Dadaab: the infants would lie passive in their mothers’ arms, or sit or stand unsteadily, and stare at you without blinking, the way a bird will sometimes seem to stare at you, cocking its head to one side as if to hold you a little steadier in its gaze.
Of course, everyone has seen pictures of starving children with the well-meant purpose of letting others know that these children are in need. But the staginess of many of these photos—light glistening off prominent ribs—make it seem as if this is an exceptional state of affairs, when really, it’s the most ordinary thing of all in East Africa: for this famine wasn’t the first famine that had happened in 60 years. Famine conditions caused by drought occurred in 1999, 2002, 2005, 2008—which means that if you were born in 1999, by the time you were 9 years old, you’d have lived through four famines—and not just famine, but all the diseased you’d be prey to because of hunger.
But starving to death doesn’t mean that you’re just a passive victim (at least not until the very end) listlessly waiting to die. After one infant boy was picked up by his mother from the tub scale, and she sat down with him on the benches, he began playing with the shiny wrapper of a nutritional biscuit, throwing it up in the air and patting it when it came down. In the meantime, his mother, Gijo Ali, told me the old story: how their house had been blown up when she’d been out in the market, everyone killed except for this child and two others who were back in Al Adala, one of the IDP camps we’d visit that day.
In a place like Mogadishu, you become so accustomed to these apparent juxtapositions—a child playing with a food wrapper against a Toyota truck turned battlewagon—that they lose any kind of oppositional qualities they may have had. I was surprised at how quick I got used to riding around in an armored vehicle, and how expected and ordinary the AMISOM soldiers manning the three machine guns of the CASSPIR came to seem. They were skinny with bloodshot eyes, young, and not particularly threatening looking, though in the few hours I was with them, who could say? (Three weeks later, after Kenya’s invasion of Somalia, when I saw Shabaab photos of dead AU soldiers, one with a panga jutting from his chest, I lost some of my sangfroid.) “Oh sure,” said Andy Needham, the Irish Aid press officer who’d gotten me into Mog, as the old hands called it, “you’re laughin’ now about your flak jacket, but you might be cryin’ by the end of the day—” at which point Andy, Bill, and Jason Florio, my photographer, and I laughed even more. As I stared between the legs of Patrice who manned the gun in front of me by straddling the aisle, balancing one leg on one battered plastic seat, one leg on the other, all I could really see was the baggy camouflaged butt of his “mate,” as Andy might say, manning the fifty.
Famous for its role in terrorizing black South Africans during apartheid, the CASSPIR went round and round the roundabout at KM4, near where a truck packed with fuel cans would explode two days later, killing the suicide bomber who took seventy lives with him. In a Somalia Report interview with a close friend of the Al-Shabaab member, the young man, unnamed for fear of reprisals, said of Bashir Abdullahi Nur, “Before he joined Al Shabaab, he was a very calm and passionate person who loved playing football…He also liked to see youths coming together to tell stories and jokes.”
Hunched in his flak-jacket and looking a little annoyed, Bill was on the walkie-talkie now to the AMISOM convoy commander behind us: apparently his driver didn’t quite know where he was going, so that we got so turned around that we ended up in the middle of a busy market, blocked in by Toyota pick ups, vendors pushing carts, and foot traffic. The smell of raw camel meat hit me in the face, the .20 caliber machine gun belt dangling before my eyes. I could tell from Bill’s tone that blocking the market was a serious problem. AMISOM Forces shouldn’t be interfering with the market, especially because merchants were having to fold up their shops to make room for us to pass by. And then there was the baby blue of our helmets and flak jackets: I had no idea that in choosing baby blue, I signaled to the populace that I was UN affiliated. If I’d chosen dark blue, I’d be seen as an unaffiliated journalist. “Look, I’m not gonna put five mazungus down in the middle of a market dressed in UN blue: it’s inappropriate.” Later, we all laughed about having had the same fantasy: a grenade lofted through the CASSPIR’s roof where the reinforced steel walls of the compartment would ensure the explosion did its work.
We finally got our convoy back in line, and pulled up to a large, walled-in former villa, where we visited the kids at the Saacid agency (“saacid” means “to help”), a home-grown famine relief organization to aid malnourished youth. These were much older kids, some in their late teens: they swarmed around me excitedly, shouting out, “Mister, mister, where are you from?” And when I told them “New York City,” they all nodded, “Oh, New York, New York,” one boy shouting out, “The Knicks, the Knicks!” And as I asked them about where they came from, and they called out “Mogadishu,” “Kismayo,” “near Bakara market,” we somehow got into a guessing game: I tried to guess how old they were, them nodding when I guessed right, but when they guessed my age as sixty, I kept joking that I was twenty, OK, thirty! Suddenly we were all laughing and high-fiving and kidding around. As a boy in a football jersey kept shouting, English? American? while other kids called out, Who are you? Where are you from?, and I called back the same, scribbling their names down in my notebook, Mohammed, Sharif Ahmed, Jamal, Deywa, Amina, I watched a starving goat climb into a huge communal cooking pot and begin licking the sides from the meal the kids just finished.
Back toward the airport, behind a blown-out wall, in what had recently been a vacant lot, a little city of refugees had sprung up. As we walked into the camp, the children stared at us with tentative eyes, wondering if the foreigners had brought anything to eat. The women, too, at first kept their distance, but more out of reserve than unfriendliness. But then one older woman buttonholed me, talking a lot and fast as she recounted a story I’d heard so often in Dadaab: Shabaab killed my husband, my son, they stole our cattle, our goats, yes, yes, life is miserable, we have to get everything from other people, it’s hard to depend on others. No, no, I’m not proud of being called an IDP, but so many of us were starving that my whole village fled here to Mogadishu. It’s hard to watch your cows die…as she talked, and I took notes, I thought of a story Andy recounted, perhaps the most disturbing illustration that the worst is not as long as we can say, this is the worst. A woman was fleeing with her two children, and as the children grew tired, and she had to start carrying them, she knew her strength would fail before she got to the camp—and so she left the heavier one behind because the lighter one would be easier to carry.
On my last day before flying home from Kenya, Jason Florio and I went to Eastleigh to take a final look around. I told Jason about how, when I’d been in Nairobi two years before, two refugee rights lawyers had given me a tour of Nairobi’s jails. We’d ended up in Eastleigh and had gone to one of the local “jails”—a vacant lot behind a concrete wall where two kids were kicking around a soccer ball. The “Commissioner” lived on the grounds in a round sheet metal hut, and as I sat talking to him, I could see his wife hanging up laundry. It took me a moment to realize that his office doubled as a holding cell—a few pieces of sheet metal nailed to some two by fours. Any prisoners he arrested, he told me, he immediately sent on to the infamous Pangani Jail, the epicenter of exploitation of refugees by the police, despite recent attempts to clean things up. Earlier, when we’d visited Pangani, the smell of sewage was enough to knock you over. The white cinderblock building had no running water, two tiny windows with steel mesh over the openings, the temperature was pushing 100 degrees, and the lawyers told me that the prisoners were sometimes jammed as close as in a rush hour subway car.
My lawyer friends recounted how a favorite police scam was for one policeman to lurk around a corner in Eastleigh, then randomly pounce on Somali men and pull them off the street, while his partner handcuffed twenty or so together behind a house. And when they had enough prey, they’d demand bribes for their release, usually 2,000 Kenyan shillings, about $25. So when you totaled it up, that meant close to $450, almost twice what the average Kenyan worker makes in a year—not bad for an hour’s worth of work.
The “Commissioner” carried a G-3, and as we talked, he put his gun between his legs to pick up his two year old boy who had come toddling over to see the visitor. The happy father smiled into the boy’s face and lifted him up high for me to see. He seemed completely unaware that his gun was pointed directly into my face, and I felt absurd, staring down the gun barrel of a man who is dandling his child on his knee. But rather than say anything, I just shifted my head a little to the left.
I told Jason this as he we headed toward another Eastleigh police substation where, above a kiosk manned by a security officer in a beret, a sign read Customer Care Center. But we heard from the officer that things were improving: the government had approved pay raises, a good thing to keep down corruption—”but,” he shrugged, “we have yet to see the money in our pockets.” After the riot two years ago, and just after the invasion of Somalia by Kenya in October of this year, Somalis were swept up into dragnets by plainclothesmen and jailed, many of them simply because they couldn’t speak Swahili. So the promised raises meant little as far as the treatment of Somalis was concerned.
We left the security officer cradling his rifle under the Customer Care Sign, and walked a few blocks to the khat market, right at the edge of Eastleigh. Harvested khat resembles watercress, with the same long stalk, only thicker and sprouting fewer leaves, the potent ones a brownish red. Bunches were wrapped in banana leaves to keep them fresh and men came up to us, offering us a chew. I thought of the Trans-Avia plane with half the wing sheered off on the runway in Mogadishu—a testament to appetites that go beyond food and drink. Jason put some leaves in his mouth and began to chew. Soon a crowd had gathered round us, some of the men looking a little glazed, but on the whole friendly. But as I had learned over the course of my visits to Nairobi, Dadaab, and Mogadishu, the worst always goes beyond what we think is the worst. And so at first I resisted an invitation from an energetic young man to enter a storefront that opened up into what looked like a small warehouse, no doubt full of khat. But then I followed Jason inside anyway, worried that I’d put a damper on everyone’s apparent good will. I felt increasingly fearful when four or five men came in after us, and blocked off the entrance. Suddenly, the young man began to run right at us. My mind began to race, I tensed up, I was about to spin around and push through the crowd back into the open market, when he sprang full tilt into a series of handsprings, his body whirling toward us until, with a final flourish, knees tucking up toward his chest, he landed, as if in slow motion, a full somersault right at our feet.
A few minutes earlier, a boy had shouted, “Take me to New York!” and then folded himself up small as if to fit inside a suitcase—a suitcase which somehow I’d have to smuggle on the plane, the boy scrunched up inside with his head to his knees, the bag bouncing along on the conveyor belts until it disappeared into the plane’s belly. He was a small, skinny boy, not as skinny as some of the IDP and refugee kids I’d seen, but he just might have fit inside a suitcase. The boy had kept on walking until I’d lost sight of him, but now he was back to see the show, hanging on the neck of an equally skinny pal.
The young acrobat motioned us out into the market where a large crowd began to surround him. Everyone’s eyes, a little bloodshot from chewing khat, were glued to his broad-shouldered strut as he shooed us back so he could give himself a nice long approach. Khat sellers lined the market from end to end as he took off sprinting at full speed and turned handspring after handspring, again landing a somersault before finishing up by walking on his hands. And then from out of the crowd came another young man riding a unicycle, and in his hands, flying hand to hand, were balls he juggled as he balanced on the pedals, racing forward, back, forward, always keeping the balls moving in a perfectly regulated arc left to right, then reversing right to left, his friend walking upside down with as much ease as he would right side up.
Special thanks to Andy Needham of Irish Aid and Rika Hakozaki of UNHCR, and to Christopher Merrill of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.