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  • City of Thorns: nine lives in the world's largest refugee camp by Ben Rawlence
  • Bill Freund (bio)
Ben Rawlence (2016) City of Thorns: nine lives in the world's largest refugee camp. New York: Picador.

If I were to be writing my book on African cities now, I would certainly be tempted to use the material in this volume for another major example. This is an attempt at an overview of the Kenyan 'city' of Dadaab between 2010 and 2015. For much of this time, Dadaab, unknown to most outsiders, was the second biggest concentration of population in Kenya. Some half a million people were found here at peak, the end of 2011. It is certainly debatable whether or not it can be called a city but it certainly belongs to a study of contemporary urbanisation. The globe has more than a few smaller versions of Dadaab too.

Its location has no economic rationale at all although economic activity in Dadaab steadily rises in importance. Its only significance is its close proximity 70 miles to the Somali border. Once the Americans decided that the Islamic Courts Union movement which seemed to be about to unify Somalia, could not be trusted and began, generally using surrogates, notably Kenya and Ethiopia, to intervene, the die was cast. Somalia erupted in a massive new bout of divisive warfare and Somalis fled across the border to Kenya, where a fairly impoverished and marginal ethnic Somali community formed the majority of the population in neighbouring countryside. This part of Kenya is just short of qualifying to be a desert and water can only be found underground. Thorns grow here plentifully and hyenas are relatively common. The city of thorns emerged here precisely because it is far away from Nairobi and the green fields of central Kenya. Kenyan authorities, enlisted in America's war to stamp out militant Islam, insisted on this giant camp remaining temporary and as distant as could be. [End Page 145] Somalis must earn less than any employed Kenyan. For the Kenyan government, the worst thing would be to allow large numbers of foreign Somali to settle permanently in the country. In this study, we also see the arbitrary, shifting governance of Western NGOs who make this kind of place operative. Health, education, food transfers, depend on them, although not always in simple ways. Their relationship to the Somalis is carefully traced and the author is very aware of the scale and sensibility of a generation of young Westerners who have made this kind of work their lives, of how they think and party and talk.

In one sense, Dadaab lacks entirely the accoutrements of a city. The Kenyans make it their business that it remains an immensely overcrowded, flimsy built environment of tents and temporary shelter. However, Ben Rawlence discovers for us complex social layers, cash transactions, relative wealth and poverty. Massive amounts of trade, licit and illicit, take place. More Somali in Dadaab are women than men and there are a great many children. The luckiest get out and somehow are selected to settle in a Western country. Others have grown up and lived here for two decades. There are social pecking orders and a mosque built by Turks called Istanbool.

Dadaab's story is given the human touch by following the lives of Somali individuals who find refuge there from the violent conflict in their home country. Initially many have nothing and also have to meet drought and famine in the face. Miserable as conditions are, you cannot escape a feeling of admiration for the resilience of Dadaab residents, how hard some of them work for very small amounts of money, and their efforts to make a life for themselves in this very difficult environment. Muna, brought to the camp long ago as a baby, and Monday, one of a small number of South Sudanese in the camp, form a couple in Dadaab. Monday is not a Muslim. How others react to this romance, which becomes harder to sustain with time, reminds you that refugees too have their prejudices and fixed ideas. Luckily they are eventually able to make a new home in Australia. How you...


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pp. 145-147
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