Refugees, Politics; Continent: Africa

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence

  • Follow nine Somali refugees and learn what a refugee camp is really like: you may be surprised
  • 384 pages (364 pages until Notes); Read the author’s Postscript

It’s been a long time since I read my last book of history in Africa, but that is in part because good material is hard to find. When I’ve scanned the African history shelves at the one major bricks-and-mortar bookstore still alive in the U.S. market, I’ve found some books about the Congo and King Leopold, and that’s about it until you get into some stuff that has a pretty heavy thematic sledgehammer boldly waiting on the cover. Rawlence’s book about a refugee camp the size of New Orleans, Dadaab, which lies inside Kenya’s borders, captured my interest.

In reading this book, I broke two of my own rules for History Reading Challenge material. One, I read a book by an author with an ax to grind. Two, I read a book in which the events described occurred more recently than ten years ago. I stuck with it because while City of Thorns author Ben Rawlence definitely has a point of view, he’s quite evenhanded in criticizing everyone: Kenya, Somalia, the United Nations and wealthy nations. He’s sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, but he isn’t pushing a particular solution or calling out any single leader, NGO (non-government organization) or country—not even you, Kenya—for creating the mess of Dadaab refugee camp.

Who Created Refugee Purgatory?

As Rawlence’s narrative makes clear, the forces trapping thousands of people in Dadaab are too diverse and complicated for any one hero or villain. Yes, al-Shabaab terrorizes much of the region with forced recruitment and attacks on schools. Certainly their activity fuels much of the ugliness facing the refugees. However, the Kenyan government and locals in nearby Nairobi take advantage of the Somalis who arrive there, as they look down upon them as a group. Corrupt officials and police officers, gray marketers and more use Dadaab as an opportunity for personal gain.

These forces described by Rawlence have been at work for decades. In fact, I thought I was buying a book about the violent mid-1990s Somalia. It was very naïve of me to think that the story had ended, for much of City of Thorns addresses current issues. When Blackhawk Down was in theaters, the Somali war made the evening news, but we in the West have not heard much about it since. Can you blame me if I was surprised to learn that thousands of people still didn’t feel like they could go home?

Not What I Pictured

If you are my age or older, then you remember seeing dusty images on CNN of starving Ethiopian children in tents during the 1980s, but don’t rely on those recollections to imagine this camp. This sprawling concentration of humanity isn’t just a temporary collection of tents and one or two cinder block main buildings. It has a marketplace, where one of Rawlence’s characters runs a gray-market shop and another serves as a porter. It also has several restaurants, at least one tea shop with wifi, a hospital and a police station. Dadaab is so enormous that it has neighborhoods, where people tend to cluster by ethnicity—often Ethiopians live together, for example, as Somalis take a dim view of some practices more common among Ethiopian refugees. Rawlence takes care to make his readers understand how permanent this place has become.

Infants brought to the camp by their parents, fleeing war and famine in the mid-1990s, have now reached young adulthood. Rawlence follows two young men actively involved in organizing this group into a force for improvement of the camp. These people grew up in Dadaab and don’t share their parents’ strong desire to leave it: Somalia, for example, was never home to them, and they have little in common with their distant relations there. Besides, al-Shabaab is more of a factor outside the camp, and here they can work or go to school. Rawlence tells us that these people in their teens and twenties show comfort with the NGO-speak they’ve heard in school and a sensitivity to ideas like empowering women. If these young people leave, then it’s because they have found opportunity elsewhere. When they do leave, they post photos of their new, prosperous lives in other countries to social media to keep their friends back in Dadaab updated (yes, these younger refugees have smartphones and Dadaab has cell towers).

Rawlence sympathizes closely with the refugees he came to know while researching this book, so he criticizes many of the institutions and centers of power in the region. He doesn’t lecture so much as provide the details to let readers arrive at his conclusions on their own, and this approach makes the heavy theme easier to take. Until I read City of Thorns, I only dimly recalled the Kenya shopping mall shooting to which he refers, but now I have a better sense of al-Shabaab’s presence in the region. I also have a sense of how the United Nations and partner organizations have impacted the area, for better or worse. Is his book technically history? Probably not, but it does cover in some depth much of the regional history still affecting the people he describes.

Image: Sodexo USA, August 11, 2011. A bookstore and some other shops. Since Rawlence’s book, some microloans have gone to refugees to encourage entrepreneurship.

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