Dadaab is a town that was never meant to be. The camp-turned-city is spread across
a harsh, scrubby desert on the eastern border of Kenya, near Somalia. It’s a place of
desperation that’s turned, improbably, into a sort of permanent habitation with a
unique economy based on world relief. And it’s a thorn in Kenya’s side.
Ben Rawlence is a former researcher for Human Rights Watch with years of personal
experience in Dadaab, working and getting to know the nine people through whom he
tells the story of the city. Theirs is a tale of limbo, caught between governments and not
allowed to move, work, or provide for themselves, completely reliant on international
relief agencies. As humans will, they’ve sought their own level, carving out niches in the
city’s bustling relief economy.
People in Dadaab live what Rawlence calls the NGO culture. They are married by
the grace of camels from Turkey, live behind doors that scream USAID, and seek plum
jobs in World Food Programme warehouses or on U.N. compounds. They live lives of
if. If I go home, if I stay here, if I make it this season.
The future, apart from the immediate, is difficult to comprehend. Rawlence’s Dadaab
lives day-to-day in a way that the Western mind can’t quite comprehend at first. This is
where Rawlence’s use of people is telling and most captivating. Through Gab and Isha,
Billai, Idris, Guled and Maryam, and others, we can see glimpses of ourselves, for we,
too, struggle with families and jobs and whatnot, just not with the added pressures of
threats against our lives from every angle and the grinding frustration of being caught.
Caught is the overwhelming feeling of Rawlence’s book. As we meet Dadaab
residents and learn about their lives, there wells up a feeling of entrapment that at first
hovers around the edges of the story, then overtakes it, and finally becomes the story.
The City of Thorns, Dadaab, is a burr of a place, where residents want out, the host
country wants them out, but no one can decide what out looks like, where out should
be, or who should take care of them in the meantime.
Rawlence explores and dissects this feeling expertly, sometimes even wielding it like
a weapon against the Western reader. When we see those commercials on television or
read those news stories and feel compelled to help, City of Thorns forces us to question
if what we are doing is truly helpful. Is that organization using our funds wisely? What
really happened to that five-year-old softball shirt? Who really needs that? What do
these people need? Is it our place to decide?
As the world deals with a mass migration the likes of which hasn’t seen in
generations, City of Thorns is an eye-opening look at what did happen in the Horn
of Africa and what could happen in other refugee crises in the absence of timely aid
rendered well. As of this writing, Dadaab is still there, though again dealing with the
threat of closure in the name of Kenyan national security.
Yet another if in Dadaab’s timeline.
The apples in Winn-Dixie are unfulfilled
reds and yellows. I bite into thin skins,
flesh dissolve, chew waxy strips, taste
desire of the fruits I used to know. A
cracked with the weight of my
who climbed wooden stairs in the dark.
I caught his
sun-wrinkled, crooked limbs in a
basket. I migrated
with geese, under shadows that
stretched across dewy grass.
What is left behind when we are gone?
for us to return? How steady beat the
Beneath me lies a swamp. Oil green
whose name sounds like a brain disease
sink in the wet sand. It’s known as
earth. A flood grew
like a promise. I dripped for days.
ALLYSON HOFFMAN (University of South Florida)
is a Michigan native and MFA creative writing candidate
at the University of South Florida. Her previous work has
appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Midwestern
Gothic, and Third Point Press.
CALLING ALL POETS
Poetry contest submissions must
be under 40 lines and must
reflect the edition’s theme. Entry
deadline for the spring edition
on Earth is Dec. 16. Upcoming
themes are higher education,
food, and happiness.