Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

City of Thorns

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

City of Thorns

Article excerpt



Picador, 2016. $26.

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. …

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