Nurse Ratched faced us—okay, let her remain nameless, this American CARE official with the power to educate the quarter million Somalian refugees trapped in Dadaab, the largest and oldest camp in the world. In her early thirties, she had been on the job for a year. Whether she was burned out or involved in some NGO power struggle we could not fathom did not matter—she would not accept the free server containing 60,000 books we had in our bags. It required only a plug. She wasn’t interested.
Her face immobile, she said, as if in her defense, that they had already tried a bookmobile.
Chris Merrill, head of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program, his assistant Kelly Bedeian, poet Tom Sleigh, translator/essayist Eliot Weinberger, and I had just spent a week in Nairobi on behalf of the U.S. State Department discussing writing with Kenyans. Editors of literary magazines, university professors from a school closed by student violence, writers-in-exile working in the Somalian section of Nairobi, librarians, and one ebullient group of thirty-somethings reimagining education for the Agha Khan University, a branch of which was opening in the middle of nowhere in ten years with unimaginable funding. All discussions ended in the same place: What could we do for them. We told them the publishing industry in America is collapsing. We suggested that, like their adoption of the cell phone in lieu of landlines, they might consider skipping our flawed model and explore what technology offers, for example, publication on iPods and downloads.
They complained about copyright, their markets overflowed with pirated CDs. We told them we did not make a living from writing, that very few did in America, that we too were watching what happened with the music industry’s copyright battles. They said it was hard to get audiences—their children were watching videos. We sympathized. The Agha Khan group wanted good editors—like the editors of The New Yorker. We told them few editors worked like that, even when they had jobs. Most of the time we have to hone our work ourselves—and read, read, read. They said it was hard to get books, that customs charged far too much. We handed over the few boxes we had with us.
But when we flew to Dadaab, the administrative center for the three camps that make up the refugee settlement, a more desperate story unfolded. Founded nearly twenty years ago, Dadaab takes in another five thousand refugees a month. It is not an oasis in the middle of the Kenyan desert. There is no water, no food except what is rationed by the NGOs. In July, food rations are expected to be cut back to 1000 calories a day. Since Kenyans refuse to allot any more resources or space beyond the initial arrangements for 90,000 refugees two decades ago, housing has become unbearably overcrowded. The camps are short 38,000 latrines. If the refugees leave, they risk deportation. With over fifty percent of the population under eighteen, Dadaab is full of restless youths who are susceptible to al-Qaeda infiltrators who also cross the Somalian border sixty miles away.
But in the three days we spent talking to the students, we found that their hunger for education surpassed even their hunger for food. I sat across from a teenager whose hair was going grey from malnutrition who was admitted to the camp writing club only after submitting pieces in three categories: feature, sport, and politics. His command of English was better than my private-schooled teenager’s. And his motivation was acute: Every year only twenty students from the entire camp escape to university, the only legitimate way out.
In 1854 the British explorer Sir Richard Burton declared Somalia “a nation of poets.” Oral poetry, promulgated now by CD, cassette, and radio, has traditionally been a powerful literary form with political implications. In 1992, Somalian women recited their poems before two warring sub-clans in Burao and ultimately brokered a ceasefire. When it was clear that we didn’t want five-point essays, the students instantly composed poems about female genital mutilation, politics, love, and—over and over again—the importance of education.
On our last day in Dadaab, we took an armed convoy to the settlement area for new arrivals. They had been given saplings at admissions and told to hoop them into domes, then cover the structure with scavenged plastic bags or flattened tins. Not everyone managed. Out of the hundreds of makeshift, unfinished houses rowed far into the distance, fifty bedraggled refugees and their children confronted us. Although we were visiting during the most pleasant time of the year, the noon heat was considerable, the blowing red sand stung. Immediately one of the women insisted we tell the world about their plight, that we do something for them.
A student translated for us. He had just come from our class where, after hearing that the NGOs had discontinued the student journalism program, we had suggested the students hand-write broadsides and post them at a central area in the camp. We had told them stories from the gulag, about how prisoners had written masterpieces on cigarette paper. The poetry and prose the Somali students produced showed they had the skill and the drive, they only lacked practice and books to emulate, not unlike many neophyte writers in America. After class, students gave us their email addresses—clandestine cybercafés flourished deep in the refugee settlements, despite Nurse Ratched’s refusal to commit to anything electronic. Now, our student translator faced the woman who wanted us to do something, who was demanding an answer from us. He told her—and then us—that he would do something for her, he would tell the world.
Love Out of Hand
The apple of my eyes,
I love you as a Masaii man
loves cattle and believes they are his.
I saved you in my computer.
My love for you is as sweet
as chicken my mother cooks
for our guests. Trust me
as I trust in you.
Bear in your mind that true love
will be fruitful in the future.
Love knows no colour, no religion,
no beautiness or ugliness.
Be my shirt and
I will be your skirt too.
by Abraham Abdullahi Aden, from Dagahaley, one of the three Dadaab refugee camps
Dadaab, Kenya. Somali refugee camp. June 17, 2009.