Tuesday, May 24, 2016

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence

This book is subtitled - "nine lives in the world's largest refugee camp" - which clearly describes both the number of people the author followed for a period of several years; and the "nine lives" everyone in the camp seems to need to survive.

Rawlence, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in the Horn of Africa, made multiple visits over a span of years to Dadaab refugee camp in the northern Kenyan desert.  He must have spent countless hours interviewing and observing residents to put together this detailed and fascinating account of life in the camp.

Most of the residents of Dadaab are Somalis who have been fleeing both drought (and the attendant famine) and civil war since the early 90s.  However, there are also Sudanese, Ethiopians and those from a handful of other African countries who have escaped hardship there.  The camp was supposed to be a temporary solution but has grown into one of the largest "cities" in Kenya - those who leave to return home or for better lives in Nairobi, Europe, Australia or North America cannot make up for the birth rate or the constant influx of new refugees.

It is illuminating to see the ingenuity of the residents who have no official status in Kenya yet have developed a sophisticated black market economy, have been educated by the Kenyans and the UN in some cases and, against impossible odds, many remain hopeful.  Of course many do not and return to danger at home or in Nairobi or turn to suicide.

The book also manages to educate on the state of the Kenyan government - and the level of corruption involved in it as well as its tense relationship with Somalia even before al-Shabaab terrorists became an issue.

This is not an easy read but it is well written and the author manages to personalize the story through following several residents which makes it easier to digest a complicated tale of war, history and politics.

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