In the last week of September, Dadaab, the already most famous refugee camp in the world won another title: third largest city in Kenya, overcoming the city of Kisumu, next to the border with Uganda. With thousands of Somalis arriving every day, escaping the draught and a violent government self-imposed by the Al Shabaab group, the refugee population in the city exceeds already 430.000 inhabitants.

There is no doubt that this is a unique city. It is a mix between temporary and the challenge of getting settled in a region impacted year after year by strong draughts. This dynamics leads the different populations of the region to have, to say the least, interesting relationships. More than 35 international agencies work in the area, and they have their own complex, protected and distant-enough refugee camps. Kenyans, muzungos and even Somali refugees work at the complex, based upon an incentive policy to reabsorb that population (the so-called incentive worker).

During the 80s, the camp was designed to shelter up to 90 thousand people. Today, it bears 5 times more of the anticipated capacity, and new expansions and new camps are being seasonally planned and built to receive the increasing flow of Somalis. The services offered to the refugees lead, many times, to troubled relations of the local community (host community) with the government and the humanitarian-aid agencies. After all, while those who have refugee status receive all the necessary goods for free, such as water, cooking devices, blankets, and aid to build shelters, the local Kenyan population, who is o affected by the draught, struggles to survive and to receive any available leftovers from the refugee camps.

Driving a 4x4 we crossed the sand road opened in the middle of a desert landscape towards extension “A” of the IFO camp, where we would have our first contact with the local struggling Somali population. Our first stop was at a huge WFP warehouse complex, where readymade food was distributed to the refugees by means of other agencies. WFP is in charge of distribution in Dadaab, and has been using different products trying to ensure nutrition for those people. One example is the Plumpy Nut, a type of caloric-powder bomb, widely distributed in different versions in Dadaab camps.

It is impossible to deny the need for emergency care for the refugee flow that arrives daily to the camps, but after more than 20 years, some things could be done differently. The political plot of the region benefits neither the local population nor the refugee community. On one hand the Kenyan government has its eyes quite open to the challenges, but also to the opportunities that a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring country may generate. On the other hand, Somalia, which does not have a well–structured government, is fighting the extremism of a radical group such as Al Shabaab, but receiving only an uncompromising support from the so-called “International Community”.

There is a lot of potential in the region between the far east of Kenya and Somalia. Despite the draughts, it is possible to find natural underground water sources or find them at viable distances allowing for the construction of ducts and pipelines for irrigation. After all, there is an unremitting transportation activity of food supplies, so it would be very plausible to turn the refugee camp into a small-plot camp of productive land. The investment would not be much different from the figures spent today in the region and, in the case of a resolution in Somalia, the refugees could return to their lands with some survival techniques and even some income.

 The main problem is the lack of stability in the region and the crisis solution being just an “organized Somalia”. The Somali population has nowhere to resort to in their own territory, since the FRA, the group opposing Al Shabaab, still lacks enough strength to take the power (and according to the representative of a French organization that works on the other side of the border, it is still unknown if they really are the  “good guys” of the region).

In one of the schools built at the exit of the IFO camp, the Principal shares some of the challenges he faces there: high rates of girls abandoning school because they have to give priority to the work at home for the survival of the family  ; student/teacher ratio exceeding the hundreds, as opposed to the recommendation of the Kenyan Ministry of Education, which is 1-40; one book for every 72 children; and the constant challenge of incorporating newly-arrived orphans, who come to the school for a second chance.

The objective is not to settle those children there. The goal is to prepare them for the national and international tests in universities, mainly the private ones, where there is less red tape. Therefore, says the Principal, some of the students that managed to attend Kenyan or even Princeton Universities become role models for the other children, and many times those youngsters return to the region to somehow contribute and give back to the community.

We did not have any surprises walking along the camp: dozens, if not hundreds of children surrounded us. With startled looks, different from those who were simply interested in what is different, they watched us from a safe distance, avoiding direct contact. The bravest ones came closer, and were received by us with smiles and attempts of physical contact.

In a few minutes, dozens of children were reaching out their hands for a “high-five”. As if it were the first time in their life they participated in some type of playful games, they were divided between those who laughed and those who ran away fearing what would come next. Their upset smiles, many times hidden under a piece of cloth, would open their faces, for the first time, for the experience of playing something different than pushing water gallons or following the steps of an adult. At the end, obviously, children are just children, and deserve nothing more that everything we have to offer.

One of the reasons I went to Dadaab was to try, once again, to understand the parallel of the “temporary-definitive” phenomena. Such phenomena was also observed in most of the slums I visited, where a situation that was supposed to be temporary, a transition phase between a negative situation and the opportunities for a better life, ends up becoming a burden for an entire generation or even more. Of course, in the case of Dadaab there is a clear involvement of two nations and an endless number of external players coming from all parts of the globe. So what is in fact, the difference between a slum in Nairobi inflated by Sudanese immigrants, and a slum in Kampala, with a Congolese majority? They are also suffocated by international aid of the most varied flags and stuck to a “temporary-definitive” logic and vision.


This text was kindly translated by Tania Cannon. Thanks!Unbelievable, but I woke up with the noise of rain. That’s right, a reasonable strong rain, so close to the region affected by the draught. I spent a few minutes observing the pools forming on the pavement, dragging mud from one side to the other. I counted the drops, measured as much as I could the amount of water falling, and squeezed my thoughts trying to understand what was going on in the region. Obviously it was too early to understand anything .

Getting a ride was much more complex than I thought. We went to the specific place where the international agencies used to meet on Sundays to assemble a convoy with security escort to Dadaab. There, Muzungos, Kenyans and Somali refugees take turns in cafés, in one of the fancies hotels in town, and talk about how to save the world (according to their own perspectives). To us, the primary interest was still our ride (since coffee was expensive and the conversations were, let’s say, weird)

We asked all the people, all the cars, we negotiated with all the taxis and checked all the possibilities with the buses. We received an endless number of “no’s”, other excuses, exorbitant prices and impossible bus schedules on that same day. At least we had the opportunity of meeting a very nice American woman, working for CARE, planning three additional expansion units in one of the refugee camps in Dadaab.

Defeated we walked back towards our hotel. The plan was to take the bus heading to the city of e Dadaab at 7:00 am the following day. However, a huge truck from the World Food Program, carrying what appeared to be food, crossed our way. My contact in Dadaab belonged to WFP, so I decided to try talking to the driver. I think that the cabin was at least 3 meters high, and it was a challenge to listen to him– to understand him. But I heard the essential: “I am heading there! Now. Get in”. Without thinking twice we climbed to the door and got in the truck.

The truck was carrying wood structures to be used as support to the food to be distributed. They were over 30 meters long and, thanks to our luck, they provided us a very confortable space to travel. The trip was not easy. Besides the physical pain from being tossed several times against the ceiling, against the wall, or against the other bodies in that cabin, what really hurt us was the landscape.

First of all, the beauty. A place like I’ve never seen before. The road is an opening in the white sand in the middle of dry and short bushes, some of them still boasting the green of the previous and now so distant rainy season. The orange from the road banks, of the apparently fertile dirt, waits for some sips of water to develop its full potential. Water that is not coming. And apparently won’t come.

The thirst is more evidenced by the several animal carcasses spread on the road. That simple: in some moment, they gave up on life and stayed there. Until they dried up, they discomposed. The image of vultures eating a carcass is unreal; not even vultures dare to wonder by this dry and deserted land. But many do not have the option to fly away. Along the road, children, adults and veils balance yellow galloons in the air, waiting for the water quota distributed daily. Sometimes distributed by the Kenyan government, and sometimes by International agencies. And sometimes, the water simply does not show up. 

A military checkpoint. Surrounding it, a camp with hundreds of people, tents and some activity going on. There, at least, the residents of the region know that some infrastructure will appear.  With no much hope, even the officers seem to be tired.  The region is considered dangerous, and there is a constant fear of an invasion or infiltration of the Somali group, the Al Shabbab. The inspectors did not even bother with our presence in the truck, and in a few minutes we were back to the loneliness of the road.

A full moon was slowly coming down on us. A few meters before the entrance to Dadaab we stopped: for the driver this was an opportunity to fix something in the truck; for me, this was the last sigh before entering the complex world of Dadaab. On one side, the sun set, on the other, the full moon. And, as usual, both totally ignoring our structural and political problems.

We arrived to the city of Dadaab. On one side, the gates of the complex of the 35 organizations that work in the region. On the other side, a diverse “local” population, separated by barbed wire and with security to concern every foreigner. Our entry in the “safe” complex was denied. Apparently tonight all the available accommodations from the international agencies were occupied. At the guard booth we were considering all the possibilities except for the one that ended up happening. 

Fred introduced himself as the person in charge of the complex security. A lie. But, oh well, he told us that the “house” was full and the accommodations outside the complex were also full. He made a suggestion: why don’t you sleep at the police station? It would be safe, “confortable” and convenient. He failed to tell us that it would be very expensive.

We walked along the streets of the city, no further than 1 kilometer from the gate. We did not draw much attention due to the darkness, but even though we found the small military base, filled with soldiers armed with machine guns and showing a concerning lack of care. We sat down. Every minute or less a new soldier looked at us, asked something to his colleagues and then greeted us with a smile that could be seen in the darkness.

We got to the middle of the way, between the improvised sentry box and the possible accommodations. We stopped to answer confusing questions and receive information on the conditions of our stay. All along, among uniformed military and guys imposing respect just because of their stance, a very drunk fellow followed us within the barracks, mocking and being mocked by the armed citizens.

The bedroom door opened and we entered a movie. Undoubtedly this scene had been produced by a horror movie (or comedy) screenwriter. The walls were stained with infiltration and filled with posters and signs that let anyone wondering about the character of the tenant. Some chests spread out on the floor, a club on the wall, a rescue patrol t-shirt that carefully thrown on the floor weeks ago. The beds were even more caricatures: the protection net against mosquitos on one of them was an invitation to keep our distance; on the floor, a mattress carried an entire ecosystem of plants and animals under a fuzzy blanket of a terrible esthetic sense.

We dropped our things, used the bathroom (we are still not sure if we relieved ourselves in the right place) and went out to the bar at the barrack. The welcome letter read the following: “Please do not consume alcohol when wearing the uniform or bearing weapons”. Next to the sign, approximately 100 guys huddled around thousands of beer bottles spread out all over, screaming, drinking and doing who know what.


When I turn I see our best friend Fred and his companions sitting down, smiling and drinking all the money they extorted from us. That was not the company we were looking for, but we could not avoid it and had to join them. At the bar, only one choice of food and a lot of alcohol. As the mixture was not attractive, we went for a beer, but as its temperature was boiling we decided to shorten the night and go to bed. The next day would be inside the complex and we were trying to get ready for that experience in Dadaab.

Sitting in the uncomfortable chairs of the office, we were waiting for the bad news. Why would the Kenyan Government issue a permit to visit the refugee camps in Dadaab, Northeast region, close to the Somalia border, to three young fellows with no reasons for that? We were told that the process to receive the authorization letter would take, at least, 14 days to be issued. This fact contradicted the procedure sent by UNHCR (The United Nations agency which deals with refugees) but mainly, our plans of traveling the next day.

Everything in that room smelled as a certain “corruptive potential”. The information and answers provided to us seemed to be more an opening for a proposal – or a request – for bribe. We were not willing to be corrupted, but it was clear that our situation was quite delicate: if the permit was not issued that day, we would travel without it A quite offensive question: what tribe my Kenyan colleague belonged to. Frowns aside, such information here in Kenya still bears some influence in the daily interactions. After all, depending on who you are, things happen or not around here.

Apparently the officer was making an exception for us. He made a point of making it very clear that he was “facilitating” the process for us, “going around” the bureaucracy and doing us a favor. Fact: this could only be hints for money given on the side. Instead of taking the previously stated two weeks, we would have the documentation in just three hours. When it was time to receive the documents, the tension of being interrogated and forced to give some bribe was only in our disturbed minds. The process was totally clean (at least as far as we could understand it).

Another major challenge was to ask directions to Garissa, the closest city to Dadaab. Just because no one could understand how a muzungu like me would make the effort to take a bus in the Somali region of Nairobi to a totally far away city. Usually, the international agencies working in the region fly in small commercial airplanes, or they have their own vehicles. However, the residents squeeze in the narrow seats of a crowded bus, for a trip that lasts less than 6 hours.

We left the region of Eastleigh, the Somalia in Nairobi. It was amazing to observe the change in the population, less than 15 minutes away from the downtown area. Here, there was a large immigration of Somalis from Somalia and of the so called Kenyan Somalis, from the regions close to the border. A chaotic, muddy market, with moving burkas is the main scenario of this region. In the bus, reading of the Koran, Kefiahs and burkas fight for the narrow space and rearrange themselves in the bumpy road. For a few hours I had the delightful company of a bay to play with, handed to me by a burka, with no further explanations.

The road, lit only by a full moon, was slowly getting emptier and showing only the shadows of dry bushes From time to time, a camp of people living in the middle of nowhere. Huts made of twitched branches, covered by all types of material that could be found in the region, that is, almost nothing. A lost look would now and then find our bus, but in a few seconds we were just a memory.

It was already night when we finally arrived in Garissa. Our plan was to get there at lunch time, enjoy the transition city and rest, so we could travel the next day to Dadaab. We rented the first “room” that we were offered. A brief pause to introduce two characters: a tall, thin gentleman, wearing a kefiah, who did not speak a word of English but would please everybody with his laugh; and a very thin young fellow, with a few teeth in his mouth and whose English accent had been robbed from several interactions in the past.

I had fun with both. First, a theater of mime, smiles, laughs and faces to select a room, a price, and seal a quick friendship with the smiling Arab. Then, a stroll around the almost empty city in search for a Coca-Cola. Along with us, the fellow with no teeth took us to the city’s bar, while repeating the expression “absolutely”, with a mix of heavy British, Texan, Kenyan and Indian accents.

After buying our things (two Cokes and two cartons of milk) we were ready to rest and get our minds ready for the road to Dadaab. But we did not have a ride, UNHCR was not responding to any of our communications and we have not made arrangements for a place to sleep there (Dadaab is not exactly the capital of backpacking tourism). We decided that the next day we would stand in line for a ride.