Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp is an amalgamation of multiple stories masterfully wound up together. The title, a true account of events in the lives of nine residents of Dadaab refugee camp is based on the author’s several years of research in the said camp.
Painstakingly researched and skillfully written, the text immerses readers into characters’ joys and pains, health and sicknesses, serendipity, misfortunes, as well as hopes and desperation. Though he does not reveal how, Rawlence searches the hearts, minds, and souls of his characters, digging into the deepest of their emotions and scraping to the bottoms of their hearts.
The author’s meticulous interaction with refugees in Dadaab yields detailed accounts of the circumstances that brought them to the camp, the impact of their residence in the camp, and the kind of future each of them likely faces. We also get a rare insight into Kenya’s Northeastern region and national politics, the terror of Al Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia, regional intergovernmental relations especially among the nation-states of Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia, as well as a glimpse into the malady that tribalism is for Africa.
Guled, whose story Rawlence opens the narratives with, grows up in Mogadishu where Al Shabaab rules with an iron fist. Orphaned and surrounded by trouble, Guled strives to remain unostentatious as he pursues education and tries to make ends meet for himself and his sister. His forceful recruitment into the Al Shabaab and a subsequent fortuitous though perilous flight to Dadaab introduces readers to the cruel tyrannical terrorist militia. It also reveals and exemplifies the agonizing difficulties and treachery of the journey Somali refugees make to Kenya, hoping for a safe haven. Maryam, a strong-willed determined woman and Guled’s wife makes the cross-border journey to join her husband. On top of evincing that Dadaab isn’t the sanctuary they had anticipated, the couple’s life in the camp proves to be a Herculean task that threatens to tear their growing family asunder.
Similar to Guled and Maryam, Monday a Sudanese refugee, and Muna his Somali wife, find themselves in untold misery in the camp. Having fled their respective countries hoping for reprieve in Dadaab, reality hands them a rude shock. The couple not only suffers terror from fellow Somali refugees who are opposed to marital unions between Somalis and outsiders but also endures poor health and lowly economic statuses in the camp. Frustrated and demoralized, Muna turns to drug abuse which results in the negligence of their children turning herself into a nightmare for Monday.
Nisho and Fish, two more refugees whose life Rawlence chronicles typify other difficulties that refugees suffer. Nisho is born en route to Dadaab as his parents flee the civil war in Baidoa, central Somalia. Political eventualities in Kenya make his life as a porter in Ifo market, Dadaab, arduous. Corruption and impunity in government impact business turning his hard work’s meagre earnings paltrier, and Kenya’s war on Al Shabaab brings the same violence he had fled to the camp. Fish on his part, comes to the camp with his mother fleeing the civil war only to find himself in trouble from the Al Shabaab for his work with the UN. He is forced to flee to Nairobi where the Kenyan police forces are conducting an operation in response to Al Shabaab attacks in the city. To his dismay, the operation is not only biased against Somalis but it is also a ruse for the police to extort, rape, and harass poor, mostly blameless Somalis in Eastleigh. His hapless encounters send him scuttling back to the camp, penniless.
In spite of all the misery in the camp, a few residents beat multiple odds and emerge not only with better means of economic survival but also dignity that is hard to come by. Tawane who comes to Dadaab with his family at the age of 7 after two of his brothers are murdered during the civil war is one of these. After years of cautionary parentage in which his father keeps curtailing his ambitions in Dadaab, Tawane becomes a youth leader and businessman, later starting his own organization to help repatriate Somali refugees. Kheyro, an ambitious and hopeful young woman is another example. She comes to the camp aged 2. As a student in the camp, she nurses the hopes of going to Canada but the unjust and corrupt system of education in Kenya clips her ambition. She ends up as a teacher with hopes of furthering her education, but as the family’s main breadwinner, she is all but certain that hers may be a pie in the sky. Professor White Eyes is another refugee whose star shines bright in Dadaab. Having been born blind but later recovering sight, White Eyes comes to Dadaab with his grandmother aged 4 or 5 fleeing fighting in Somalia. With a story that sounds more fictional than real, White Eyes, a smart trader and a remarkable storyteller ends up as a journalist in the camp and is hopeful of resettlement.
Other than giving the Dadaab refugees a voice and revealing with such intensity the multiple intricacies of their lives in the face of the numerous forces operating in their world, a major strength of this book is the author’s use of description. With his words, Rawlence paints vivid images of people, places, and situations, easily taking the reader with him into and around Dadaab, as well as through parts of Kenya and Somalia.
A shortcoming of the text is the multiple disjointed narratives. While Dadaab is common in all the stories many of them do not have a direct connection. Moreover, for someone who has such a firm grip on complex matters in Dadaab and Kenya in general, Rawlence gets some political facts wrong, for example by calling the Nairobi governor, a mayor. Greater than these two however, is what Rawlence leaves unexplained: Why does he have to wait until he is done with his research before he can intervene in the problems the refugees are facing? Is it so it does not jeopardize his research or is it for some ethical issues? Despite these limitations, City of Thorns is an indispensable text for anyone wishing to understand the life of refugees in Dadaab and the impact of Kenyan and regional politics on them. People interested in UNCHR, the international community’s response to crises in the developing world, the power of the media in addressing global issues, and the impact of terrorism on families, livelihoods, and politics would also find a gem in this book.