It’s a long way from Dadaab, the dusty and chaotic northern-Kenyan town, to the manicured lawns of the White House in Washington DC, America’s seat of power.
However, the nightmare-scape that is Dadaab pops up in an important meeting at the White House as the book starts.
In the refugee camp, spirits soar or plummet with decisions made far away in Washington DC, New York City or Brussels.
In his new book, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, Ben Rawlence writes why he found himself in President Obama’s White House: “The members of the National Security Council were arranged around a grey table in a grey room without windows… I was there to brief the NSC about Dadaab, a refugee camp located in northern Kenya close to the border with Somalia”.
The refugee camp is awash with drifters, hustlers, lovers and even entrepreneurs. It means different things to different people. “To the charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to the Kenyan government, it is a ‘nursery for terrorists’; to the western media, it is a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, it is their last resort.
Situated hundreds of miles from any other settlement, in the midst of the inhospitable desert of northern Kenya where only thorn bushes grow, Dadaab is a city like no other.
Its buildings are made from mud, sticks or plastic, its entire economy is grey, and its citizens survive on rations and luck”.
CHRONICLE OF TEARS
The book consists of nine intersecting narratives of nine refugees who the writer meticulously observes over a period of time.
With the book, Rawlence, a westerner, puts Kenyan journalists and other writers to shame. He has written a book on Dadaab, and no Kenyan has! Then we complain that “Westerners twist our stories”.
Of course Rawlence has tried to be as balanced as possible. However, should any Kenyan be offended that the book is “biased”, that’s the bargain one gets when they cannot tell their own story.
We should tell our stories. No one can tell our story better.
We have walked the journey. We know where the shoe pinches.
That’s why I was very excited when we published the book, Joe Kadenge: The Life of a Football Legend, authored by veteran sports journalist John Nene.
By having a Kenyan tell the story of another Kenyan, it reduced bias and other vested interests that could “twist” the story to favour certain Western perspectives or stereotypes.
However, on Dadaab, Rawlence has beaten us to it!
Granted, it’s not a competition, but he definitely writes about issues we would have wished to narrate ourselves. Like when he writes: “Extremism in Africa has been rising up international agendas as terrorist attacks have mushroomed.
‘‘Twelve months earlier, Al-Shabaab had attacked Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
‘‘And six months after our meeting, Al-Shabaab would hit the headlines again with the slaughter of 148 students at Garissa University College in the north of the country”.
The Garissa massacre was one of the worst terrorist incidents in Kenya; what have Kenyans written about it? Shouldn’t we chronicle our tears?
Should we wait for other people from the West to do it for us?
In her TED talk, the Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Adichie says: “If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I, too, would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.
“I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide’s family. This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature”.
If we want to change this single story, more Kenyans have to write about Kenya. Of course, it’s a democratic world so we can’t bar any person from writing on Kenya.
However, Kenyans should make a substantial contribution in getting out our narrative.