Saturday, October 17, 2009


I realize it’s been months since I’ve written; several of you reminded me of that when I was back home recently. I would attribute my silence to writer’s block if I were an actual writer, but perhaps it’s just a case of sheer laziness; in any event, in an attempt to make up for it I have written my longest post ever, in hopes it will compensate for three or four posts.
I’m currently in Dadaab, which is in the Northeastern part of Kenya, for the second time. It's a semi-arid area, from the air once can see that it's flat with red earth; the only vegetation is clumps of thick, bushy shrubs armed with some truly vicious looking thorns. The weather, as usual, is extremely hot (the “wrath of Dadaab,” one Caseworker calls it) though it’s not even hot season yet; my hair has started to get long again, so in the middle of the day with the sun beating down it feels like someone wrapped my head in a wool blanket, and then set the blanket on fire.
Dadaab is the largest UNHCR operation in the world, as it encompasses the three refugee camps of Hagedera, Dagahaley, and Ifo (Dagahaley means "rocks" and Ifo means "dust" in Somali, some of the most apt names I've ever encountered). All told there are about 300,000 refugees, mostly Somali, living in the camps; it’s estimated that about 6,000 more a month are arriving from Somalia as the fighting has intensified in the south, with no end in sight. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to visit any of the camps as the security situation has been deemed too unstable, but I'm hoping that the next time I come up here things will be better and we'll be able to leave the compound we are staying in.
The UNHCR compound that has been built up here is strange, to say the least. Smack dab in the middle of a part of the country that is mostly barren and populated with refugees is a chain-linked, razor-wired compound that has small houses, sandy paths lit with ground lamps and delineated with white bricks stuck into the earth, a tennis and basketball court, several restaurants and bars, scores of new Land Cruisers and heavy trucks, and air-conditioning in all of the accommodation rooms. It seems entirely out of place, as I guess it is, though no doubt the long-term workers who are stationed up there are extremely grateful for every one of the amenities. The compound houses about 155 UNHCR workers doing 2-year stints, and any number of other workers from different organizations, all of whom would probably gladly maim you for a cheeseburger. We are restricted to the compound, so whatever entertainment there is to be had has to be found inside--lots of book-reading, movie-watching, and long email-writing.
On this trip I am serving in a different capacity as the first time I stayed up here. I am now the Field Team Leader (FTL), which means I essentially handle a lot of the logistics for the trip, provide guidance to the rest of the team on JVA policy, and liaise with implementing partners, among other things. The new position is a challenge but I’ve enjoyed it so far--there are (brief) times when I miss interviewing, however, as there are the occasional humorous or interesting moments that can occur in interviews. For instance, I was once interviewing an Eritrean refugee in Shire up in northern Ethiopia. We always ask about any medical problems the refugee might have, and this particular man reported that he had a “hemmorhage.” I glanced up quickly from the form I was filling in as this was obviously a very serious problem, although the refugee didn’t show any immediate signs of being about to keel over. I asked where the hemmorhage was, exactly, both so I could accurately fill in the form and also provide precise information for any doctor we might need to bring rushing in to save the man’s life. My interpreter paused long enough to give me a slightly surprised glance but began interpreting nonetheless, while in my mind I cycled confusedly through the possible physical areas in which the refugee could be experiencing such a serious medical event and not be dead. My confusion only began to grow as the man’s explanation seemed to last much longer than what was necessary for simply naming a body region--further, the reply was becoming animated and, to my deepening concern, quite graphic as he began pointing to his crotch area. Things were bordering on the obscene as he lifted himself slightly out of the chair and began grabbing at his groin and butt area before a light went on in my head: not “hemmorhage,” but “hemmorhoid.” I threw my hands up and cut off what was threatening to become a strip-show: “I got it, thanks, let’s move on.”
Dadaab is known among the field team for a number of things, but it’s most notorious for being home to a lot of scorpions and snakes--a field team member was once evacuated from here after getting bitten by an unknown creature. When we walk around at night, then, we’re often scanning the ground for any suspicious activity, nerves at a slightly elevated level. Twice already on this trip I have stopped dead in my tracks, heart jumping about in my chest, and stood for a few moments with eyes bulging at what turned out to be a curved stick lying on the path. Similarly, a friend of mine once launched herself several yards down the path we were walking on after a tree flower, blown by the wind, tumbled across her feet.
So it was in this context that several days ago I was walking alone at night to the cafeteria when I felt something clamp onto the back of my ankle, right around my Achilles Tendon. I unleashed a hybrid goose step/karate kick straight out in front of me and then shook my suspended foot in the air while taking a few small crow hops on my planted leg, all while resisting the urge to send aloft a warbling cry of panic. In retrospect, this entire sequence was one of the finer athletic achievements of my life, as not only did I not collapse in a heap in the sand during these frantic gyrations, but I felt whatever it was on my ankle shake off. I spun about, already determined that anything more hostile than a snail was going to send me careening through the darkness, only to be confronted by a thorny branch lying there benignly. After a few deep breaths and taking a moment to collect my scattered nerves, I continued on towards supper.
Our worksite is the small International Organization for Migration (IOM) compound within the larger UNHCR compound. The worksite is laid out in a rough square of cinder blocked buildings topped with tin roofs; the middle of the square is a bare, sandy area for vehicles and such. Unfortunately, our offices are in two buildings on opposite sides of the square, so in order to get to the other side one has to slog across about 40 yards of sand in the burning heat, a stretch that has unaffectionately been nicknamed “the desert.” Now, normally I incline more to the “lead-by-example” school of managing, but when the desert is involved I like to take the opportunity to empower my team members to build their personal capacity through increased responsibility--in other words, I delegate, as in “Stop your whining and get across the desert to ask Fundi where those paperclips are. And bring me back a Coke as well.” Normally these trips across the desert end with the trekker standing in my office in front of the a.c. unit that is going full blast and mumbling things like “come on, give it to me” while I yell at them to stop blocking the air flow to my desk.
Every evening an IOM bus takes the refugees back to the camps after we’ve finished interviewing them (a brief aside: like most organizations, JVA has its own unique lexicon that is primarily acronyms, with a few, mostly irreverent, abbreviations and nick-names thrown in as well. So, for instance, refugees are often referred to as “fugees,” interpreters as “‘terps,” and Somali women wearing the hijab with an additional veil across their face so only their eyes are visible as “ninjas.” But back to my story) The IOM bus driver is a cheerful old Somali guy with a longish, silver goatee, the tip of which has been dyed orange with henna, and which immediately became something I aspire to have one day. Mohamed, as he is named, is friendly and gregarious and strolls about the compound while waiting for the refugees to finish and chats up any JVA staff members he comes across. The very first time I met him his face lit into a friendly smile and he gave me a big wave and called to me “Yes, my brother Ibrahim, how are you?” I had to wonder if perhaps Mohamed might be bordering on senility after this greeting as he called to me as if he knew me, as if I really were his brother Ibrahim. When I ventured that my name was actually not Ibrahim but something else entirely he gave a dismissive wave of his hand as if this were mere foolishness on my part. “Ibrahim, inshallah, this time next year you will be a Muslim, and will be called ‘Ibrahim’.” It hasn’t been uncommon, then, for the rest of the trip to hear Mohamed bellowing a greeting to “Ibrahim,” a white boy from Maine, whenever I emerge from my office into the desert.
As is to be expected, I guess, we have a lot of IT problems on these trips. We’re all linked via wireless access points to the server laptop we carry with us and to the printers; when the link goes down, something that can happen for any one of approximately a billion reasons, work grinds to a halt. The FTL’s (me, in this case) number one priority is then to fix the problem at any cost so everyone can get working again. Since I am almost entirely IT illiterate these episodes are really trying and involve a lot of frantic phone calls to our Nairobi IT people, or me speed-walking across the desert to plead with the IOM IT guy to come take a look. It seems we have gotten most of the IT problems on this trip straightened out after having laptops, a replacement printer and wireless access point and cables sent up from Nairobi, though the replacement printer regularly emits an ominous grinding noise and will periodically simply stop printing. This is our last option for a printer, so it going down will be catastrophic for the circuit ride, so much so that every time the grinding noise starts my blood pressure jumps 15 notches. I’ve forbidden people from saying words like “uh oh” within a five foot radius of the printer, or even grimacing when they’re around it. I now have an entire routine I go through with the machine to get it running again, which consists of dismantling as much of it as I know I can put back together (which keeps the operation fairly limited), lots of sweating, heavy breathing and mumbled comments like “Come on, you piece of garbage; wait, I didn’t mean that.”
The last time I was in Dadaab I was doing interviews the whole time, and one in particular sticks out. It was a middle-aged Somali lady with three or four teenaged children; she was dressed in a slightly worn hijab and had a tired face that was just starting to show the beginnings of wrinkles. At the beginning of the interview she anxiously asked if she could talk to me without the children around; she then told me that one of them, a boy, wasn’t actually her child but he didn’t know that as she had kept it from him. These secret foster relationships aren’t all that uncommon among Somali refugees as it is exceedingly shameful to be an orphan or a bastard in Somali culture--I once had the foster father of a teenage girl tell me that he had never disclosed that she wasn’t his biological child as he was concerned she would become distraught to the point of suicide, thinking that she was a bastard or an orphan. So, oftentimes to protect the children from societal scorn parents will pretend foster children are their own, and will never tell the children.
The woman told me that she had decided to tell her son that he wasn’t her biological child as he was now old enough to know. Then, during the interview, she told me the story of how she had come to raise him. She was from Kismayo, a port town in the southern part of Somalia that has been wracked with fighting for going on 20 years now. A particularly vicious round broke out while the woman still lived there as two clans fired artillery shells and RPGs at each other from opposite sides of the town; after the shelling, the militias moved in. The woman, shattered from a vicious assault, fled with her three small children, having to leave her husband and several other family members dead and unburied behind her in their destroyed home. They joined a terrified mass of people streaming away from the burning city as the fighting raged behind them, and then, on the edge of town, she came across a little boy just old enough to walk. He was alone with no relatives in sight, and none of the other people fleeing knew the boy or where he came from. The woman grabbed him and continued her flight, now with four young children and without money, food, a family or husband or even a country, across Somalia and into Kenya, finally arriving in Dadaab. Seventeen years later she told her son about where he came from.
I sat stunned while I listened to the story. Unfortunately, I’ve heard far worse as far as violence and suffering are concerned, but the idea that she could spare a thought for an abandoned child just shortly after her world had collapsed around her was staggering. I stared at her for a moment; she looked ordinary, weary, not heroic or superhuman at all, yet she had performed one of the greatest feats of unequivocal heroism I had ever personally heard of.

I hope you are all well.