Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp, 275,000 people in the scrub desert on the Kenyan side of the Somalia border, packed into tents and twig huts in an area designed to accommodate a third of that number. Many have been there eighteen years, since the breakdown of the Somali government in 1991. Escaping the continuing chaos, some 5000 new refugees arrive each month, walking for weeks to get there. 700 babies are born in the camp each month.
There is no running water and very little electricity. Minimal rations are provided by the World Food Program and the UN High Commission on Refugees; recently these rations were reduced even further, due to funding cuts. There are five doctors in Dadaab, and one health center for every 23,000 people. Cholera epidemics are provoked by the estimated shortage of 40,000 latrines.
A vast majority of the inhabitants are children, only half of whom attend primary school. A small percentage reach secondary school, and of them, a dozen or so are given scholarships to universities in Nairobi. An entire generation has grown up in the camp, where there is essentially no work and nothing to do. Peace will probably not come to Somalia for a long time, and the one hope is relocation in the West. Each year, a total of about 1500 refugees are admitted in the US and Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia.
In June of 2009, a small delegation of American writers visited Dadaab, sponsored by the International Writing Program in Iowa and the US State Department, with the collaboration of the UNHCR. Christopher Merrill, director of the IWP; Kelly Bedeian, IWP Program Officer; and the writers Tom Sleigh, Terese Svoboda, and I met with primary and secondary school students, and ran impromptu writing workshops. In various classes, students were asked to write about a dream they had had (or invented), or about something good or terrible they had done, among other assignments. After about a half-hour of writing, everyone (including some of the teachers) read their works aloud, often to general merriment.
We were, at the least, a novelty. They had never met an outsider not connected to some relief organization, someone who came with nothing more to offer than some conversation with the outside world, with which they have almost no contact. Unlike American students, they had never been asked to express themselves “creatively,” had never written anything that wasn’t checked for grammar and spelling and then graded. It was obviously the first time that a few hours of school were pure fun.
The texts, unedited, of what they spontaneously wrote are presented here. We were amazed by the sophistication of their English– far better than American high school students– and by their complex sentences full of subordinate clauses. Some had dreams of becoming writers, and had even formed a Writers’ Club, with strict standards for admission. We told them stories of writers who had come from, or lived in, circumstances of extreme deprivation, and repeated endlessly something that Tom Sleigh had said at our first meeting: Unlike any other occupation, to be a writer all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper.
— Eliot Weinberger