The chaotic economy of a Kenyan refugee camp

The world’s biggest refugee camp, the Dadaab complex, has its own economy – of tomatoes, camel meat and trucks – and an annual turnover of €20m


The number of displaced people in the world is going up. One of the main reasons is that the number of “protracted refugees”, which is to say people displaced for more than five years – in some case for generations – is not going down. At the core of the current global crisis are 14 million of these long-term refugees. Many live in camps, in Chad, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon and Kenya. The world’s largest such camp, with about 400,000 mostly Somali inhabitants, is Dadaab, in northern Kenya. It is 25 years old.

Nisho is 26. He has never known another home. When I met him, several years ago, Nisho had been working in the market in Ifo camp, one of the five subcamps that make up the Dadaab complex, for more than half his life.

No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent: not the Kenyan government, which must host it, not the United Nations, which must pay for it, and not the refugees who must live there. But life does not stand still, and people have made the best of their difficult situation, selling some of their UN food rations to raise a little capital and investing in businesses to provide things that other people want or need: clothes, vegetables, ice, mobile phones.

Business starts early in Ifo market, which people here refer to as Bosnia, in the Somali tradition of naming things after something that is significant at the time. At 4am every day, on a cold slab of concrete, half a dozen camels are slaughtered. As the knives flash across their throats, and the blood spills into polished bowls, the muezzin calls Muslims to dawn prayer. By the time the market opens, at 7am, the camels’ legs, ribs and intestines are hanging from metal poles in scores of makeshift butchers’ shops across the camp. Livestock has always been the mainstay of the Somali economy, and so it is in the Dadaab camps.

The markets in Dadaab also sell everything from tomatoes to trucks, turning over at least €20 million a year; it is a black market, but it is also a quarter of all economic activity in northeastern Kenya. And everyone wants a piece of it.

For some of the rich refugees who bribe both the Kenyan government and the camp’s al-Shabaab militants, it is a captive market. But for the many thousands scrabbling to raise some extra cash Bosnia is a cauldron of competition, struggle and uncertainty. This was where Nisho earned his living of a few dollars a day to supplement his UN rations and pay for the witchdoctor who cared for his mentally ill mother.

Alleys lead off the market in many directions; in the shadows crouch lines of men in sandals, grubby trousers and loose shirts, some with turbans, some with beards, young and old. These are the workers of the market; they stare at everyone and everything that passes. And this is where, one morning, I watch Nisho cross the road back to the siding where his colleagues cluster around the back of a truck.

No Pain No Gain

Haivutiwi na Kamba

Inside the truck Nisho and the other porters are pulling and rolling sacks down a wooden ramp into handmade wooden wheelbarrows accompanied by much shouting, heaving and whistling. The roof of the truck is open, and beneath a lattice of steel, black against the sharp blue of the morning, Nisho tugs at a sack of potatoes that has another sack sewn on to the bottom to extend it and a white net of twine woven around the top, to cram more in, the whole lot stopped up with grass to prevent the potatoes from bruising.

His red plastic flip-flops somehow cling to his feet as he dances on top of the sacks, slipping down, clambering up, swinging from the bars of the truck. His T-shirt, grey like his trousers, a gift from some distributor, says Golden Instant Cup in yellow letters. He grabs a sack and calls to his colleagues: “One, two, three, heave!” They strain. “Push! Push! That way!” The sack slides down. “Kheylio is not working hard, he’s not lifting his end!” The sack continues to slide. Nisho smiles, happy, enjoying the burn of his muscles and the pleasure of the work.

The sack upends and lands with a thump on the wheelbarrow. A plump-faced woman in a magenta hijab stands by the open tailgate of the truck, squinting into the sun and shouting orders. Nisho jumps down, pushes another porter out of the way and grabs the handles of the wheelbarrow. He grins, a small gap between his teeth, sweat beading on his shaved skull.

“Take it to Ferdoza,” the woman in magenta says. Nisho turns and wobbles with the weight of the sack on the barrow. Another porter, in a blue shirt and a white turban, appears, and steadies the load with his hand.

They set off through the crowded alleys, one pushing, the other walking ahead, sandals slapping against bare heels, calling out: “Give way! Give way for Nisho!”

Nisho is not a big man, but he handles the wheelbarrow dextrously; it is his daily bread, as they say in the market, and he knows it well. Nisho likes to claim Ifo as his, as they are pretty much the same age.

In the story his mother tells, he was born en route to the camp, after his parents fled Somalia, in 1991. They arrived at Ifo just as its grid of squares was being carved on the plain and the pioneers were cutting thorns and mudding them with the red earth for huts. (If you ask Nisho how old he is, though, he’ll most likely just blurt out a number that sounds roughly accurate: 17, 18, 20. He has no real need to know.)

The front porter lays a guiding hand on the sack, and Nisho pushes the 220kg of potatoes fast down a narrow passageway, too narrow for a car now, into the heart of the souk.

Confetti of plastic

They hurry on into the butchers’ area, with its ribbons of meat strung on nails above heavy brass scales slimy with fat, and down a passage where the tomato sellers build impressive towers of fruit on sacks and cardboard.

Makeshift tables covered in cloth sport pots of local honey opposite a small metal stall made into a box and filled waist high with second-hand shoes. Dresses, shirts, children’s flip-flops, dishes, pots and pans: the manic commerce of Bosnia flashes past as the front man shouts a continual warning and Nisho maintains the trot he has learned to be the most efficient pace.

Nisho didn’t want to be a porter, but after his father died and his mother got ill he felt that he had no choice. For a while he went to school in the morning and worked in a tea shop in the market in the afternoon, for a kind woman who bought him books and paid his school fees.

But one day she was selected for resettlement abroad, and within two months she was gone “up there”: the United States, Europe, wherever they go, those people lucky enough to be plucked from the miseries of the camp. That was in 2004, when he was 13. Nisho hasn’t heard from her since.

The first day that they put a sack on his back he stumbled about, from left to right, and then fell in the mud. The other porters were encouraging; they told him that he’d learn, that he was a man, and comforted him with sayings that made his new role seem more bearable, like “A man must struggle to survive” and “When you sweat you eat.”

Besides, the nickname that his mother had given her lastborn – Nisho means Little One – so suited him in his new employment that he soon grew to think fate had assigned him the role. “My life is carrying a sack,” he declares these days with a kind of fragile pride.

Around a bend the porters pass a stall painted green and stacked to the roof with reams of A4 paper. Next door are freshly planed wooden boards with carved tops of the type on which every refugee child practises Arabic calligraphy and learns the all-important verses of the Koran.

And then, next to a stall selling spices and medicinal roots and powders: collision. Another barrow is coming the other way. Nisho, trembling, lowers his handles and inches forward as a Koran seller steadies the potatoes on their way, keeping them from upsetting his wares.

Sweat from every pore

He sets the barrow down and puts both hands on his load, hanging his head to breathe. Sweat drips from every pore on his head. It streams down his face. He bends his back, hands on hips, and grins, mouth half-open to reveal his gapped front teeth, and draws his fingers down his face as though he were cleaning a window.

He complains about the weight and about the wages: 150 shillings, or €1.30, the owner of the goods pays him for moving them. It used to be 250 shillings, or €2.20. Sometimes he used to have enough even for the crushed ice, laced with syrup, that had been chipped from huge rectangular slabs that emerged like sawn timbers from the ice factory. Those days are memories now.

Lunch is 70 shillings, leaving only 80 to take back to his mother to supplement the UN dry rations with tea, milk, sugar and the occasional tomato or onion. She will be disappointed, if she is in her right mind.

Nisho isn’t sure which is worse. She has taken to wandering about the camp again, and he hates having to tie her up. He has forgone school to care for his mother, and she needs regular visits to the witch doctor, which are expensive. And if he ever wants to marry – he has needs now that he is older – portering isn’t cutting it.

Ben Rawlence’s book City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, is published by Portobello Books

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