Donna Canali spent three months working as a field coordinator with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Dagahaley camp near Dadaab, northern Kenya. More than 270,000 refugees who have fled war in Somalia live here, but they face such alarming shortages of food, water and adequate shelter that many are considering returning home to the Somali war zone. In this first of three extracts from her diary, Canali describes life as an aid worker in Dadaab. March 1, 2009‏‏ I have been so busy since arriving here on 15 February that I feel I have been here two months rather than two weeks. Today is the first day of the hottest month of the year in Dadaab, Kenya. If I had fluid to spare, the fact that it is going to get even hotter would certainly bring tears to my eyes. The increased heat is accompanied by an increase in mini-twisters and each day I spot several spiralling into the sky or sweeping through the camp of our compound, slamming doors, stinging eyes and covering everything and everyone with a fresh layer of bleached sand. Mohamed, one of our drivers, tells me that the locals call these twisters ‘satans’ because those who are unfortunate enough to be caught in their path suffer fainting spells, physical deformities and a multitude of illnesses. The Dadaab refugee camp complex, situated about 90 miles [145 kilometres] from the Somalia border is actually made up of three camps: Hagadera, Ifo, and Dagahaley, where I am living and working. The camps were originally constructed in 1992 and designed to hold 90,000 people. By 2005, the camp population had already reached 127,000 and today the camps hold over 270,000 with hundreds more arriving daily. The vast majority are Somali fleeing the chaos and violence in their tumultuous homeland. This is one of the oldest and biggest refugee camps in the world. Not enough land. Not enough water. Not enough food. Not enough shelter. Not enough latrines. Plenty of traumatized people packed together in conditions ripe for a medical emergency. Our goal this week was to open a health post in the sections of the refugee camp where the newer arrivals live, about 20,000 people right now. We opened two days ago with a temporary tent complex which will function as the health post while we construct a more permanent building. On our first day we arrived about 8:30 a.m. and there were already at least 120 people waiting for consultations, and another 60 people, wanting to meet us or ask for work. In the afternoon the numbers were just as high. Our Kenyan staff includes two clinical officers (similar to physician assistants) and four nurses.

Home life in Dagahaley

We set up temporary accommodation for ourselves in an existing NGO compound that houses other non-government organisation staff. There are around 80 people in residence here who live in small, hot, single occupancy rooms. Our MSF team shares the large hot tents that we pitched at the back of the compound. Sleeping is generally a fitful and intermittent process. We are in the bush, hours from the bustling small city of Garissa and yet the nights are filled with noise and light. The security light’s harsh glare finds me sweating on my sandy bed as it illuminates the double fence built to keep out the wild beasts as well as human invaders. In sharp contrast the ebony night sky is sprinkled with a million soft twinkling lights that spread in an arc from horizon to horizon of this arid flat sandy landscape. No planes ever pass overhead. The abrasive sounds of the growling generator and the intermittent night wind slamming unlatched doors and rattling tin roofs compete with the softer sounds of the lowing of cattle and camels, the bray of the donkeys, the scrambling of small unidentified animals and the supposed laughter of hyenas just metres from our tents. The shrieks of some of my more squeamish teammates periodically pierce the night as they react to encounters with bats or spot large poisonous scorpions and spiders scurrying over the plastic tent floors. Pods from the few stunted nearby trees rain down on the tents every time the wind blows. Our local Muslim staff and tent-mates rise at 5 a.m. to make their way to morning prayers. At 5:30 a.m. I wait for the whooshing sound of flapping wings as Jurassic Park-sized vultures fly low over the tents sounding an alarm for the scores of small nesting birds to begin their morning vocals. Some nights I keep myself awake intently listening for the roar of a lion, but no luck yet. >Right now our team is composed of one Australian logistician, one French logistician, one Austrian doctor, one Kenyan nurse, one French administrator and 12 Somali-Kenyans (six medical, two logisticians, three drivers, one liaison officer) and me. We take daily showers and there is always enough hot water. The food is basic and boring but enough. One of my French teammates was actually in tears over lunch the other day yearning for bread and cheese. The cooks are lovely people doing the best they can with what they have. We westerners are a spoiled lot.

Another March day

Two wart hogs trotted by this morning. One large snake with the diameter of a coke bottle was found curled up in a latrine and a clinical officer and a nurse chased another from between our tents. Abubakar, my liaison officer, and I visited the ‘home’ of one of the women in the camp who we heard had two abandoned children with her. We learned that both she and her husband had been in the military in Somalia. The militias tried to kill her twice. The second time she escaped through a window bringing her children with her. She ran with them and finally somehow got in the back of a truck and crossed the border into Kenya about three months ago. She doesn’t know what happened to her husband. Her attackers were young, 13 to 15 years old. Her daughter was pregnant with her second child. After she gave birth she told her mother she couldn’t take life in the camp and left to return to Somalia leaving her mother with her newborn and two year old. The woman also had three other children with her. She put up a makeshift shelter of sticks and bits of plastic about two metres across for her and all the children. They can’t all fit so some of the children sleep outside. The shelter offers a bit of protection from the sun but will be useless when the rains come. The other day a colleague overheard one of the refugee women say: “I should go back to Mogadishu. At least there I will die quickly instead of dying slowly here.” Peace,
Donna in Dagahaley

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