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 third and last of three extracts from her diary, Canali describes life as an aid worker in Dadaab. April 17 No escape from violence I saw the woman again who had flagged me down from the matatu (minibus) the other day. She and her 14-year-old daughter came to the health post to find me. This time I got more information. The woman’s husband died of natural causes in Somalia. One and a half years ago her three sons were killed in the market in Mogadishu. “The fighters get hungry and they come and start shooting and stealing,” she explained. Her sons had been businessmen. The woman had a pair of gold earrings that she sold to get enough money to get her and her remaining child out of Somalia. They arrived in Dagahaley about a year ago and knew no one here. They settled on a plot of land that they shared with another woman in the new arrival area. That woman has now gone back to Somalia. In January this year the daughter was raped. The man was captured, convicted and given a 20-year sentence. Now some of his male relatives are seeking revenge. Several times a week they harass them. The mother reported being beaten by them and now they come in the middle of the night and bang on their hut door with a panga (machete) or throw fire at the hut. They showed me the panga slashes on their tin door and the piles of thorn bushes they surrounded their plot with to try and keep the attackers out. We took mother and daughter to the UNHCR office and on Monday they have an appointment with protection services. If you kill a cat, you will take on its voice   I sat with a couple of my Muslim colleagues last night, looking at the stars and telling stories. Somalis believe that if you kill a cat you will take on its voice. That is good news for the dozen or so cats that hang around the compound here. The goats and chickens aren’t so lucky. We adopted two kittens and named them Virginia and Woolf. They quickly learned to beg at mealtimes. The moon wasn’t up yet and the Milky Way was prominent. They told me the story that adults tell their children to get them to respect their mothers. A hyena pup was very rude to its mother and it dragged her across the sky. The Milky Way was the trail left behind. No, I don’t get it and I don’t think they did either. Something must have gotten lost between the generations. Another belief, at least of the older generation, is that each night when people are all sleeping the sun will cross the sky from west to east so it can be ready to rise again in the morning (reasonable enough). If you have the good fortune to witness this event, your most ardent desire will become reality. Riches, wisdom, a happy marriage, a herd of camels. Neither of my colleagues knew anyone who could validate this conviction. Continuing to star gaze they pointed out the constellation The Hunter and told me it was a camel. Orion’s belt was the camel’s face and I could see the hump. That one I got. We also talked religion a bit. They were telling stories from the Quran that I recognized (from my very distant past) as the same stories I had heard from the Old Testament. Noah’s Ark, the parting of the sea, the killing of male children etc. Only the names were changed. We all agreed that people should be left to practice their religion without interference and should not impose their beliefs on others. I thought that was a good time to say good night. Throughout the camps there are madrassas , (Islamic religious schools). Often the school structure is a fence of branches surrounding the rare tree that is large enough to provide shade. Most times I would not even recognize that I was passing a school if it wasn’t for the melodic sound of children’s voices repeating passages from the Quran. Latrine humour One of the block leaders met me walking about the camp. He said, “You can’t go. Now you are a refugee too.” I wasn't sure if his opinion was based on my dishevelled appearance or the time I spend with the refugees. At my final meeting with our community health workers, after introducing my replacement, I told them of our plans to build family latrines in our section of the camp that is in desperate need of them. They were very pleased. So pleased in fact that they told me that in my honour they would name the latrines after me. I was practically speechless. I know of MSF workers getting babies named after them but this was a new one for me. April 20 Thank you and goodbye I had a combination farewell and introductory meeting with the leaders from our sections of the camp today. They expressed much appreciation for the work of MSF and acknowledged all that we had accomplished in a short time. They praised the fact that we were out in the camp visiting people and seeing the conditions that exist. One woman said that the other humanitarian agencies were tired of the refugees and have forgotten about the new arrivals (which are who we work with). Several people from the host community told us that we were the only organization in the camp to bring refugees and host community members together and that they appreciated it because they were all the same people. Following this meeting my replacement said to me, “I hope I can fill your feet.” I can usually count on my ‘English as a second (or third) language’ colleagues to get expressions in English just wrong enough to make them extra charming.  This afternoon four of the women leaders returned and gave me a present of a dress, head wrap and scarf which I immediately had to put on. They then painted beautiful designs with henna on my hands and feet. We all sat on a mat under a tree and they casually took turns doing their ablutions and prayers as the others worked on my femininity. They spoke very few words of English between them and I spoke no words of Somali. But we laughed and they taught me “sahib” for friend and the word for sister, which I have already forgotten. They gave me a Somali nickname, Habibo. As I walked about the compound showing off my new adornments, I turned more than a few heads as Kenyans colleagues stared at the white Somali in their midst.  April 20 Food shortages and cell phones Due to a scarcity of food stocks the last general food distribution in the Dadaab refugee camps had a 30 per cent cut in calories. Unless some action is taken soon the ration will be cut by 50 per cent in July. That is a cut of about 1,000 calories a day per person. And that is based on a population of 270,000, but there are already that number of people in the Dadaab and an average of 5,000 new refugees continue to arrive here every month despite the fact that the border with Somalia has been closed for months. Less food means more malnutrition, which means less resistance to disease, which means a much greater possibility of outbreaks occurring in these extremely congested camps. And that means death. Because of the wonders of cell phones I know that the family of the child with cerebral palsy who returned to Somalia because of the conditions here is now on its way back to Dadaab because of the conditions in Somalia. How many more years will the refugees of Dadaab bounce back and forth between here and Somalia, to face the possibility of a quick violent death in Somalia or the possibility of a slower death without dignity in Dadaab? April 22 Global inaction? Dadaab, one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in the world, is again facing a humanitarian emergency. The threat of a medical emergency is very real. As I depart from Dagahaley I wonder what it will take to make the global community outraged enough to demand action. Wishing for peace in Somalia and action on behalf of the refugees in Dadaab,
Donna Canali
MSF field coordinator, Dadaab

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