In one of Alan Furst’s superb WWII historical thrillers, an experienced inhabitant of the political realm suggests that the world runs according to “the seven deadly sins and the weather.” That summation might help to explain Dadaab.
Dadaab, in Northern Kenya, is all of 20 square miles in size. It now contains the largest refugee camp in the world – 400,000 men, women and children — Somalis fleeing the terrible famine and anarchy of their native country. Nine thousand new refugees enter it each day. By comparison, my home, Chester County, Pennsylvania, the wealthiest county in the State and 12th wealthiest in the country, is 2000 square miles in area and as of the 2010 census had a population of 500,000 men, women and children.
In May of 2009, when there were about 200,000 total refugees in Dadaab, this was one facet of their daily lives:
Water and sanitation services are scarce throughout the three camps, as well as in the strained host community. The situation is especially acute for the newest arrivals in Dagahaley camp who struggle to survive on as little as three liters of water per day. There are only four boreholes for 91,000 people and each of these is working 20 to 22 hours every day. This water scarcity has led to tensions and fighting among the refugees and the host community.
*doctorswithoutborders.org: May 18, 2009
Now go beyond the statistics to an individual human story, one of 400,000:
Guterres heard from a woman who told him her flight from Somalia had involved a walk of weeks, during which three of her children had died. “I became a bit insane after I lost them,” the mother, Musleema Aden, told him. “I lost them at different times on my way.”
UN Refugee Agency: July 16, 2011 Antonio Guterres is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
I was driving home yesterday, thinking about the national crisis over raising the debt ceiling and half-listening to NPR’s news. The story addressed the refugee crisis in Kenya. At home I read more.
As much as anyone else, I struggle to make sense of the wild variations of the human condition that confront us as never before, and while I have no more insight than anyone else as to how this mess of a world will evolve socially and politically, this story in northern Kenya, I think, is an definitive reminder of the iron realities that exist for over a billion human beings on the planet (in 2008 the World Bank estimated that 1.3 billion people existed on $1.25 per day).
I read about this awful situation. I watch the videos of the suffering. From afar, detached, my heart sinks.
And then, whipsawed back in an instant to our land, immensely wealthy but also afflicted by its own version of a desperate reality, the House and Senate have a few days to pass a bill that will allow the United States to raise its debt ceiling or lose much of its credibility as an economic power. Economists and politicians and pundits predict catastrophic consequences if we default – hundreds of thousands more jobs lost, the drying up of credit, bank runs as people stock up on cash — the economic engine of the country clattering and screaming to a halt.
Real misery. Lives wrecked. Terrible stories to come.
This would be a self-inflicted wound, one that would be the culmination of decades of conflict between rival visions of American life. We will enter the domain of real, immediate, social, political and economic consequences and then, still to come, the unintended, unforeseen consequences that none of us can imagine.
I watch the videos of the politicians and interpreters most involved in this drama. From afar, detached, my heart sinks.
On the simplest level, I don’t know how to hold all this present and still-to-arrive chaos together in my head and find a key or keys to understanding its multiple geometries and labyrinthine causes and effects. Kenya and Somali, our nation’s ideological wars, the global mutation of capitalism, the rush of peoples, the sense sometimes that we all are hurtling toward events that no one agency or state will be able to govern.
I am an optimist by nature and religious belief. I told my students again and again that we must never despair. I know heroines. One of my former students has worked in Cambodia with orphaned children for a decade. She has shared their lives on an intimate level and even now works with all her heart and mind to lift the quotient of misery by a fraction.
The world has been in worse shape. Our country has been in far worse shape. Good historians tell the truth and provide perspective, but in this moment, we seem no longer able to escape an hourly collision with dozens of crises, Dadaab and the debt crisis being only two.
We dwell within more layers of reality than ever before in the history of our species, and we may now be arriving at a point where we are overwhelmed by those millions of realms. Infinite degrees of misery and destitution can be easily seen and heard at a click of a mouse or power button on a TV, and some accessible within a twenty minute drive.
T.S. Eliot wrote in Part 1 of the first of “The Four Quartets” that “human kind cannot bear very much reality,” and yet, what choice do we have but to rise each day and try to see clearly the mechanisms and passions that flow like enormous subterranean currents through all the spheres we inhabit. Increasingly however, I feel powerless to affect them. They rush towards and over me and never stop.