Resilient in Kenya

Java-Coffee-HouseFrom Dadaab to Nairobi

My handsome, soft-spoken, well-dressed companion for morning coffee  at the Java House in downtown Nairobi this Saturday morning began his journey to this spot in 1992, fleeing the civil war in Somalia as a toddler with his parents.


He grew up in one of the Dadaab refugee camps of Northeastern Kenya.  This complex of UN refugee camps was originally built to hold a maximum of 90,000 persons.  Today, the camps are home to more than 400,000, some of whom are third generation growing up in the world’s largest refugee camp with its conditions of overcrowding, insecurity, and lack of resources.


Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya

Few make it out.  My friend is one of the lucky ones who has found his way to the big city through an academic scholarship to the university – no small feat where access to education is a luxury denied to most of the refugees, according to reports by the UN. UNICEF estimates that less than a third of the approximately 150,000 school age children living in the Dadaab camps attend primary school. As a result, illiteracy is high.  Lack of educational facilities, trained teachers, and funding are main problems, not the desire to learn. The UN refugee agency (UNCHR) funds 19 primary schools and 6 secondary schools for the entire complex, where student-teacher ratios can exceed 100:1 and students must share both books and desks.  Refugee teachers are paid about $70 per month.  The UN schools are supplemented by 11 private, fee-paying primary schools that teach English, and 3 grass-roots, Somali-community led schools.


Dr Jill Biden visits Dadaab refugee camp during famine in 2011

Hassan (name changed to protect identity) did not attend school until 1995 when he turned 9 years old (give or take a few years – Somali’s don’t keep records).  In his community-led school, trained Kenyan teachers followed a formal curriculum using Swahili. Hassan’s family managed to scrape up the fees for tuition schools where he could also learn English to interface with the western foreigners (Mzungus) from Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) who brought much-needed relief and resources to the camps. These Mzungus all had cell phones and seemed to “know what they were doing” to get on in life.

In 2000, Hassan passed primary school exams and started secondary school – which, contrary to international norms – was considered a privilege and not a fundamental human right.  He joined less than twelve percent of the children at Dadaab who receive this ‘privilege’.  Upon graduation in 2004, several of his more fortunate friends received scholarships to continue studies at universities in Canada, while other lucky ones found work locally – a rare occurrence. For his part, Hassan sought out opportunities to work for the NGOs in the camp – both as an unpaid intern and as a staff employee, gratefully giving back to his community through their efforts.

Making one’s way – a risky business

Growing up in Dadaab was hard and dangerous.  Two police stations served the entire population.  These police officers were Kenyan  — a country with one of the highest levels of corruption in Africa (after Somalia), where the police are perceived to be the most corrupt of all corrupt government institutions.  They do not come out to protect people from crime or otherwise enforce the law without being paid to do so. “It is different than in Nairobi”, he tells me.  “In Nairobi, people at least know their rights.   In the camps,  people are ignorant of their rights, they do not speak the same language as the police, and they are scared of police brutality.”

Typical police roadblock on Kenya highway

As Hassan spoke, I recalled my discomfort and fear three weeks ago on the two-hour drive from Nanyuki to Nairobi, where we encountered eight roadblocks intended to intimidate travelers into bribery payments to continue their journey. Groups of police armed with AK47s were stopping cars at will with no apparent cause, demanding payment on the spot for arbitrary, unverifiable rules (e.g., proper tire inflation) or trumped-up allegations of speeding or improper documentation.  If one was not prepared to pay up, you risked being threatened with jail for several days and additional costs that could run into the thousands of dollars with no guarantee of release without negotiating payment with a judge as well as the police.

At the time, I assumed that the police were exploiting an unusually busy weekend – as people from all over East Africa headed to Nairobi for the start of the school year the following week – and that things would settle down back to normal.   But I soon found out that the ubiquitous police ‘ATMs’ on the road are the norm in Kenya, even in the city.  After three weeks here, I had come to realize how lucky I was not to have had to pay a bribe at some point just to be allowed to go my own way. Fortunately, I never had to call on the police for real help either – most of the premises where I had any business being– no matter how humble – employed the services of private security guards.   Refugees in camps don’t have that luxury.

Conflict Spill-Over

Between the time that Hassan graduated from secondary school and when he left the camp for good in 2010, the conflict in Somalia underwent dramatic shifts and escalation that exacerbated insecurity in the Dadaab camps.  Tensions between the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that presided over most of Southern and Central Somalia, local war lords, and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia erupted into open fighting for control of Mogadishu and surrounding areas in 2006.

Territorial control by Union of Islamic Courts in 2006

Union of Islamic Courts  (gold) controlled income producing areas along coast while influence of Transitional Government (green), backed by Ethiopia, was limited in 2006

Backed by the US, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in 2006 and drove out the ICU to make room for the TFG to gain control as the dominant political and security actor in South Central Somalia. However, in-fighting among clans, war lords and the TFG prevented consolidation of power for effective governance. When Ethiopian troops withdrew from Mogadishu in 2009, Al Shabaab – the extremist, military arm of the ICU- filled the vacuum and by 2010 was in control of Mogadishu and surrounding areas.

As a result of these events in Somalia, the presence of Al Shabaab and other clan-based militia increased in the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia to recruit foot soldiers, obtain financing, and secure other means of support.  Early on, the Dadaab community would meet for open dialogue and debate about support for these clan-based armed groups.  Focused on  his work for CARE international, Hassan and his circle of friends had no appetite or time for the extremist message and means of Al Shabaab.

Although he was never directly approached for recruitment,  he was aware of their presence and heard stories of their methods that included violent intimidation, extrajudicial killings, and exploitation of the most marginalized. This awareness hung over the camp with a silent threat of denouncement and betrayal that added to the insecurity.  Eventually, the dialogue stopped and today no one talks about Al Shabaab in the camps for fear of being perceived as approving of them.  Such a brand makes one vulnerable to threats of retribution by the Kenyan government or co-optation into Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab territorial control in Somalia at its zenith in January 2010

Al Shabaab territorial control of virtually all South and Central Somalia at its zenith in January 2010

Sometimes these threats erupt into violence.  Over the years, Hassan has increasingly heard of refugees in the camps being killed by Al Shabaab for defection, while others simply disappear – presumably for lack of cooperation.  These extrajudicial killings go largely unreported. In addition, the NGOs providing humanitarian services at the camps are primary targets as hostages for ransom, as well assassination for the western values that they represent.

Refugees like Hassan, who work for the foreign NGOs at the camps, are particularly suspect. At one point, during the  massive famine in 2011, Al Shabaab placed a ban on humanitarian aid workers from the West. The security situation was further exacerbated in October of the same year, when Kenya crossed its border with Somalia to battle Al Shabaab and create a buffer zone between the two countries.  The incursion by Kenya troops led to a sharp rise in attacks from Shabaab sympathizers in the Dadaab camps, as well as a harsh response and widespread allegations of abuse by Kenyan police.

Peacemaking Reprisals – Who Pays?

Hassan now lives in Nairobi where for the past four years he has worked on NGO transitional projects in Kenya, and on programs to counter violent extremism among Somali urban refugees.  During that time, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has made significant headway against Al Shabaab in South and Central Somalia – freeing Mogadishu from its control in 2011 ,  regaining control of the port of Kismayo in 2012, and more recently taking back cities and towns in the west along the border with Ethiopia as well as port towns along the east coast.  As Al Shabaab retreats from AMISOM advances in Somalia, they have retaliated with strikes not against AMISOM troops, but against citizens in the troop contributing countries to AMISOM – such as the bomb in Uganda that killed 64 fans at a public viewing of the World Cup finals in 2010, and the  2013 attack at Westgage shopping mall in Nairobi.

A woman observes the remains of the Breeze View Hotel, attacked by militants in the town of Mpeketoni, on the Kenyan coast 60 miles from the Somali border.

Today, Al Shabaab continues its attacks on soft targets in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Women carrying children run for safety during the Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya

Women carrying children run for safety during the Westgate shopping mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya








The Kenya government has responded to these growing homeland threats with divisive and reactive policies of collective punishment among the Somali communities such as those where Hassan now lives in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi.  Urban refugee communities like his not only bear the brunt of the Al Shabaab attacks, but also the politicized, repressive response of the corrupt Kenyan government. During an intense counter-terrorism operation from March through May of this year, Hassan was awakened every night by the pounding of police at his door, demanding payments on the spot to avoid being sent to a “detention center” in a football stadium in Nairobi, from where he could be forcibly deported back to Somalia, in spite of his official refugee status of over twenty years. Typical payments ranged between $50-300, depending on the officers involved and Hassan’s skill at negotiating with them. These payments were only good on-the-spot;  there was no guarantee of protection for the next time.

Fearing for his life, Hassan became a virtual hostage hiding out in his own apartment day and night – afraid to go out on the streets where at best he would be confronted with demands for his refugee papers and detained in jail on some pretext or other, and at worst he would be harassed, beaten, and deported on grounds of terrorist activity.  He dared not attend the class he was taking or show up for work.  Almost broken, one night he found himself crying in despair as he hid between water tanks on the roof of his apartment, listening to police ransack his home below.

Providing Justice – Compensation not Reconciliation

We swap our stories of encounters with the corrupt police system and sinister undercurrents of menace within Kenya and how those have affected us.  For my part, I have been very unsettled by the stress of daily living in Nairobi where I have no confidence that there is a justice system I can count on to protect my interests, rights, and basic security. I ask Hassan about the traditional, clan-based system that many Somalis rely on in both Somalia and Kenya to solve their problems in the absence of effective governing institutions.  Issues ranging from petty theft to gender-based violence and rape are brought to ad-hoc ‘courts’ that are convened in the community when trouble arises, and ‘justice’ is administered by elders based on past precedents.

In Hassan’s view, this system does not work.  For one thing, it does nothing to promote real justice for the victims – only to administer a system of retribution that  “does not clear the hurt inside”.   For example, in his work for CARE, Hassan saw perpetrators go free after paying compensation to the fathers of rape victims, while the women would receive nothing but the shame that they must bear for the rest of their lives.  The system also risks marginalizing wrong-doers, rather than apprehending them.  “If a young man does something wrong in his community’s eyes, Al Shabaab becomes a safe haven for him, to avoid facing the elders.”  To illustrate his point, Hassan tells me of three young school boys in his community who just vanished one day. They were known to have been involved in raping women, and were to be brought before the elders.   “Vanishing is very hard to on one’s own in our community, where everyone knows each other’s business” he says pointedly.

Intimidation by innuendo

It is not only in Eastleigh where everyone knows each other’s business.  On his last trip to Dadaab to visit his mother, the local Imam pulled Hassan aside after prayers at the mosque, and warned him that there was talk around the camp that one of his mother’s sons was involved in “anti-Islamic” activities.  This came as a blow – as it means that Hassan can no longer visit the camp in safety for fear of being targeted by Al Shabaab.  On the eight-hour bus ride back to Nairobi, Hassan encountered three road blocks where police challenged his refugee papers. At the last one, he ended up in jail for several days, requiring assistance from a relative in Nairobi to bail him out to prevent deportation to Somalia, where he would surely have to deal with the same rumors that were circulating in the camp.  It may be a very long time before Hassan sees his mother again if he is to survive.


As he tells me his story this morning, Hassan gazes intently across the linoleum tabletop that separates us.  I see in his eyes and hear in his guarded voice the evidence that I came searching for of what moves humanity towards peace and not war.  There is determination mingled with acceptance within outrage and pain; hope within sorrow; and a deep sense of the value of life – his own, his family, and even strangers like myself.  I hear no resentment, no desire for revenge and retribution…just a deep sense of commitment to justice, doing the best he can with what he has, and being of service to his fellows. Though I cannot comprehend where it comes from,  I am newly inspired and uplifted by his resilience. Yesterday, I had been just about beaten down by the widespread dysfunction and disrespect I had experienced trying to conduct my research within the bizarre environment of Nairobi.  Today, I know I will continue if for no other reason than knowing he is doing so in spite of all his challenges – as are so many others like him not only in Kenya, but in neighboring countries and beyond.

The incongruity in our situation reminds me of a typical street scene in Nairobi.  We momentarily share the same lane on a bumpy and congested road way in our respective life journeys.  Enjoying the comfort of a fancy SUV as I tote my precious souvenir trinkets bought at the market this morning back to my lodgings encircled by concertina wire, I watch others manuever nimbly by on motorcycles or on foot, weaving around traffic with their livelihood on their back as they return to their homes where they will be encircled not by wire, but by their communities.  Like them, Hassan keeps moving forward, making the best with what he has been given in life.  I pray that we both reach our journey’s end safely and that I am able to enrich the lives of those I meet on the way as much as he has mine.

The key is resilience. Somalis here are known for it, which will serve them well as the tide turns in the Somali conflict. Yet, as policy makers and program managers and even researchers like myself attempt to put metrics to this quality, it defies measurement.  We can define what we believe are minimum structural elements, social capital, and resource capacities necessary to support resilience. However, all across East Africa I have run into others like Hassan who seem to tap into an intangible spirit that keeps them going against all odds when what we consider to be minimum threshold requirements are lacking while they bear the oppressive weight of systemic corruption.

How much of this unmeasurable spirit will survive among those who suffer in other conflicts that this corruption spawns and that fill the news today, where there is seemingly no bottom to human misery and atrocities such as those suffered at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?   I hope it is more than I can imagine.

One thought on “Resilient in Kenya

  1. Thanks for sharing this with me. You seem to be going all over the world! Fall has come to
    Asheville and the leaves are turning. It’s so beautiful. Reminds of your visit last year. Please take care. Marianna

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