MA Student Visits Refugee Camp in Kenya

Ann Steensland

Chief of Staff, Alliance to End Hunger

M.A. candidate, World History, George Mason University

I recently spent two days in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp located on the edge of the desert in northeast Kenya. More than 430,000 people, mostly Somalis, have fled the famine and civil unrest that have put 12 million people in the Horn of Africa in danger of starvation. The news reports coming out of Dadaab are deeply troubling; but nothing prepares you for the number of refugees, the sheer size of the camp, or the scope of the logistical operation that is providing people with food, water, shelter, and medical care. [Attached is a photo essay of my visit to Dadaab.]

At the Alliance to End Hunger, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization where I am chief of staff, we talk about hunger as a “political condition.” Recently, the World Bank made a similar comment when they called the situation in the Horn a “man-made” famine. “Droughts have occurred over and again,” they said, “but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine." (Reuters, 8/16/2011) The not-so-subtle condemnation behind these words is that governments who allow their people to go hungry are suffering from a kind of moral illness. The presence of hunger is a symptom of an unhealthy political system, and famine, the most extreme form of hunger, indicates a disease-ridden, morally corrupt body politic.

There is a long history of equating hunger and poverty with illness. For my MA thesis, entitled “Pathologizing the Bywoner”, I am examining how poverty among white South Africans was pathologized in a landmark 1932 study called the Carnegie Commission of Investigation of the Poor White Problem. The Carnegie Commission concluded that poor whites were “maladjusted to modernity,” which prevented them from attaining a racially appropriate standard living for white South Africans. Many of the Commission’s recommendations for curing and preventing the “social illness” of white poverty were later reflected in the structure of apartheid.

As someone who thinks about hunger and poverty, in its past and present contexts, I am struck by the durability of the sentiments in these pathologies. When I was in Dadaab, I heard several international development officials say that the refugees, who are predominately pastoralists, live an “outmoded way of life” that is “not sustainable in the modern world.” Sentiments like this do a disservice to the refugees whose way of life demands a level of fortitude and resourcefulness, even in good years, which would put most people in the “modern world” to shame.

I came away from my visit to Dadaab with an enormous respect for the refugees. Before my trip to Kenya, I heard a reporter say that Dadaab is a place where people go to die. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people I met, who had spent six weeks walking through a desert begging for food and water to survive, came to Dadaab for one simple reason: they want to live.