Dadaab: the road to relief
Monday, August 15, 2011
by Barb Summers
“You come with good luck.”
“Oh, really?” I answered, trying not to smack my head on the vehicle window as we bunny-hop over a sand dune on the road. We are making the long journey from Nairobi, Kenya, into Dadaab, where ACT members Presbyterian World Service and Development and the Lutheran World Service support work at the world’s largest refugee camp.
I was jammed into a Land Cruiser along with eight Kenyan LWF staff. I’d been in the vehicle for seven hours at this point and hadn’t felt circulation below the waist in the last two. Our legs were intertwined like spaghetti and we jostled against the luggage piled up nearly to the ceiling. I didn’t yet know there was another four hours still to go. Luck wasn’t the first thing that came to mind.
But emergency relief officer Soraya Musau glanced over my shoulder and gestured to the clouds. “It looks like it might rain. See, you come with good luck.”
Yes, rain. In this rugged, barren Kenyan landscape, rain did indeed seem like something very good and very much needed. We were, after all, headed to the Kenyan refugee camp where Somalis flock by the thousands every day, hoping to escape chronic drought.
After we left the town of Garissa, I was part of a 27-vehicle United Nations convoy with armed escort heading to the camps. Our long train of white Land Cruisers, racing over the sandy landscape like it was the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, must have appeared like something out of a science fiction novel. The casual chitchat in the vehicle quieted down with the arrival of the armed escort and the change in road conditions. Everyone listened intently to the CB radio.
The landscape seemed unforgiving and harsh - dry, red sand as far as the eye can see, covered by a thin dabbling of leafless shrubs, making it possible for bandits to hide - hence the need for security. Images of Robin Hood immediately came to mind as my fellow passengers told tales of robbery and attack. Mind you, I highly doubt Robin Hood rode a camel. And we weren’t carrying loads of gold coins and monetary treasure. Instead, our vehicles were filled to overflowing with emergency relief supplies, including food, medical items and tents. Jeremy, a planning officer, cradled a big box of surveying equipment on his lap like it was a child. With the ever-increasing flow of refugees into the camps, he was working on plans for a new camp that could accommodate more people.
Car 771 came over the radio directing the convoy to stop as a box of potatoes had fallen off the roof. The long procession immediately halted as the potatoes were gathered. The rest of us took the opportunity to pile out and quickly stretch our legs. Men darted off behind bushes to “kill the snake” as the locals said to each other with snickers.
I took the opportunity to grab a few photos of our convoy and the landscape. As I stood in the middle of the road, looking ahead toward Dadaab and trying to grasp the reality of what I was approaching, it occurred to me that there actually was another way into the camp. I didn’t need to be jostled like a scrambled egg in the back of the land cruiser, squashed in next to relief workers. I could have taken the journey that tens of thousands have already taken and who knows how many more will take.
It is a journey not of 11 hours, but 22 days by foot, carrying children and assisting the elderly, leaving everything behind, fleeing famine and drought with the desperate hope of finding the strength to make it to a place called Dadaab — a place where, God willing, there would be food, water, medicine - and the caring, dedicated staff in the vehicles I was travelling in.
On the road to Dadaab, I realised I really did come with good luck.
Barb Summers works for Presbyterian World Service & Development.
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