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How I was raised by a humble Mother in Dadaab Refugee Camp.

By Dahir Abdullahi

Raising a child is a tough job at the best of time. For poor but determined mothers, the situation is even more difficult because they carry the double burden of financing and caring for their children all by themselves. My Mother Amina Sugow Nuriye was never different. Not only do my mother had the nightmare to cope with the stresses of raising children alone, but  in many cases  she went for an extra mile to provide for us.

Among other 8 siblings, I was born in the Somalia-Kenya border, in the outskirt of a small village called Amuma in todays’s Garissa county, 2 years before the civil war engulfed my ancestral home.  At the time, our family was pastoralist keeping a fair herd of cattle. My father, a strong and no-nonsense man, one that you can hardly find in thousands of men was a Duksi teacher who was so loving, caring but hardly excuses you for the slightest mistakes on earth. Forgive me Dad-I had to say this. I never thought your wise stances will shaped me couple of years later. But Dad, today’s piece is for Mom, hold on.

When the civil war broke out in Somalia sometimes in 1991, a man-made catastrophe that would still hold back Somalia three decades later, there was also natural disaster on our side of the border too. A drought was ravaging most part of northern Kenya decimating the only source of livelihood many of us knew. While many Somali-Kenyans in northern Kenya will argue that Somali refugees brought more harm than good- believe me they did not only came the right hour but a saviors too.

Since our animals perished in the drought and thus subsequent widespread of food shortages and hunger, My mother made the decision to flee to Liboi, a border point where Somalis displaced by war were registered as refugees leaving behind our dad who was unwilling to made the journey. Unlike other parts of Kenya, Northern Kenya is known to receive donations such as relief food from President Moi’s government when large scale death of human beings and livestock is reported. Not much has changed even today.

I was only 3 years old and my younger sister was about 8 months old. The journey was tiresome and full of horror, exacerbated by ugly images of exhausted families who gave up the battle to reach ‘canaan’ and even bodies of injured people and those still bleeding without much help. Fortunately, I no longer keep these bad memories.

We joined other families fleeing from the drought to the long arduous journey by foot. I remember my sister resting at the back of my mother in the entire journey envying her comfort. I patiently waited that time when I will swap with my sister but she was another ‘Mugabe’. She will sometime cry when I playfully want to reach her and give her a kiss. My mother told me that I was walking most of the journey and could keep the long strides of bunch of Duksi boys who were mostly between 5 and 10 years old.

I remember families fleeing using donkey’s  back to carry children and belongings. At one point I asked my mother to ask for a lift since I was tired but her request was declined. I could see children some older than me protruding their heads from a structured sort of cube placed and tightened around the donkey back in vernacular known as ‘Guro’.

Into the second day of the journey, we run short of food. I remember my mother carrying some few kg of maize flour and she would make some porridge from it. The porridge had no milk or sugar in it- it was completely tasteless.May be  we were cheating hunger and our stomach too. Since my sister was breastfeeding, I guess my mother was not able to produce milk for her forcing my sister to cry all time. I was wondering why she was crying and yet she didn’t set her foot on the ground. I was praying that she is left behind so that I take her position. It never happened.

On the third day of the journey, absolutely there was no food. Other families fleeing with us had equally had the same shortage.We fed on wild fruits and tree leaves  locally known as Garas and Dolool respectively. We were avoiding paths and roads throughout the journey for fear of attack from our brotherly tribe Hawiye which has taken over significant parts of Lower Jubba region, Somalia. We have been trekking through thick bushes and thorn-covered vegetation. My feet had scratches and my feet were swollen. This entire struggle, I didn’t understand why we left our father and why my mother should take me through this unforgiving journey.

The journey took us three days and we finally reached Liboi where refugee’s registration was ongoing. There was no much scrutiny or checks on your background. As long as you speak Somali language and you said to have fled from Somalia, you get registered. We registered with UNHCR as refugees – and to many teenage mothers like my Mom, been registered as a refugee was a beacon of hope. Somali-Kenyans who sought the refugee status lied about their origin and would give false testimony of their journey.

I remember my mother saying that she fled from Kismayu city then followed by villages in sequence and proximity to Kismayu city. Many of us never crossed to Somalia but ended up pretending to be displaced by the civil war so that we get registered and enjoy the free rations given to our brothers who decided to swap their nationhood over stateless ship.

We were issued with family size-3 ration card which entitled us to food and shelter. This card was like your title deed and you would wrap in several cloths to keep it warm away from the wind and any sight and tie to your heart when sleeping. I wonder when I see bottles or other items written ‘keep away from children’ in fact for children the ration card was no-gone zone and it was sacred piece. UNHCR forgot to put that label so that we keep distance.

At the registration, people were coming in large masses but this time almost all of them were genuine refugees who you could easily tell, some of them empty-handed, miserable and crestfallen. Some of them had gun shots, visible shrapnel on their bodies and others blood stains bandages. Three weeks later, we were relocated to Hagadera refugee camp Block-D2 which is part of the larger Dadaab refugee camp. In the camp, there was all types of food. I still wonder how rich the donors were those days.

In the camp, five star hotel food was provided to the refugee standards and particularly my mother who was not a refugee but the European Union (EU) will today classify her as ‘economic migrant’. We were given canned Meat and Beans, Rice, Spaghetti, Wheat flour, Oil, Sugar, and Dates etc.

Most of the refugees were from countryside, pastoralist and farmers and very few from urban areas. The biggest challenges was how to prepare some of these food particularly Anjeera a flat bread that looks like a thin pancake. Its fermented just overnight and is made of wheat flour and a spoon or so of maize flour and water. Most of the refugees were first confused of all this varieties of food and where to start even cooking. I mean which mixtures go together and which one is prepared standalone.

About hundreds if not thousands of us died many of them children after anjeera cooking went wrong. Instead of using pan and oil to prepare the anjeera, most families including my mother prepared the anjeera using cooking pot and something like a thick porridge formed vernacular known as ‘Soor’. I and my sister now 1 year old went ahead and fed on this animal- I don’t think it was food. My sister withdrew after 2 touches but I kept hammering until it was getting sticky around my mouth. My sister started vomiting and was unconscious. I also started feeling stomach ache and both of us were rushed to the hospital. I was lucky enough to have survived together with my sister. Many other children in their hundreds died because of this lethal procedure of making this traditional food.

Dahir Abdullahi is a young Dadaab-ian from Bula DaiDai neighborhood and a Columnist with NEP Journal. He is a Communications Specialist with an International NGO based in Somalia. You can reach him on email or follow him on twitter @RacepDahir.

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