Situated hundreds of miles from any other settlement, deep within the inhospitable desert of northern Kenya where only thorn bushes grow, Dadaab is a city like no other. Its buildings are made from mud, sticks or plastic, its entire economy is grey, and its citizens survive on rations and luck. Over the course of four years, Ben Rawlence became a first-hand witness to a strange and desperate limbo-land, getting to know many of those who have come there seeking sanctuary. Among them are Guled, a former child soldier who lives for football; Nisho, who scrapes an existence by pushing a wheelbarrow and dreaming of riches; Tawane, the indomitable youth leader; and schoolgirl Kheyro, whose future hangs upon her education.
In City of Thorns, Rawlence interweaves the stories of nine individuals to show what life is like in the camp and to sketch the wider political forces that keep the refugees trapped there. Rawlence combines intimate storytelling with broad socio-political investigative journalism, doing for Dadaab what Katherinee Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers did for the Mumbai slums. Lucid, vivid and illuminating, City of Thorns is an urgent human story with deep international repercussions, brought to life through the people who call Dadaab home.
In this compelling debut, Rawlence sets out to gather the news from this ghost town in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ignoring the advice of locals, reporters, and mercenaries, he travels by foot, motorbike, and canoe, taking his time and meeting the people who are rebuilding their homes with hope, faith, and nervous instinct. We meet Benjamin, the kindly father of the most terrifying Mai Mai warlord; Leya, who happily gives up a good job in Zambia to return to her razed town; Colonel Ibrahim, a guerrilla turned army officer; the Lebanese cousins Mohammed and Mohammed, who oversee the remains of Manono’s great mine; the priest Jean-Baptiste, who explains the conjoined prices of beer and normality; and the talk-show host Mama Christine, who dispenses counsel and courage in equal measure.
From the “blood cheese” of Goma to the decaying city of Manono, Rawlence shares the real story of Congo during and after the war, and finds not just a lost city but the seeds of a peaceful future.