– In a windy desert camp, two women vigorously insult each other over who will be the first to fill their plastic can with water. Either side of a standpipe, they hurl epithets. For much of their lives, the women have been accustomed to travelling several kilometres for the precious substance and it is a resource worth battling over. Arguments such as this can quickly evolve into blood feuds involving entire families.
Local leader Bashir Abdi Kassim, 38, arrives on the scene with community security officers before the argument comes to blows. He takes the two Somali refugees aside and discusses the problem. The women don’t yet understand that there is more than enough water for everyone at the new extension at Ifo, part of the sprawling Dadaab refugee complex in north-east Kenya.
Kassim puts forward a solution that has the elegance of being both obvious and face-saving. Anyone who wants water must place his or her jerrycan in a line. Queue-jumping is not tolerated. “We’ve taken enough lessons about conflict and tribal clashes in Somalia to know that no arguments are good,” says Kassim, who arrived in Dadaab more than a month ago from Gedo region in southern Somalia. “Here we need to work together as a block.”
The dispute is part of Ifo Extension’s social evolution. A delicate lattice of community has begun to take hold among the thousands of refugees who inhabit the white tents – what was once a disparate assembly of refugees is slowly becoming a cohesive group with a shared sense of responsibility and obligation. Families are coming to understand that they need not be as preoccupied with the difficulties of procuring basic necessities as they were when they inhabited more dangerous areas on the outskirts of Ifo.
“The provision of services brings people together and helps to define community,” say Moulid Hirsi, a field associate for UNHCR who has worked in Dadaab for more than 19 years. “It becomes the focal point for common interests and responsibility. You eliminate the ‘I’ and replace it with the ‘we’.”
The sense of neighbourhood is fragile, as would be expected among a group of strangers whose arrival reflects the desperation attendant with drought and conflict. An emergency still whirls around them with continued concerns about disease, security and the provision of basic amenities.
But since the beginning of June, when continued fighting and the worst drought in 60 years triggered the latest crisis in Somalia, Ifo Extension has evolved from a barren landscape to a growing town of 7,300 tents and nearly 30,600 individuals. The goal to provide shelter and services for 90,000 refugees by year’s end remains a UNHCR priority.
Community members are not waiting for the completion of the project to build their own institutions. Some 30 metres from the water point, community members have started their own makeshift school, even as UNHCR and partners lay the groundwork for a tent school nearby.
Osman Aden, 11, and Ali Nunow, 14, are among the students practising how to write extracts of the Koran. “We came together as a group and decided that we would begin this school,” says 32-year-old Ahmed Ali, who teaches the youngsters. “We’ve not been here long but we . . . want to give our children an education.”
Signs of commerce have also begun to appear. Farhan Noor Shringe, 26, started his first business last month next to his tent. Sugar and vegetables are the most popular items, but he also vends flashlights, tea, spaghetti, tomatoes and cigarettes. The profit margin is less than one US dollar a day, but the venture gives Shringe a sense of hope. “I may be a refugee, but I want to be able to survive on my own,” he says. “As this community grows, my business will develop bit by bit.”
In another sector of Ifo Extension, school is in session. About 100 youngsters share desks in a cavernous classroom where, for the first time, they learn to count in English. Teacher and students engage in an eager call and response. For the vast majority in the class, it is the first time they have had contact with an education that meets Kenyan standards – superior to what they are used to.
“The school brings the community together,” says Headmaster Mohamed Abdulahi Bashir. “There are parent meetings, exchanges of ideas.” As classes end, along the school perimeters, a group of 50 teenagers assemble for a discreet mission. “We normally played football when we lived on the outskirts,” says 18-year-old Ali Magaley. “But then our ball broke.”
Youth officer Tomoya Soejima promises the group that in their new home in Ifo Extension football will definitely be on the agenda. The youths quickly provide a tentative list of players and the next day some 20 teenagers arrive. As the game continues, children arrive almost out of nowhere and soon there are four teams playing into the late afternoon – shirts versus skins.
“Football is a unifier,” says Tomoya. “It is an engine for conversation, friendship and empowerment. When they begin to play there is a shyness. But after an hour, you can see the smiles and camaraderie start to grow. It’s like normal life again.”
By Greg Beals in Ifo Extension, Kenya