Time for a Change


It’s almost five years since I arrived to live and work in Kenya. Gradually the feelings of excitement and adventure have given way to a sense of deja vu as the same stories come around again and again. Every year there are warnings of famine in Ethiopia. Every two years there is drought in north-eastern Kenya. And Somalia is on a constant slide into the abyss. Eventually the wide-eyed reporter becomes tired and jaded. (I had always been cynical, but that’s a different story.) It’s a gradual process that takes place unnoticed over years.

Then something comes along to make you realise it is hampering your ability to do the job. That moment came for me last week, during a trip to Dadaab – the world’s largest refugee camp, where 280,000 Somalis live. As I interviewed new arrivals it dawned on me that nothing much had changed since my previous visit three years ealier. Refugees were still flooding across the border. Islamists were battling for control of Mogadishu. And the world had little idea what to do, beyond sending arms and ammunition to anyone killing Islamists.

I filed my copy and came home. A couple of days later I looked up what I had written on that earlier visit. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast. What I found was a reporter running out of ideas. 

This is what I wrote in August 2006… 

They are arriving in droves, on foot, by donkey, or in matatus – the crowded minibuses that crisscross Somalia’s border with Kenya. Some 18,000 refugees have left their homes in Somalia this year for Dadaab’s sprawling city of sticks.

And this is my June 2009 version… 

They are coming in ones and twos, families and friends, on donkeys and in trucks, dressed in the clothes they were wearing when the mortars landed or the battlewagons buzzed through the streets outside their homes. Thousands of Somalis in search of safety are arriving at an overcrowded aid camp over the border with Kenya in search of safety. 

The story has changed little, sure. Only the numbers are any different – the camp has doubled in size during those three years. But it is time to move on when it seems as if you are trying to fit what lays before your eyes into some preconceived pigeon holes. I had used similar imagery to fashion intros that were just too alike. So at the end of this month I’m packing up my books and pictures and heading back to the UK to freshen my tired eyes and find a new place in the world.

Somalia will remain a mess and Kenyan nomads will keep losing their cattle every couple of years, but it is time for someone else to tell their stories.