You don’t fly direct to Mogadishu. Not if you’re an American. There are two ways to go, and one of them is via Dubai. I hate Dubai – it’s Disneyland with camels – so I opted for the other route, stopping over in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
It’s an interesting place, Nairobi. The city began life in the 1890s as a base camp for railroad workers. The railroad spurred development that resulted in the camp becoming a British colonial administrative center in 1907. Since Kenya achieved independence in 1963, Nairobi has become one of the biggest cities in Africa and hub for safari tourism on account of its Westernized, English-speaking populace and the proximity of major national parks. You can’t walk down the street without a dozen safari agents grabbing your arm, throwing open their wallets to show you their business cards and promising the best views of the best animals for a new low price: “We can hop in my van right now!”
But Nairobi is changing. Conflict in neighboring Somalia and in Sudan further west have seen a huge influx of refugees. Across Kenya there are dozens of U.N.-run refugee camps, including several each housing hundreds of thousands of people. Despite a fair amount of international assistance – the U.S. alone has spirited away tens of thousands of minority Somali Bantu refugees in recent years – the camps are only growing, their wards spilling over into the cities. Beside those safari agents on Nairobi’s muddy streets are thousands of huddled refugees: hungry, jobless, hopeless.
I’m traveling with another journalist. We were walking down Moi Avenue today looking to buy a towel. A thin, bent man wearing a wrinkled blue suit jacket sidled up behind us (the only white people around) and launched into a rapid-fire narrative, in perfect English, describing his flight from Darfur. “You know who the Janjaweed are?” he asked. When I said that I did, he seemed surprised. “My name is Joseph. You are my brother,” he said. And as his brother, could I help him buy some rice to feed his starving family?
“I’m on my way to Somalia to tell stories,” I said. “That is my way of helping. I’m sorry, but I cannot give you any money.”
His bloodshot eyes darkened. He said he knew I was lying – if I was a journalist then I must be wealthy – and bad things come to liars. “You are white. This is not your country. You come to Africa, but you may never leave.”
“We know it’s dangerous,” I said. “We have to go now. Good luck.”
“I don’t need your luck,” Joseph said.
And I thought, Now who’s the liar?