The heartland of that exodus is the vast refugee camp complex centered around Dadaab town in Kenya’s North Eastern Province—at 450,000 people and growing at the rate of over 1,000 people a day, the camp is Kenya’s third largest city, and the biggest refugee camp in the world. But many thousands of Somalis choose not to go to the camp and head straight to Nairobi to the neighborhood of Eastleigh, which Kenyans have nicknamed ‘Little Mogadishu.’ That’s where I was headed as I walked to the corner to catch a matatu, a dirt cheap minivan so crowded I had to hang out the doors. Eastleigh, Dadaab—over the past two years, they’ve been cardinal points on the compass of what K’naan, a Somali rapper, calls ‘a violent prone, poor people zone.’
But that’s only one part of the story: as Andy Needham, a deeply informed, canny, and humane Irish Aid press officer working with the UN, put it: ‘Journalists come to the camps because the story’s right in front of them. It makes for good photographs like, you can take one look and see the problems for yourself. But refugees in the city—and let’s be clear here, there are thousands of them, most of them undocumented, hard to trace, hard to reach out to—that’s a story that goes almost untold.’ And I could see what Andy meant: in Nairobi, there were no camps, no food distribution centers, and so the refugees disappeared into the city—for if you went to Nairobi rather than Dadaab, you had to make it on your own. There wasn’t a lot of obvious drama that would appeal to Western media, no ‘suffering chic’ to spice up your story.