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The Pictures I Saved In My Head
I am standing in front of the borehole well, waiting for the clicking sound of my camera. But there is no sound. The CARE engineer has just explained how ground water is pumped up and then distributed to water stations. We are wandering around Dagahaley, one of the three refugee camps in Dadaab. A photographer working for a newspaper is gathering images of how a refugee camp works. But now as we stand at the borehole I feel yesterday”s long hours creeping up on me: my camera battery has obviously run out, plus I forgot my pencil and notebook on the desk. But there are solutions to these minor problems: The photographer lends me a pen and I use the back of my permission papers for the camp to take notes. In fact, I am starting to like my day without a camera.
The frenzied activity of taking photos, writing stories and organizing your way around Dadaab helps you tune out some of the misery and extent of human suffering. But it also makes you focus on only one part of the story. For the past two weeks in Dadaab, I spent most of my days in the camps, documenting the work of CARE, accompanying journalists or interviewing colleagues. My head is still buzzing with all the information and impressions. Like any humanitarian crisis, Dadaab is fast-paced and loud.
But now, sitting down in the sand near a water tap stand, I am quietly watching the hustle and bustle going on around me. I close my eyes as the wind blows fine-grained sand my way. I gaze around in all directions. The photographer stands on top of a water tank to get a better angle. None of the women or children fetching water pay much attention to us -- water is much more important than the strange sight of a visiting foreigner. I curiously watch two young women leaving with their jerry cans full of water. But they don”t carry them on their heads; instead, they roll them across the sand. This really calls for a picture: Two women in long veils and torn sandals kicking their jerry cans full of water through the desert. But with my camera batteries empty, my eye batteries seem to be more charged than ever.
After a while I move to the side of a latrine. It”s just four walls of corrugated iron, but at least it guarantees some privacy. Standing in the shade I watch a man with his donkey cart. Bit by bit women lift their jerry cans onto the cart, tightening them with ropes and rags. Getting places here in Dadaab takes time. The three camps cover some 56 square kilometers. Owning a donkey cart is a pretty good business. It is so hot that everything here seems to happen in slow motion. Finally the cart starts to move. I wonder how much the women have to pay for their transportation and whether they will still have enough money left to buy food for their children. While I sit in the sand, their skinny legs are at eye level. I can count the children wearing shoes on the fingers of one hand.
Humanitarian aid means reaching as many people as possible with at least minimum needs, given limited resources. In Dadaab, CARE and other agencies provide about 500 grams of food and about 12 litres of water per person and day, some basic medical assistance, some counselling. Every one of these 414,000 refugees is a unique person with a particular history, hopes and sorrows – but the scale of this emergency is so vast, we can”t possibly meet all those individual, specific needs. What we can do is slow things down for a while and pay attention. Observe. Understand. And adapt our programs to what we see. For example, CARE might soon pay the owners of the donkey carts so that weak and poor women don”t have to spend the rest of their money for transportation of water and food.
It is quick and easy to take a picture, upload it to your computer and then store it somewhere in your archives. But the pictures I saved in my head today will linger on for some time before I will be able to store them anywhere.