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Filming the Somalian Famine

To film the Somalian famine, we had to travel to a terrorist group, Al Shabaab's territory, in a plane that nearly crashed, suffer an attack during filming and work without food for almost a week.

A lavish gala dinner unfolds. This is the Cannes Media Awards with a spread of elegant tables soaked in candlelight flowing with champagne and French delicacies. The names of the winners of the Gold Award for Best Documentary drama roll over the speaker system to a burst of applause. The vice president and president of the well known charity stride out on to the stage accompanied by the Producer, (May), the Director, (me) and the Musician, Layal. The Musician’s hair appears more wild and unruly than usual, but she strikes a pose for the cameras in front of the client unaware that her volatile electric bush blocks the Client’s entire face and body. It is appears to be a hair - raising experience for the client as he tries to get back into the spotlight. All we see are his hands that attempt to grab the Dolphin Award around her tresses. The cameras, the smiles and the flashes of fame eclipse everything else. The fact that many of the people who appear in the film are no longer alive is not going to be remembered tonight here at Cannes. The fact that the film "The Road of Death," required the crew to undergo a journey to hell and back seems forgotten and buried in the long suffering sands of Somalia.

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Cut back in time to 14 months before this event. It is June 2011 and the worst famine in 60 years sweeps through Somalia leaving 12,5 million people without food and water.

Literally thousands of families are abandoning their villages and walking south to search for water and security. The well-known charity needs to deliver immediate assistance. They commission a fund-raising film that will be shown throughout the Gulf region on various TV channels. However, accessing Somalia is going to be a fierce challenge for a film crew. In 1993 the USA withdrew all American soldiers from Somalia after Black Hawk Down. Since then it has been impossible to enter Mogadishu for anyone. Years of civil war, anarchy and terror waged by Al Shabaab, a fierce Islamist militia group who are the Somalia based cell of Al Qaeda present a big threat to most visitors. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 46 journalists have lost their lives since the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991. In 2012, 16 journalists have been killed. The Charity thinks it will be safer to make the film in Somaliland, an unrecognized sovereign state to the north of Somalia.

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It is a sweltering July Dubai day and May, the producer and the director, Sofia - me, rush for the Dubai airport. Miss May, is slightly confused about the geography of their destination, “Are we going to fly to Nigeria, yes?” She questions Sos as they search for a check- in counter. I reply with exasperation. “No, Somaliland is exceedingly far from Nigeria”. Miss May looks confused. She has spent most of her professional life producing events and commercials for charities and not looking at maps or concerning herself with African politics. This will be her first trip to Africa to tackle a documentary of this nature. “But I theenk we are near Nigeria, no?” I retort: “No – This is Somaliland Miss May, Puntaland, next to Somalia!" I want to discuss the ever -pressing safety issues that Miss May is oblivious to. Miss May responds calmly “We have a letter from the client,” and according to her this piece of paper in Arabic will offer protection from a lethal terrorist organization waging jihad against the enemies of Islam. Not to mention that Al Shabaab are armed with land mines, artillery and RPG's and their specialty is to intimidate, kidnap and kill aid workers. They have been so successful in their mission that they have brought about the suspension of humanitarian works in these areas. Miss May has been unable to grasp the hostility or the dangers present in Somalia. In fact, she confesses to have not read any of the reports of this potent Islamist group, or the pirate bases in the region, or the largest consignment of arms being recently discovered in the area because she did not want to be negative about the trip. “I do not want to be scared. Negativity is a hurtful thing. We need to think positively always. Why must we theeenk this? Life is too short, no?” What Miss May seems unable to grasp is that life could be possibly even shorter if we enter and brave Somalia without an armed escort. According to a reality television program highlighting the adventures of a gung-ho adrenalin seeker by the name of “Dr Danger” the last British journalist survived only 10 minutes on a Mogadishu pavement before being shot. Miss May resorts to comfort eating as she gets nervous. She snacks on a pastry from the coffee shop in Dubai Duty free, look on, “They ransom hostages according to their weight you know.” Miss May looks terrified, “Oh no. My family cannot pay then! We must lose weight then, no?” I mu, “I was hoping we would prepare not to be kidnapped”


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There are other surprises too. As we near Berbera airport, the plane unexpectedly swings off course and lands in Djibouti. The passengers disembark and squeeze into an ageing, dilapidated Ilyushin – a military plane that will ferry them to Hergeisa. Safety issues do not seem to be of concern in this region. The plane seats snap backwards like collapsing chairs, there are no safety belts; passenger luggage piles up between the seats hovering threateningly over the passengers. The unfortunate travellers have no seats and stand in the aisles as if they are on a street tram. The temperatures are blast furnace hot and plastic fans have been dispensed to the passengers so as to ensure their own ventilation. Miss May and I are reduced to sweaty little truffle hogs sniffing out a small space between the piles of suitcases. They start taking pictures of the state of the aircraft to show cynics and disbelievers the horror of this ordeal. Within seconds, a menacing looking air official lurches up and threatens my arrest if I do not hand over the camera. The officer insists that the entire plane is complaining and crying out “Stop da white wooooman. “Stop da white woman takeen pick-chars.” He builds his case on the grounds of my cultural insensitivity and attempts to confiscate all my ipods, phones and technological equipment. He accuses us of filming a strategic site, spying and with that he bursts into a flourish of threats. Fortunately, the drama ends when the official must attend to his duties and shuts the cabin doors close. The engines choke into action. The sealed cabin doors have now raised the temperature in the plane to a smouldering and agonizing 60 degrees. The women and children start sweating profusely screaming and wailing as they feel this tarpaulin of heat descend and choke them. They cannot breathe. Old people are collapsing from heat exhaustion and passing out in the aisles. A man dashes to the cabin doors like a rugby player diving for the try line. He holds his son like a rugby ball under his arm as he charges at the door. The son has turned a weird purple colour and is now wet and screaming in agony. The official tackles the father and drags him to the ground as the plane lifts its nose off the runway. Just as the plane's nose lifts it jerks. The plane falls and hops along onto the grass stalling to a halt. A second of silence breaks into a chorus of screaming wailing over -heating passengers. Many of them have fainted and need to be carried off the plane in stretchers to the terminal.


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Back in the terminal lounge the airport authorities make an announcement to the passengers that the plane has a few minor wing problems but will be back on track. Miss May is looking fierce, hot, and enraged and refuses to enter the flying death trap again. Africa is proving to be beyond her wildest expectations. Survival instinct kicks in and she rallies the passengers together with an impassioned call to arms. “We must all refuse to be herded like Eid goats to the slaughter”. She climbs on a wobbly chair in Djibouti transit lounge and rolls around precariously. “We are not flying in that plane, you understand. No way. I am a mother with 4 children – my children need their mother. I do not want to die like this. Like an old goat” The goat idea and the mother angle touch an emotional chord with the Somalian audience and together they agree not to enter the antediluvian, flying death-trap. The authorities are not going to be inconvenienced and explain that the passengers have a choice. It is Sophie’s choice: they either fly on a plane or they spend two days in an ill-equipped airport with no air-conditioning, food, or drink. Children are crying. Some people prefer to take their chances in the Russian Ulluyshia instead of death by to dehydration in a fifth world airport. The passengers settle on a vote. The majority favours staying in Djibouti and they intend to make the airline provide accommodation.

Over a hundred screaming, wailing and crying Somalians manage to wear down the authorities and they eventually acquiesce on the matter. The detour to Djibouti provides us opportunity to make contacts in the arms industry. One of the passengers, an amicable man who appears more suited to selling abayas or selling souvenirs of pyramids, is ready to peddle and unleash his bouquet of MK 81 and MK 82’s, smart kits, bullets and guidance systems in Mogadishu. His mission is to discover vibrant new arms markets, and Somalia is certainly a bull market. Arms dealing aside he is a courteous convivial man. He rushes around the streets of Djibouti purchasing toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap for the passengers stranded without their vanity bags. He is so personable and considerate that May and I struggle to think of this man as a merchant of death. “Everyone can choose the wrong job in a search to find their true calling you know”, Miss May reflects wisely. “Next time, he will be working for this charity Miss May?” Miss May looks at him with a disturbed look on her face.


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Two hot and exhausting days later the 2 of us leave Djibouti, arrive in Somaliland and begin to negotiate our way to Hergeisa facing a brief electric storm and a bluster of fierce winds. A few hours later Miss May and I undergo bomb checks as we enter the well-fortified and heavily guarded Ambassador hotel. This is also the UN headquarters in Somaliland and the place appears cloaked in paranoia. Strict orders forbid us to leave the premises without an official government guide and government permission to exit the property. Soldiers pointing rifles block off the hotel entrance and strangely enough they seem to be pointing at the hotel and not at the street.


The next morning the two of us, the official producer and director team, head out to meet the President’s wife, Aamina Waris in the presidential palace. The First Lady, married to Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo is an embattled woman who appears hardened and ambitious. Her life seems to be beset by attackers, enemies and she has few allies she can trust. I think of the Somaliland version of Lady Macbeth.


Aamina begins the meeting explaining how utterly tired she is of being the presidents’ wife. She then recounts a long and tedious list of bomb explosions and attacks on her properties. The guests look around nervously at the building. She moans about a world beyond the treacherous walls that does not recognize her country. She complains a lot it would seem. She whines about her Arab brothers not helping. There are numerous other irritations like the UAE petro tanker that Somaliland pirates had hijacked a day earlier. She explains that the incident has now added considerable strain to her diplomatic relationship with the Arab world. Miss May tries to lighten the situation with charming small talk. Unfortunately, her idea of social niceties creates confusion as she embarks on the habits of presidents who like to steal and hide so much money. She refers to the bank accounts of Hosni Mubarak? The first lady looks downright baffled. Miss May continues like a broken record in case the President’s wife has missed any subtleties. She looks around with a worried look on her face. “Yannie, why would a president steal from the people? I mean. .. yannie .. This is not a nice thing for presidents to be stealing so much money, no?" I deliver a deft kick to Miss May's shin reminding her that the hostess is the President’s wife. May changes the subject and quickly presents a wrapped box containing the dazzling crystal replica of the Abua Dhabi mosque, a gift from a Sheikh in Abu Dhabi. May has overlooked the fact that she dragged the fragile cargo from Dubai across The Gulf of Aden to Hergeisa. She has forgotten the many rocky roads and broken planes that would have rattled the glass duplicate to splinters. She has not bothered to check whether the present resembles its former glory.


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The president’s wife excitedly opens the present to discover a mass of fragmented glass and broken minarets. Miss May presents the shattered artifact as if it provides an entertaining challenge in the form of a do- it- yourself mosque kit. She advises the First lady to buy some superglue so she can attach the missing glass to the structure. The First Lady does not view the accident lightly. In her eyes this is blasphemy and simply irreverent behavior towards a holy artifact that she reveres. He mood shifts from confusion to rage. The atmosphere curdles. She refuses to allow the filming of a Somalian story in Somaliland. She will only permit the crew to film if they shoot a local story highlighting a flash flood that happened some time ago in the region. I defen their mission by explaining graciously that the purpose of the film is to raise money for the famine requiring some form of recreation of a drought- and preferably not a flood. To recreate a flood would require Hollywood special effects. The First Lady is not interested in logistics and budget restraints, so she closes the debate and curtly terminates the meeting. Miss May leaves and eulogises in all seriousness: “What a lovely woman no? Very lovely and I think very clever?” She is right. The woman is clever enough to get rid of pestilential film crews.




In Somaliland, the wounds cut deep into the core of the country’s psyche. It is obvious that the First Lady and her brutalized people have not forgotten the terror unleashed on them by Somalia. In the Ambassador Hotel, a team of American criminal lawyers is collecting evidence against an ex-prime minister of the Barre government apparently living in the USA. The lawyers are building a case of crimes against humanity. In 1988, the Barre government led a vicious operation against the Somali National Movement (SNM) rebels shelling and bombing Hergeisa leading to the death of 60 000 Somalilanders and imprisonment of thousands of civilians. The bombing raids on Hergeisa, conducted by mercenaries recruited in Zimbabwe destroyed 70% of the city. Somali troops brutally rounded up the survivors of the bombings and shot them in the streets. They are still uncovering mass graves, although many of the dead just rotted in the streets. All day, the victims, the eyewitnesses and the survivors trail into the hotel and recount the atrocities. With this recent genocide haunting the people of Somaliland, it is understandable that they are not keen to make a fund-raising film for Somalia.


That night, troubling and haunting things focus on us in the hotel. It begins with a terrible howling of dogs in the yard accompanied by a wind that whips itself into a crazy frenzy. I wake up to close the windows that are banging like violent madmen. I then slip into the bathroom and the door slams and bangs shut behind me as if someone has smacked it. I instantly try and open it but it is sealed and held shut. I pull it and panic and start shaking the handle. At the same time the window burst open in the bathroom and the curtains lift up like veils. I close the windows and back to my war with the door. Eventually it eases and releases itself. I return to the bed exhausted and confused. As I close my eyes the lights flash on. I get up and turn the switch off and they flash on. Eventually I sleep to wake up with the feeling of being suffocated as if someone is lying on me and covering my mouth and nose. I can’t breathe. The next day I wake up. I bang on Miss May’s door and as she opens it up looking like a discombobulated hamster, I say: “You will not believe what happened to me. I got attacked my something last night” I quickly recount the haunting. Her eyes open up wide and scared. She whispers nervously. “You won’t believe this - the same thing happened to me.” Something was choking us both and the curtains and windows kept opening up in both rooms." Weird and strange. The two of us have never been through anything supernatural like this before and we have travelled the world together. This could just be evidence of our growing paranoia or perhaps the disturbed ghosts of the dead want to take revenge.


Paranormal activities aside, Somaliland is proving to be a difficult and challenging location for this film. As Miss May and I sit in the lounge of the Ambassador Hotel in Hergeisa watching TV, the story of the refugees seems to be growing daily. A CNN report covers emaciated refugees pouring into Dadaab camp in Kenya. The reporter declares this drought to be the biggest catastrophe in recent history, but Miss May ignores the tragedy unravelling in Kenya. She persists with her original plan that the film must be made in Somaliland. She does not seem too concerned that the region is relatively green and there are no starving refugees. “We are here now; it will be too difficult to go to Kenya now and of course it will cost too much money”.


The quest to find starving Somalian extras to act in the film now commences. Miss May summons the driver to take her to a secret Somalia refugee camp in Hergeisa where she hopes to find thin refugees. The camp is full of well-rounded Somalians who do not make the first round of casting. Plump extras starring in a film about starvation might not raise the necessary funds. The casting session needs to extend further afield to more remote drought-stricken areas. But sadly Miss May’s adventure in Somaliland is about to come to a swift end. On the driver’s return to the presidential buildings, government officials interrogate and punish him for taking Miss May and I to a Somalian refugee camp without their permission. An irate official from the government phones Miss May and demands that both of us leave the country immediately to Miss May’s dismay. “I have never been kicked out of a country before. Never. Now this is happened … you know I am very hurt. Very strange! What is wrong with these people? You think they don’t like us when we want to do a charity film?” There is no question that Miss May has offended her hostess, the president’s wife. The entire project has been a comedy of errors. The Somaliland officials suspect that she is some sort of strange and disruptive comic spy from Mossad. Miss May, insulted and offended by their reaction still feels reluctant to start the project in another country, but she has no choice. In terms of this “house arrest” prohibition, the two of us cannot stray beyond the confines of the Ambassador Hotel. I take to running up and down the drive to alleviate the boredom and the claustrophobia. This entails running into a posse of soldiers bristling with AK47s. Other activities include using the hotel facilities. It has a makeshift gym without any air-conditioning where I meet a young rather surprisingly well-fed Somali boy. The soft looking lad wants someone to teach him how to skip to lose weight. He explains his intentions are to one day to run for president. In his head, the idea of “running” for presidency seems to suggest athletic prowess that he lacks. Perhaps, in a skinny country like Somalia with chronic food insecurity appearing to be a well-fed person could simply being out of touch with the electorate. The future president of Somalia spends the next day entangled and strangled by ropes in an unbearably hot gym.


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It takes two days to get a flight out of Hergeisa. Miss May returns to Dubai and I now fly to Nairobi Kenya to meet the crew. They have contacted a production co-coordinator who is a miracle worker, Frank the Fixer, in Nairobi lives and breathes his mantra “It is possible,” Against all odds he manages to source permits into the camp. The crew stocks up with food, tents and gas and begin the haul to Dadaab camp. The journey is rough on creviced-scarred roads. The producer, Levitt is in charge and organizes army protection in Garissa, the last outpost before the Somali border. The crew must drive the next two hours to Dadaab with a UN convoy so as to ensure protected against Al Shabaab attacks. The Convoy does not wait for the film crew and the team run the gauntlet accompanied by two Kenyan soldiers. They depart before sunrise when there is a greater chance that Al Shabaab will be inactive. Al Shabaab has now barred international aid agencies from delivering assistance to the regions under its control. In fact, Al-Shabaab deny that the famine is taking place and dispute United Nations contention that tens of thousands of Somalis mostly children have died because of it. There are a few tense moments when a food truck grinds to a halt in front of the film trucks and the crew think they are being ambushed. The army orders the drivers to accelerate and not stop whatever the situation. Our team arrives safely to discover a chaotic famine village choked and blocked with massive food trucks, an airport with jets transporting UN workers to the camp, CNN trucks and media groups buzzing around the dusty streets and a few hitchhikers offering their services. There are 1,300 refugees a day pouring into the camp and 400 000 displaced in the three camps. The UN camp cannot accommodate more people and the crew has no choice, but to stay in a Somalia’s woman’s shelter with no running water, no toilets, no electricity and lots of hungry insects.


The first day of shooting takes the crew about 5 kilometres from the UN base into a camp. The Somalia guide offers them a choice of either filming dying babies or dying mothers. They walk into the tent and a woman is gasping in the corner. Her angular face is grey. A white crust rims her mouth and her dull, glazed eyes stare at an unknown horizon. She coughs and splutters and her eyes seal up. They have trespassed into a dying woman’s tent and prepare to shove a camera in her face. The camera tracks into her hand, her eye and her mouth. It feels pornographic, sordid, and wrong to be here. The crew stops filming, and they attempt to move the woman to a clinic, but soon discover that it is forbidden to ferry refugees around the camp. There is little chance that this poor woman will survive the night. The crew could be charged with child trafficking will be if they move the listless child with its half-closed eyes and leathery grey skin. The crew departs with heavy hearts, to leave the people to die alone.

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In another tent, a fragile husk of woman, Fahima gives us an interview explaining how her entire family had passed away on the notorious “Road of Death”. This is the gruelling and dangerous road walked by tens and thousands of women and children in their desperate hope to find food and water in a refugee camp. Fahima tells the harrowing story of living through decades of civil war followed by two consecutive seasons of failed rains. She describes how she watched her livestock and crops die. In a dull whisper, she explains how she had to weigh up the odds and take a chance on the road to death. Fahima had to walk more than 130 kilometres without food or water carrying her children. One by one they collapsed in the dust, dehydrated and sick from hunger later to die in her arms. She left their dead bodies on the side of the road for the hyenas to scavenge, too exhausted to dig them proper graves in the hard sand. She tells her story of heartbreak with no emotion. Fahima is dead inside, her heart cut out and buried in the sands of Somalia. She explains that some women leave their children alive and crying on the sides of the road, unable to carry them further. She was lucky she never had to do this. She says, what could I do: “Allah wanted them to die, so they died.”

An entire family, like thousands more was lost on the road of death.

Outside the tents of Dadaab, there are convoys of pristine UN land rovers drifting through the desert. They ferry corporate looking businessmen in Thomas Pink shirts and manicure elegant women adorned in Saks accessories with manicured nails that tap out emails. Behind them and around them are security vehicles. No doubt, these heavily guarded people look supremely influential in the world of famines. It is also obvious that they have good washing and ironing services in their camp. In stark contrast, we appear to be a team of motley famine groupies; rough and dirty with legs gouged by insect bites chasing the light and the dying for photo opportunities.


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That afternoon things take a turn for the worse when the crew film in the camps. The Turkish camera assistant Kazim sets up a small camera some distance away from the main crew when an elderly Somalia man brandishes a knife and screams at Kazim. The hostile old codger declares that Kazim, mocks the customs of Islam pointing at his untamed bush of long hair, an earring, and a hippie beard. He whips up the crowd to a frenzy and a zealot rush at Kazim and hits him with a stick. Kazim starts sprinting towards the crew in desperate fear that he will be swallowed into the crowd or stabbed in the back. The soldiers try and control the restless crowd.


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As we abandon the crowd they see two starving children fighting over food in a dust bowl. Nearby perched on an acacia tree the Marabou storks wait for easy pickings and for a scavenging opportunity. The roads in Dadaab are strewn with carcasses and bones as dead cows, goats and camels litter the paths. The small flickers of life are clearly framed by death.


As we return to the camp the angry Kenyan military team hired to protect us inform us that they are abandoning us and the crew must now make their own way back to Nairobi and find their own vehicles and find a way to fight off Al Shabaab. The problem is that Miss May, the producer who has returned to Dubai, has faced banking issues and the funds to the Kenyans have not been received and they are seriously upset. Miss May claims there is a technical issue with the bank transfer. “You know these banks?” She croons. The crew phones her up and tells her that they will be killed if the army abandons them, and this means she has to furnish the transfer immediately. She manages to sweet talk the Kenyan military guards to remain with the crew and promises to sort out the misunderstanding. After another night trying to clean ourselves in a few drops of dirty water in a makeshift shower and eating something horrible and fatty in a dusty stew we are eaten through the night preyed on by spiders and mosquitoes. The next day we film in a camp called Death. Hundreds of Somalians are drifting into the camp from the north hoping to receive water and food and be resuscitated by the aid agencies and the doctors. The dead are wheeled through the camp and buried in makeshift graveyards that are defended against hyenas by ramparts of thorny branches and twigs. A woman gives birth and lies dying in her tent in a pool of blood but her imminent this death is ignored by the other refugees drowning in their own tide of pain and despair. The Somalians don’t have the energy or the resources to help her anymore – The crew and I take a mattress out of the truck and take the bleeding woman and her tiny infant to the hospital a few miles away. As the car departs starving children hang on to the vehicle screaming “I am hungry help me. I am hungry” Beside them small children clutch on to the wheels and the door handle with desperate hollow saucer eyes and sunken cheeks. They fall off the car and disappear in the dust. Everyone just looks forward and not back. It hurts too much to look back.


That morning the hungry crew pack up their belongings and load the vehicles and they feel relieved. It is time to get back and savour a coffee and stand in a shower with clean water and sit on a toilet and not a stinking long drop. I hand over provisions that have not been used by the crew, including my sheets and pillows to the landlady as a gift. The bitter woman throws them down into the sand and spits at her, “I will burn your clothes and these sheets when you leave. You are dirty in your heart. I pray to God that you never come back.” On that unhappy note, the crew negotiates their way back to Nairobi.


Two weeks later, the film is edited and broadcast raising 50 million US dollars in the Gulf region. Food, medicine, resources, and supplements are dispatched to Somalia.


4 Months later the film is awarded 2 Gold World Medals for Direction, one Gold World Medal for societal and social issues and a World Bronze Medal in the documentary category medal for Best Film in the corporate. Miss May stands on the red carpet in the lights with a camera crew rolling and an audience applauding. She blinks into the flashing cameras. The interviewer asks her a question. “What was it like shooting in the famine in Somalia, you were so brave going into that area and how did you feel at the time?


“It was absolutely wonderful” she smiles and turns dizzyingly to the camera, eyes and teeth flashing. “All I can say is it was a wonderful, wonderful and amazing experience really”: She gushes enthusiastically in a leopard print and her eyes dance with pride: “We were so lucky to go and thanks to the charity for sending us. I am so happy to have been there at that time.”


I look at Miss May with bewilderment as if to say: Dadaab? We did not have a wonderful time. Don't you remember. We had some close shaves with death.”


Miss May flashes a smile at me and back at the camera: “ We don't need to tell the world this. Let’s be private about our dirty washing. Now smile for the cameras – yannie!”




(Names have been changed)