Dadaab, Kenya Architecting the Border: the Hut and the Frontier at Work


Many contemporary African refugee camps are located in remote, undeveloped areas of host countries. States providing asylum are often unwilling to integrate refugees into the economy or social structure, and maintain these outposts as parallel systems. The grounds that they inhabit often represent edge conditions, borderlands between competing entities and interests. The idea that they represent forms of extraterritoriality, while perhaps useful in theory, can be misleading in reality. While certain refugee contexts must be understood precisely as fracturing the integrity of the nation-state, either as sites that pose forms of refusal or that exist in a permanent state of emergency, others present quite different conditions, producing precarity in enclosed settings where multiple nations and multilateral agencies may convene and assert a muscular, asymmetrical power.

In such landscapes, architecture and territory perform work beyond that ascribed in less fraught contexts, arguably less as a function of contemporary politics than the residue of history: a modern ramification of colonial territorial pasts. The example of Dadaab, Kenya, a transitional settlement complex frequently cited in the popular press as well as in humanitarian grey literature as “the world’s largest refugee camp,” offers a case in point. The precarious ephemerality of Dadaab’s constructed environment, represented in a pastoral borderland architecture of temporary dwellings, may be understood as seeded in a long colonial history, in which modernity was achieved through settlement, nomadism, and the construction of a reality and imaginary of each. This essay examines these constructions through the architecture of the “hut” and the “frontier.” To think this further, to read and interpret the precarious ephemerality of this site, and perhaps to understand the complexity of this instability as a figuration of something else, requires an examination of architecture and territory in the past, of the emergency urbanism of Dadaab in history.

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Situation maps of Dadaab in general, and the Ifo refugee camp in particular. / Map by Léopold Lambert on background images from Google Earth (2017)

Precarious Ephemerality: Dadaab in Space and Time ///

In 1991, over one and a half million Somalis fled persecution during the start of a civil war, with a compounding drought and famine eventually sending four hundred thousand asylum seekers to Kenya by boat from the Mombasa or Kismayo seaports, or on foot through the western border into Kenya’s Garissa district. The Kenyan government responded with an invitation to host the refugees, however, it did so through the establishment of encampments. This encampment apparatus produced shelter through confinement. As such, and as it operated with major assistance from the United Nations and the nongovernmental organization CARE, it may be understood within a wider discourse stemming from the writings of scholars as well as aid practitioners, which sees the humanitarian regime as part of a neocolonial form of governance. In part, it suggests that, in the midst of political chaos and the displacement of the social contract, emergency contexts produce new subjects; humanitarian agencies and organizations provide a form of rule.

For the refugees who had traveled by foot and had been temporarily housed at a Kenyan border reception station in May of 1991, a site for a transitional settlement was provided just north of Dadaab, a village of five thousand on the unpaved highway between Mogadishu and Nairobi. The construction of Ifo camp, for thirty thousand inhabitants, began there in October of that year. The field office and refugee camp at Ifo would transform radically in the following decades, acting either to protect or reject, to include or exclude, registered refugees, asylum seekers, and economic and climate migrants from across East Africa, as it expanded by the time of its twenty-fifth year into a complex housing approximately one half million people within five settlements.

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Fortified entrance to Dadaab humanitarian compound. / Photograph by Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi (2011)

Restrictions on movement, employment, and education, as well as strict curfews and brutal policing interned these refugees in the designated settlements, dividing the territory of the camps politically, socially, and economically from the space of the host nation, and hastening its dependence upon aid commodities, stocks, and services administered through the United Nations system or through its contracts with several international and national nongovernmental organizations specializing in social and medical services and physical planning. The infrastructure for these organizations would eventually include offices and staff housing, each located either within the secured central administrative compound or satellite compounds within the refugee settlements themselves. These were sited along the highway some distance from Dadaab village and the central administrative compound used by the transient labor force of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, and other agencies and international humanitarian nongovernmental organization staff. That gated station is now surrounded by a razor-wire fence and manned by an armed protection detail; meanwhile, the offices located in the camps are subject to the security curfew demanding that all international staff evacuate at the end of each workday. In this sense, the camps and attendant infrastructure are divided from their surroundings through both spatial and temporal mechanisms.

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Security gate at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees compound, Dagaheley Camp. / Photograph by Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi (2011)

This formation produces a series of paradoxes worth delineating, as they illuminate underlying historical conditions. First, the configuration of the Dadaab settlements does not constitute a city in legal terms. Nevertheless, the robust informal economy, emergent body politic, cosmopolitan sociability, architecture, and collective administration of the camps together mimic the aesthetic and sociocultural complexity of an urban form, particularly the informal peripheries and interstices of African megacities, such as nearby Nairobi and the informal towns of Eastleigh and Kibera that abut it. These conditions cast the Dadaab settlements as emergent, yet unrealized, urbanities. On the other hand, they also situate the Dadaab complex so that it lacks the affect of a provisional camp. No fences or other separating architectures surround any space, that is, none other than the central humanitarian administrative compound and its offices within each refugee settlement. Architecture and infrastructure arguably enact this abortive ghosting. Architecturally, areas of the camps, particularly the markets and the housing, share material and aesthetic characteristics with the Kenyan village of Dadaab. The infrastructure of social services in the camps related to health, education, physical planning, recreation, and administration, all implemented by nongovernmental organizations, mirror those of the state, if not actually duplicating them. Together this condition of approaching a city and approaching a camp, yet not quite achieving either, gives evidence of the political, social, and economic development context into which the Dadaab refugee complex is set. It also suggests that the shared root of “emergent” and “emergency” speaks to the existential condition of the camps: dynamic, unstable, and unable to be actualized.

As such, a border around the camps — physical and social — becomes limned through the materials and vicissitudes of everyday life, rather than through any fence. That is to say, this condition brings into focus a breach between the normative space of the state and this parallel humanitarian environment. Furthermore, it constructs the parallel space as a shadow, within an architecture of apartheid. This arguably reproduces and refracts a set of historical conditions.

Liberating and Coercive Settlement ///

The Dadaab settlements are located within the North Eastern Province, a territory that must be understood as central to the figuration of a frontier during the European colonization of East Africa. While the Berlin conference of 1884-1885 established trade rights and access to African resources to support the growth of European industrialization and urbanization, with the British, Germans, Italians, and Portuguese participating in the Eastern African aspect of the so-called “scramble,” the event represented a culmination rather than an initiation of British imperial or missionary activity. This had been ongoing for decades in East Africa, and modeled after over a century of practices developed in India. The territory of Northern Kenya, which would become the “Northern Frontier” during the European colonial period in Africa, existed as a borderland between Great Britain and Italy, to be partitioned and passed along from the former to the latter in gratitude for assistance during World War I. This fungibility indicates that the value of the “property,” as such, was ever in question.

The semi-arid lands were and are inhabited primarily by agro-pastoral ethnic Somalis — many in the same clans and families as the refugees in the camps. Their relationship to the land ties into a long history of liberating and coercive settlement, which serves as a prelude to the contemporary refugee camp in the region. One architectural iteration in the constellation of those predecessors is the 19th-century anti-slavery settlement, which proposed the cultivation and settlement of land as a colonizing principle: one that may be understood as historically linked with the ideals embedded in humanitarianism.

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Map of East Africa Protectorate and Uganda by the U.K. War Office, Armed Forces, Judge Advocate General, and related bodies (1911-1942). / Courtesy of the U.K. National Archives

The Freretown establishment of the Church Missionary Society, on the mainland north and opposite the then island of Mombasa, offered a settlement model that equated African liberation with early forms of colonial practice, as suggested in studies by Robert Strayer and Bronwen Everill. The site took its name from Bartle Frere, the governor of the Bombay Presidency who negotiated the Treaty of Abolition with the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1873, which ended seaborne trafficking and enabled missions to rescue enslaved Africans from Arab dhows, as well as liberating a population of slaves on the Indian coast. These “Bombay Africans” became Freretown’s first inhabitants in 1875, and represented an aspiring group within the rapidly growing settlement: educated and trained in liberal Indian missions, multilingual, entrepreneurial, and in many ways providing assistance to the handful of European missionaries new to the African continent. They also complicated a racialized social structure that would become naturalized in colonial Kenya, in which a small number of European missionaries ruled the majority of Africans in the settlements with a brutal hand, in this case, with the Bombay Africans in employ on site in the class in-between: as teachers, preachers, interpreters, and artisans. Freretown followed the models of the Church Missionary Society settlement previously established inland at Rabai, as well as that of Freetown, Sierra Leone: producing for the liberated slave a model for living on (and off) the land, cultivating it, and taking up a range of habits associated by the missionaries with a Christian life. According to Robert Strayer, Freretown was “a well-planned settlement complete with church, schools, cricket field, prison, cemetery and mission shambas (farm plots) as well as individual gardens for married couples.” It reached a population of over nine hundred by the early 1890s. For a quarter century, Freretown provided a setting for the regional encounter between freed African slaves and European missionaries, giving the logic to a colonial structure that would radically transform East African territory, following the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway beginning in Mombasa in 1896.

In 1895 the British crown proclaimed a protectorate from the coast to Lake Naivasha, and expanded it to include parts of Uganda in 1902, at which time the highlands were opened to white settlers for land capitalization. Imperial territories were designated soon after, through ordinances on “Crown Lands” and “Outlying Districts” in 1902, which located areas of concern for the East Africa Protectorate, and produced the apartheid system that restricted the mobility of people through the use of kipande passes between designated areas: the highlands for settlers, native lands and reserves for Africans, and territories designated as outlying districts. The latter were primarily inhabited only by British patrols at outposts, and local nomadic populations that included some Samburu and others, but were mostly comprised of Somalis. This territorial process produced the vast Northern Frontier, and included the provincial area where Dadaab is now located. Quite tellingly, that area, where the camps are presently sited, lay outside even the designated, named colonial territories. That is to say, according to latitude and longitude as delineated in the ordinance, the region was situated external even to the so-called Outlying Districts. Namely, the area was legally and spatially figured as a margin.

Further to this process, the African “native” was drawn into colonial territorialization in direct and indirect ways in the early twentieth century. Following the provision of Native Reserves, the imperial government implemented a homesteading process to contain traditional pastoralist communities, using the village settlement form of the manyatta, a Maasai term for native housing that is usually translated as “homestead.” It would be perverted in the coerced villageization by the British colonial government in the 1950s to repress the land and freedom struggle that came to be known as Mau Mau, for example, in the Hola detention camp and other forced labor camps across the Kenya colony, which the research of Caroline Elkins and David Sanderson brought to light. This architectural model was reproduced by the new national government in the late 1960s. As Hannah Whittaker has noted in her study of the shifta conflict, former imperial officers involved in the Mau Mau detentions were seconded to help implement the sedentarization of nomads in fortified villages in the Northern Frontier District, as a technique of war against the shifta (an Amharic term translated as “bandit,” and a linguistic trace of the prejudice against unsettled pastoralists). The shifta conflict built upon mistrust of the local population who had voted in an informal plebiscite to join Somalia after independence. As reported on the front page of the Daily Nation, only one year after independence, the new Kenyan government declared a state of emergency in the Northern Frontier District, and rounded up “shifta” in Garissa, where Dadaab is presently located, under the orders of Minister of Home Affairs Daniel Arap Moi. These events were further fueled by a Cold War tension between Kenya and its neighbor Somalia under Siad Barre’s communist rule of Somalia from the 1969 to 1991. They arguably translated into a spatial strategy in the 1990s — again under Moi’s policy, and this time in his new role as Kenya’s Prime Minister — of the encampment of Somali refugees in the North Eastern Province.

Two Native Huts ///

While these acts of territorial bordering and architectures of sedentarization suggest the calcification of practices in the colony and postcolony, another architecture may have acted instead to pose resistance. The Native Hut Tax, a nominal amount imposed in 1901 throughout the colonies was implemented with the intention of drawing Africans into the labor economy. This patriarchal Native Hut could be forced to engage in modern economic and infrastructural systems, as suggested by the materiality articulated in the East Africa Protectorate Notice No. 18 of 1901 (United Kingdom National Archives file F.O. 881/7616), for the taxation of “Makuti huts or other huts used as dwellings and built of mud or wattle and daub.” Conversely, the vernacular form of the tuqul, or aqal, could not. This building form was crafted to be dismantled, mounted on camels for transportation between water and grazing areas, and reconstructed with regularity.

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Hagadera Camp. / Photograph by Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi (2011)

The tuqul construction process is incredibly labor-intensive, and, not surprisingly, bound up with gender identity and socioeconomic roles. As several Somali women explained to me, and as explicated further by Rhoda M. Ibrahim in a study of women’s roles in the pastoral economy of Somalia, the primary structural elements, made from the horizontal roots of the galool tree (an acacia) are cut from pliable green wood, with both ends inserted into the ground until they dry in the shape of an arch, forming curved elements of a strong frame. Eight to twelve of these structural members are bent into crescents over several days, arranged in a circular plan with branch ends meeting in the middle at the top of the dome. Fifteen to twenty-five longer, more elastic branches are stretched perpendicularly around them and tied at joints. These are covered with harar (woven grass mats) and bent green wood branches. These tasks are and have been managed by women, traditionally responsible for all aspects of the process: gathering materials, fabricating the construction elements, and erecting the structure. The skills needed to fabricate the structure built upon years of practice, beginning in puberty and culminating in building a first tuqul after marriage. The traditional harar cover for this frame has been substituted in refugee contexts with gathered elements: plastic sheeting, discarded fabric, and remnants of other non-food aid materials emblazoned with donor or agency names and logos (“USA,” “UNHCR”). Moreover, the role of women’s responsibility for this dwelling has persisted, even in the absence of materials and mobility in refugee settings along the border of Somalia. Najib Khalif, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees employee recalled in one of our 2011 interviews that the social consequences for women included an increase in domestic violence during a windy season in the region of Afar in Ethiopia when numerous tuquls blew away.

Bound up as such with gender identity, it is important to note that the pragmatic and symbolic role of women in the material construction of the home extends ironically to an architecture intended for mobility and once freely crossing colonial borders, which presently remains parked in plots, blocks, and sectors designated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at Dadaab, as if making tangible the bounded conditions of the census. The tuqul was the first shelter type that appeared at Ifo, occasionally also housing aid workers, and would become a predominant architectural form in the morphology of the settlements, used even by refugees fleeing from urban contexts or from countries other than Somalia, because its building materials were among the basic non-food-item aid kits handed out to most new arrivals. As this suggests, on the one hand, the tuqul resists modernization, while, on the other, it resists its own history and architecture: signifying ephemerality, yet performing permanence.

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Tuqul of Somali Region (Ethiopia). / Photograph by Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi (2011)

This history of territorial form at the Kenya-Somalia borderland suggests a set of architectures that figure more significantly into political histories than it may seem. While the colony may not have been a designed artifact, it may be understood as “architected,” having left behind a residue of borders that cannot be explained by social or political frameworks alone. It is this work that the hut and the frontier have ultimately performed, which the historian might ultimately identify through the investigation of these objects in history.

Again, because of its scale and ephemerality together, the Dadaab complex at once approaches and resists being “urban,” on the one hand, and a “camp,” on the other. It has become the largest hosting establishment for refugees ever in history, yet has been absent from ordinary maps for much of the period since it was installed. The complex has occasioned significant interventions by architects as well as humanitarians, serving as a major duty station for each, and playing an important role during a quarter century of operation as an empirical basis for field study, as part of the practice of architecture and planning in and for humanitarian environments. Put another way, the complex has iterated decades of expertise-building while also providing a significant test bed for emergency planning. However, in spite of this material and historical presence, its undergirding invisibility — in terms of visuality as well as historicity — produces precariousness beyond the ontological sort. Dadaab is also epistemologically precarious. Its records do not register as those of a city or town might. Its historical figures are transient, counted en masse, and even births and deaths can go undocumented.

As such, the site serves as an important historiographical model, and it does so in two ways. Historically, as an extraordinary expression of emergency urbanism that imbricates architecture, design, and planning with aid, it offers purchase on global history and postcolonial theory, thinking Africa in the world and violent migration as immanent to the human condition. Aesthetically, it offers an object lesson in the architecture of permanent impermanence — the paradox of ephemerality in contemporary emergency environments — operating here at the scale and with the affect of a city. And yet, for many reasons, we don’t see Dadaab, in space or in time, in architecture or in history. Taking this into account, the paradoxes that call into question the character of the site as urban or non-urban are, in the end, qualifications that remain beside the point and reflect only a colonial project to classify. Conversely, the hut and the frontier remain architected objects that enable a different seeing and a different learning, through a material view of East Africa that the colonial archive alone does not provide.