Thomas tried to keep up with his mother’s brisk pace. Everyone moved in a single
across their faces. He cringed and closed his eyes as tiny sand particles hit his cold skin.
They walked along a straight path demarcated by soldiers brandishing rifles. Their
faces remained still and angry. He looked up at each of them as he walked along and
every time his tiny fingers slipped from his mother’s tender grasp, he quickly slipped it
back in. The soldier’s armbands read AMISON in large red letters.
He tired of looking up and focused his attention on Fatima, his little sister. She
was fast asleep, wrapped onto his mother’s back with beige ‘kanga’. Her lips were
pursed. Her chubby face shone in the gleam of red rays of sunlight.
His mother’s peered ahead. By the way she pulled his fingers, he knew they
needed to hurry.
A man, dressed in a white ‘kanzu’ brushed past his frail tiny body pushing him
against his mother’s thigh. He looked up at his mother; she stared down at him, her face
concerned. She turned her gaze away from him and looked at the man’s back. He saw
that she wanted to say something to the man but seemed to hold back.
“No woman shall raise her tongue against a man nor his male kin”
This centuries old lesson had been the wine on his father’s lips and a law repeated
often during the weekly Madrassa- one-hour classes he attended every day to learn and
memorize scriptures from the Qur’an. He touched the side of his hip, where the whip had
struck him twice after he had failed to attend Madrassa in time. That was the first time he
had ever been late and would probably be the last.
Thomas’ mother stopped suddenly. She gripped his tiny fingers more tightly and
Thomas pressed his trembling body against her. It was cold. In the rush to leave their own
home, they had managed to salvage only but a few clothes for their sudden journey. He
looked up at her, now a dark figure with the backdrop of a darkening sky full of stars and
a dark red lining on the clouds that sat on the horizon.
An officer shouted from far ahead,“Everybody have your IDs in your hands and
raise them above your head!”
Thomas watched his mother fumble through the jumble of things she had stuffed
in her bag to retrieve the documents required. By the time she found them, the line had
started moving again.
A gigantic man wearing a hat and full army apparel walked menacingly, shining a
bright flashlight on the faces of those who stood in line after checking their IDs. Thomas
could hear protests from a couple of people who were pulled out of the line after the
information they gave about their identity did not check out.
“You remember what I told you to say to them?” his mother Halima whispered to
“Yes Mama,” Thomas replied, a feeling of deep uneasiness had settled in his
stomach. He was barely a 9-year- old boy but he could fathom the sense of alarm and
uncertainty that filled the air as they walked on.
Of course he remembered. Two nights earlier, his parents had woken him up a
few minutes past midnight and they told him that they had to go on a journey. They
would leave in the next few minutes.
His father had been brief with his explanation of the emergency, “Bad people are
coming and I do not want you to get hurt. Take care of your little sister.”
Thomas was confused but he did not ask a single question. That’s what good
children did; they did not question their parents. They hopped into a dusty police Land
Rover whose registration plate had been removed. The windscreen was cracked mid-way
forming a pattern similar to a spider’s web. His father sat in front with a close family
friend. They worked together at the factory, or at least that’s what his father had always
told him. Thomas had always wanted to go with his father to the factory, especially
because his father carried a rifle with him to work. He wondered whether his father had
to shoot bad guys like he had seen in the movies.
The two men spoke in hushed tones; Thomas heard only a few words, “We have
to be ready” his father said. His friend replied, “The shipment came in yesterday.”
Finally, Thomas, his mother and little sister were dropped off, miles away from
the “entry point.”
“You have to hurry. Remember to do as I told you. They wont give you trouble if
you tell them you were married to a Kenyan, who had immigrated to Somalia. Don’t
forget your names,” His father gave his final instructions as he hugged all of them. Then,
in a matter of minutes he drove off with his friend, promising to see them soon.
Somehow, Thomas felt like he could not trust his father anymore. Yet, the fear,
confusion and the rapid pace of events did not allow him to judge between what was true
or otherwise. As they stood there, covered in the cloud of dust that blew under the car’s
tires when the engine raved, Thomas stood close to his mother. The blanket of night’s
darkness clouded even his heart. He did not know whether to cry or scream in fear. His
little sister beat him to that decision. As the desert wind blew past, she wailed in the
The officer finally reached their position, “Your ID madam?” He looked at
Halima’s face then back to her ID.
Thomas looked at the ground and drew a circle in the dust with his right foot.
“What’s your name, kid?”
Thomas felt the man’s gaze on him. He slowly looked up and felt his mother’s
arm resting on his tiny shoulder. She was either comforting him, he thought, or reminding
him that his next few words would determine whether they would continue waking up to
the sounds of gunshots, screams and grenade explosions, or whether they live in a land
that knew peace and sanity.
He knew his name and had no reason to hesitate. He had said it only a million
times at school and eloquently so every morning during class introductions. Only this
time, it had to be different.
“Did your hear me? What’s your name?”
“My name is Thomas Muni,” he said, shaking. This time it had to be different; he
had to lie about his name and his life depended on it. It was no longer evidence of
mastery of communication skills in a class, but a matter of life and death.
“Are you sure?” The man asked again.
“Yes,” Thomas replied, looking almost angrily at the officer’s large face.
“His father was Kenyan, we got married when he came to do business in
Mogadishu,” Halima explained to the officer, who held his gaze onto the young boy.
“Where is he?” He asked, finally shifting focus to Halima.
“He died in the latest Kismayu attack, while trading charcoal,” Halima explained.
Thomas almost snapped his neck as he looked up hard and fast at his mother. He
could not believe what he was hearing. He felt the tears in his eyes dry up quickly. Before
he could utter a single word, the officer cleared them and they were allowed past the two
barricades that marked out the entrance:
KENYA-SOMALIA BORDER; PROPERTY OF THE REPUBLIC OF KENYA
As they walked past the four soldiers letting people into Kenya, Thomas saw the
rude man who had brushed past him earlier on in the line. Two officers were
manhandling him as he wiggled and screamed in protest. His shoes flew in the air as he
kicked as if at an invisible enemy.
“I swear in the name of Allah, I am telling the truth!” he screamed as they led him
off to the distant temporary shelters.
He had been in such a hurry before but now matters had stalled for him. Just when
Thomas thought this night was a total nightmare, Karma brought him a little humor. It
really did not bring a smile to his cold face but he felt the man deserved what was
happening to him.
Thomas could almost feel the difference in the air he breathed now. He felt safe at
least. The heaviness of heart however weighed his spirits down. His mother, who had
been the constant unfailing presence and stronghold of his emotions, had cast a pile of
doubt and fear over him. No longer the fear of sudden death or ambush by blood-thirsty
militia but the fear of having to carry the big fat lie that had come out of her mouth. He
loved his father and the thought of having to think of him as a corpse shook him to his
nerves. Was there a chance that he would ever see him again or did his mother’s words
sign his father’s death certificate?
Hundred of tents were scattered across the arid space in North Eastern Kenya. The
afternoon desert sun raged on as hot ghastly wind caused the torn parts of the makeshift
shelters flutter. From the wide openings, you could see the multicolored array of clothes
and bodies sleeping peacefully shielded from the heat. The men were out and about,
fending for their families, while the women walked around the camp collecting firewood.
A few children were playing with cars made out of carton boxes that had the RED
CROSS insignia on them. This had been home to displaced Somali families for close to a
Hours later, at the hour of the setting sun, two young men were making
acquaintance in one of the tents.
“Hi, I am Thomas,” he said.
“I am Babu, how are you?” the boy replied.
“Babu?” Thomas smiled.
“Yes! Why are you laughing?” The boy was both annoyed and exhausted.
“Oh sorry, it’s just that Babu means ‘old man’ in Swahili,” Thomas explained
The boy smiled, “Okay then. Are you already fluent? How long have you been
“We came in 9 years ago and it is the language all the military officers use around
here. I guess you would want to understand what they are saying when they tell you they
want to shoot you to reduce the number of refugees biting into Kenya’s food supply,”
Thomas nudged Abu, proud that he was on a roll with his humor.
Babu smiled, “That’s a valid point but food is not the issue. From what I have
heard, they serve us the remains of bread transported from Nairobi after rich families
have had their fill,” Babu covered his feet with his sweatshirt, as the cold wind and
buzzing of mosquitoes sipped in through the tent’s entrance
Both their mothers had left after quick introductions to get food portions from the
Daadab refugee camp offices, a ramshackle sheet metal hut that housed huge drums used
for large scale boiling of cabbage soup and frying dough. Babu’s father was still sorting
out documentation issues with the camp officers and had not yet returned.
“I am so hungry, the walk from the border to this camp was too long,” Babu
complained. Babu leaned on the tents wall but then checked himself.
“Well, you better look forward to giant uncooked leaves floating in hot brown
water. It’s a royal dinner, my friend,” Thomas raised his arm for a fist bump.
“Sounds like a treat. Not to die for but who knows when we are going to die
anyway?” Babu smiled sadly.
A quiet moment fell between them. Side by side, they both stared into the
darkness from the tent’s open entrance and listened to the crickets chirping and the soft
wind blowing. After years of turmoil, silence had become a luxury, Thomas thought.
Thomas still saw the image of his father holding a gun. He dreaded what he assumed
would be Abu’s next question, which would surely be about his father.
Abu confirmed Thomas fears. “Where is your father?”
Thomas felt the burning pain in his throat and the all too familiar sting I his eyes.
“You don’t have to say it, it’s okay. Let’s go sit by the fire they are making
outside.” Abu said, placing his arm around Thomas’ shoulder.
Thomas looked back at Abu, his eyes almost suggesting that Abu should not
assume he knew anything about his father. In any case, what was he going to say? Was
he going to continue spreading the tale of his deceased father, which he had repeated so
many times during random security checks in the camp. It had started feeling like the
truth and this scared him. They had not heard from him since they fled their country and
one could only assume the worst.
“Come on, I saw a beautiful girl on the way in. As long as we are stuck here, we
can as well have some fun,” Abu stood up and offered his arm to help Thomas from the
They walked out of the tent and towards the bonfire that had just lit up into the
sky. As they drew closer, Thomas felt it almost burning his skin. Thomas looked up into
the sky and took in the sight of countless stars stretching to the horizon. To the West was
Somalia and he gazed upon it as if expecting someone to appear from it, walking towards
him-perhaps, the tall figure of a man who wore the same leather jacket to work every day
and a cigar dangling between his teeth, the ash flying into the wind.
“Hey dude, there she is,” Abu was leaning into Thomas’ face, pointing to his
“Well that settles it. Your taste in girls is definitely really good. Are you going to
talk to her or should I beat you to it?” Thomas smiled.
The girl looked in their direction and seemed to smile back.
“ Did you see that?” Abu was excited.
“Yes, I did. Her name is Nala,” Thomas said, feeling the pride of a king who had
just conquered a rival empire.
“What! Why did you act like you did not know her?” Abu was annoyed.
“I just wanted to see the look on your face. It was well worth it,” Thomas was
“I am not a huge fan of you right now,” Abu retorted.
“I will tell her you said hello,” Thomas walked away slowly and dramatically,
facing Abu all the way until he reached Nala and then he sat down next to her on a huge
log beside the fire.
“My new friend says hello,” Thomas said to Nala, placing his arm across her
“Ha! I think he said enough by staring at my ass earlier,” Nala laughed.
“I will punch him for you tonight then,” Thomas joked.
“Be gentle with him though”
“I will try. How are your applications going?” Thomas asked.
“It’s going great, I am waiting to hear from Wellesley. The interview went well
and my KENSAP correspondent assured me everything was in order,” She looked up into
the sky with dreamy eyes.
KENSAP-the Kenyan Scholar-Athlete program, had reached out to the Daadab
refugee camp in search of gifted but needy students to help place them in highly selective
colleges in North America.
“I am so proud of you,” He kissed her warm cheek.
“Nope, I am the proud one. You! Applying early and getting into Harvard!” She
kissed him back.
“The silver lining is that when you get into Wellesley, you will only be thirty
minutes away from me.”
“That is silver enough for me,” He looked into her eyes.
Thomas looked away and gazed upon the flames coming from the bonfire. He
held Nala’s hand quietly as she placed her head on his shoulder.
“I hate to say it so proudly, but this war defined the powerful story that moved the
admissions officers to consider applications from the most remote part of Kenya,”
Thomas said quietly. “All the bombings, desert journeys in the night, brutal handling by
police, invasion of privacy and classes under a tree in the hot sun!”
They sat quietly, their bodies’ warmth offering little protection against the cold
desert winds. They realized now that silence had befallen the camp. It was almost past
curfew and everyone was retiring to his or her tents slowly. In the distance, Thomas made
out the uniformed silhouette of a camp officer against the backdrop of pitch darkness and
flying sparks from the fire.
“Back to your shelters!” He shouted at the two teenagers.
This had been their life for far too long and Thomas was sick of it. Nala made to
move but noticed that Thomas did not flinch but stared at the officer’s dark figure.
“We have to leave Tom,” Nala almost begged staring into his eyes.
The officer almost uttered something in their direction but Nala pulled Thomas’
hand just in time to avoid the wrath of the man. After a prolonged hug, they walked to
their separate tents in silence, each one almost reading the other’s thoughts but they did
not talk about what almost happened back there.
Thomas walked into his tent and was glad that his mother had not yet returned so
that he could be alone with his thoughts.