Book Review: City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence

City of Thorns

About City of Thorns

To the charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to the Kenyan government, it is a ‘nursery for terrorists’; to the western media, it is a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, it is their last resort.

Situated hundreds of miles from any other settlement, deep within the inhospitable desert of northern Kenya where only thorn bushes grow, Dadaab is a city like no other. Its buildings are made from mud, sticks or plastic, its entire economy is grey, and its citizens survive on rations and luck. Over the course of four years, Ben Rawlence became a first-hand witness to a strange and desperate limbo-land, getting to know many of those who have come there seeking sanctuary. Among them are Guled, a former child soldier who lives for football; Nisho, who scrapes an existence by pushing a wheelbarrow and dreaming of riches; Tawane, the indomitable youth leader; and schoolgirl Kheyro, whose future hangs upon her education.

In City of Thorns, Rawlence interweaves the stories of nine individuals to show what life is like in the camp and to sketch the wider political forces that keep the refugees trapped there. Rawlence combines intimate storytelling with broad socio-political investigative journalism, doing for Dadaab what Katherinee Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers did for the Mumbai slums. Lucid, vivid and illuminating, City of Thorns is an urgent human story with deep international repercussions, brought to life through the people who call Dadaab home.


The City of Thorns is a book set in Dadaab Refugee camp. Dadaab Refugee camp is located on the borders of Kenya and Somalia. It is the largest refugee camp in the world.

It is the story of nine people who live in the camp. The writer did some extensive research on the lives of these refugees and their lives around the Dadaab camp. However since the story centered on 9 characters, it had poor plot development. We jump from one character to the next. The writer also fell short in character development. You easily forget the back story of each of the many characters’ journey. I found myself flipping back and forth in trying to remember characters. Nine characters were too many. The author should have worked with less and developed them. I however realize that this was not a fiction but a non-fiction account of people’s lives.

I liked this book because it gives an account of lives inside Dadaab; a sense of human stories behind the headlines. This book gives deep insight into the humanitarian crisis in Dadaab. You understand the politics and history of Northern Kenya and Somalia. The horrors of Somalia’s civil war were brought forth again as I had previously read them through an individual account of the civil war in Somalia from  Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s first novel, the Infidel.

This book is tragic. Being a Kenyan, I think I am one of the people who have read this book who come to Dadaab..Somalia is a neghbouring country to Kenya and at times it is very hard to tell the difference between a Kenyan Somali and a native Somali. Reading this book made me empathize with their current situation. I also loved the way the writer put a bit of background to the genesis of the camp. This background gives a reader a history of Northern Kenya and Somalia.

Reading this book also gives insight on the kind of life that an aid worker experiences at the camp. If that is the kind of job you would like to do in the near future, then I would recommend this book for you. The book also made me understand why Ayaan Hirsi’s mother always wanted to go back to Somalia. She never wanted to stay in Kenya as she believed non-Muslims were Infidels. In addition her pride made her prefer the violence in Somalia as opposed to living in the refugee camp.

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