Stray conversations lingered in the air. Dull grey smoke drifted on the passing breeze peppering olfactory nerves with burnt meats and dwelling vegetables far beyond ripe. The sun, stood high in the clear blue sky, staring down from the thrones of Gods. An ever-watchful star pounded the back of my bright red neck. Incoherent to everyone but me, I sung to myself, curse words and anger slipped through my dry lips on the wings of a Spineshank song. Walking past the cooking tents I saw children swarming around the massive pots of stews made with goat meat, water and rotten corn. The tent stretched on to the exit fence where another crowd had gathered like crows to a corpse.
The young nurse stood behind the bread truck, helping the men unload tough white sacks with blue UN stamps on their surfaces. The logos cracking up and peeling like cheap tattoos. I stopped about a foot behind her and placed my hand on the small of her back. She started and looked at me, wide eyed, not like a deer, but an owl. I let my yellowed teeth show as I smiled just tight enough to not drop the cigarette from between my lips.
“Msaada?” My Swahili was still awful after six months.
“Sawa.” She smiled and quickly looked away. Not fast enough. She glanced at the marks she left on my throat two nights earlier. I could sense her embarrassment, and now that I’m older, I can identify her regret.
I grabbed the next sack. Bread is the brother of bricks in the northern Kenyan desert. I piled the ration sacks on the dollies. The wheels began to sink into the sandy mud after six or seven sacks. Young men would come and pull them to the storage sheds near the ration tents every few minutes. I could feel my clothes gaining dead weight as sweat seeped into the threads.
“Fuck this heat.” Trying to be jovial, I stopped to look at my unloading companion.
She looked up and smiled through grinding teeth.
“Why would you want to come here then?” Her English was far better than my Swahili.
“I heard you worked here.” I chuckled and grabbed the last bag from the man in the truck.
I lobbed the bag onto the dolly. The beige rope keeping the contents concealed loosened at the top. I turned to stare as she spoke to the man jumping from the back of the truck and closing the bed. I couldn’t understand much, but I could understand the words “deliver” and “March”. I lit another cigarette.
Makeshift tents lined makeshift streets. Shoddy wooden buildings dotted with concrete fixtures occasionally interrupted the otherwise flimsy architecture. I could hear the truck door open behind me as I put my hands on the rubber dolly handle and began to push.
Voices behind me began rise up. The truck had started its engine and several of the soldiers were dispersing people so the vehicle could move towards the exit gate.
“You should let the men do it.”
“You saying I’m not a man?” I exhaled smoke from my tar-filled lungs. I didn’t even look back at her.
“I’m saying you are foolish to tire yourself. Your skin is peeling, you should stay inside.”
“Sure, thanks. But I got it.”
The dolly started to move. I suppose in the scheme of masculinity some details are embarrassing, and this is certainly no exception; each push required every ounce of strength I had. I could almost feel heads shaking behind me in humorous disappointment.
“Tafadhali mzungu. Nipe kadhaa.” A young boy came bounding towards me, deflated soccer ball in his hands.
The refugees at Dadaab continued about their daily lives. No one noticed me anymore. My tattoos weren’t interesting, my bad Swahili wasn’t funny. They just needed to eat. I was only another cog in the machine.
“I can’t give you any. Go to the rationers.”
“Please. Please!” His English was also much better than my Swahili.
The little boy dropped his ball and held his hands out. I ignored him and kept pushing the cart. “It’s not my problem, this isn’t my job.”
Which was true, feeding people wasn’t my job at Dadaab.
The little boy grabbed my shirt, his dirty face looking up at me. His patchy hair couldn’t hide the small bugs moving across his scalp. He smelt like rot. His clothes were just rags gathered from trash heaps. I stopped pushing and shook the little boy off of my shirt. I turned around and surveyed the scene. The truck still hadn’t moved but its engine had started. I could see her looking at me. Well, if I was ever going to get her to notice me again, here was the chance.
I looked at the little boy again. He was still ringing off his favorite English word. “Please! Please! Please!”
“Fuck, kid, okay.” I reached into the loose sack. I ripped a piece of stale bread out of the mass of grainy substance and handed it to him. The elation on his face was the most remarkable thing I have ever seen. He squeezed the bread like it was his most prized possession. He shoved the crusty side in between his teeth and began to chew loud enough for me to hear him over the noise.
I could hear voices raising around me, and I could hear lots of footsteps heading my way. The sacks began disappearing out of the dolly. I felt myself get pushed from behind. The force knocked the cigarette out of my mouth, and it hit another child on the way down as he rushed towards the bread sacks.
Another push, and then another.
Shouting and screaming and tearing filled the air. I tried to back away, but I was stuck, bodies amassed and erected a breathing wall all around me. The heat began rising, my breath grew short. The shouting became louder and more intense as the crowd swarmed.
Pinned to the push bar, I couldn’t move. Bread was scattering across the crowd. Grown men and women with their children ripped at the light brown and white masses inside the sacks. Small tingles danced with my nerves; I began to breathe heavily. I could hear more shouting in the back of the crowds. Then, deafening pops and eventually, silence.
The gun shots rang out from all around; they were almost coming from inside my head. I closed my eyes and thought of my brother crying when my mom used to hit him. “Fuck her,” I remember thinking.
Shouting and gunshots danced on the air for what felt like an eternity, but I could feel the crowd dispersing. Like setting a termite hill ablaze. People ran, scurrying, pushing one another as the soldiers approached. I lifted myself off the dolly and fell to the ground, covering my face as people tripped and kicked to climb over me.
I kept my eyes closed for a long time. Eventually the pain of being stepped on stopped. I slowly moved my arms away from my eyes. I noticed blood on my white sleeves, speckled across them like a Jackson Pollock piece. The pain didn’t set back in until later on that night.
I looked across the ground, bread lay scattered betwixt the infinite grains of sand. I rolled on my stomach and pushed myself onto my knees. I reached for my pack of cigarettes. It had been crushed badly. A smoker knows how to improvise. I broke a cigarette off at the filter, lit a match and took a breath. Either blood or sweat trickled into my eye, the salty pain demanded a forceful rubbing. I could still hear shouting as the soldiers swarmed around the dolly, pushing people back with the butts of their rifles.
I pulled myself up and looked around. I still had about fifty feet to the ration tent. The bread, long destroyed, ended up crushed into the sand.
“Fuck.” I continued to repeat to myself. I was worried about getting kicked out of the camp. Having to go back to Nairobi and beg for work from another nonprofit was terrifying. Especially considering the massive mistake I just made. Like a truck driver who just accidently hit a minivan packed with toddlers.
I began to spin around, looking for her.
Where did she go?
A few feet from my shoes, I saw the little boy with the dirty face and patchy hair lying on his side with a wide eye facing me. The left side of his head had been caved in. Blood streamed from his nostrils and empty left eye socket. His clothes were almost entirely ripped off and his deflated soccer ball was gone. His hand clenched a piece of bread.