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The Hottest Mess on Earth

While the lucky and privileged have spent 2011's repulsively hot summer locked inside air-conditioned bedrooms, swirling ice cubes around their nipples and downing pitchers of Pimm's, the Horn of Africa is in the midst of its worst drought in 60 years.


The sands of Dadaab have offered salvation for many who were previously destitute and starving.

While the lucky and privileged have spent 2011’s repulsively hot summer locked inside air-conditioned bedrooms, swirling ice cubes around their nipples and downing pitchers of Pimm’s, the Horn of Africa is in the midst of its worst drought in 60 years. Months have passed without even a few inches of rain, resulting in the type of famine most are only familiar with from myths and religious texts.

Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and other parts of East Africa have all experienced appalling levels of starvation, which, according to one USAID official, could result in the death of hundreds of thousands of children by fall. Many from the region have fled their homelands for Dadaab, one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in history. Dadaab is located in the Kenyan desert, approximately 60 miles from Somalia (home to “the worst humanitarian disaster” in the world, according to UN High Commissioner of Refugees António Guterres).

Technically composed of three camps—Hagadera, Ifo, and Dagahaley—Dadaab was established in 1991 with a maximum capacity of 90,000. The camp currently houses 400,000 displaced persons, with approximately 1,400 more arriving every day, half of whom are children. It is estimated that the area’s population will hit 500,000 by the end of the year. Some families have lived here for generations, producing offspring without documentation or a nation to call their own.

With the help of Doctors Without Borders, photographer James Mollison visited Dadaab in late July to take portraits of the large variety of people living in the region. James also photographed their homes, which many times consisted of dirt floors and fabric walls.

Watch a new episode of Picture Perfect featuring James and his work in Dadaab, premiering in September.


Maryan, 35, and her children set off for Dadaab with a group of about 30 refugees and their livestock. They were soon intercepted by a gang of robbers who took four cows from them. It took another seven days and nights of hiking to reach the safety of Dadaab. Maryan hopes that her children will be educated at the camp and feels life is better there than in their homeland.


Said Ali, ten, has lived in the camp with his parents and four siblings for the past year. Said’s father sold their goats to buy bus tickets to Kenya. Said thinks that life is better here than in Somalia because food, water, and education are more readily available. He never attended school while in his home country. His normal diet consists of ugali (maize), but the week before this portrait was taken he was lucky enough to nibble on a small amount of meat.


Shukri Adeli, 15, from Afmathou, Somalia. She sleeps in a hut with her parents and nine brothers and sisters. Most of her time is spent looking after her siblings. She has never been to school.


Aden Mohid Suthi, 50, from Salagle, Somalia, had been at the camp for 20 days with his four small children at the time this photo was taken. He left Salagle because of the drought and clan disputes. Aden was a farmer when rainfall was more regular. He has started to build a shelter, but he and his family are currently staying with relatives in this hut. The women sleep inside and the men beneath the stars.


Habiba Ali, 23, with her son, Hassan Farah. After two years of drought and starvation, they set off from their home village of Bu’aale, Somalia, in a donkey cart. Like so many other traveling refugees, they were held up by bandits en route. She had nothing to give them, so they torched her cart. Without another mode of transportation, Habiba and her young boy were forced to walk 30 days to reach Dadaab. Habiba and her son had been living at the camp for a month at the time their portraits were taken and had spent some of that time in a temporary hospital ward at Doctors Without Borders’ Dagahaley camp (pictured above), where malnourished arrivals are treated daily.