DADAAB, Kenya — Kaltumo Barre’s home is a flimsy, dome-shaped skeleton of sticks and ragged cloth.
Her kitchen is three twisted iron rods stuck in the ground outside, shielded from the wind and sandstorms by more sticks and tattered clothes.
Inside, the floor is dirt, and it smells of urine from the two youngest of Barre’s five dust-caked children who share the space with her. The nearest water source and latrine is several makeshift homes away.
A neighbor offered a visitor a seat by tossing a Y-shaped log on the ground in front of Barre’s home and saying, “This is the best chair we’ve got.”
Barre and her children fled the almost certain death from Somalia’s drought and famine for a meager life in the Dadaab refugee camp — the world’s largest.
Built in 1991 for 90,000 people, the camp has swelled to more than 400,000 registered refugees because of Somalia’s long-running conflict and now its famine. Another 40,000 are waiting for official registration.
More than 3.2 million Somalis need food aid, according to the United Nations. The U.S. says 29,000 Somali children under age 5 already have died.
Barre, who is divorced, came to the Dadaab camp with her family in mid-June. As new arrivals, they must make their own shelter — she built the stick-and-cloth structure herself — before being moved to a better, more permanent tent.
New arrivals live on a 21-day ration handed out by the U.N., until they are formally registered. Barre and her family are registered but they live just outside the formal camp settlements.
The camps for newly arrived refugees aren’t well-organized. Barre, like many mothers here, fends for her children single-handedly, and she seems worn down by daily chores in a camp where mosquitoes buzz all night and the sun bakes the landscape all day.
Sandstorms batter the camp constantly, tearing apart makeshift homes, making children sick and coating everyone with dust. “My home was dismantled by the wind on a recent day,” Barre said.
Shelter from the sun is a must in East Africa. Temperatures are in the mid-80s in August and soar to 110-120 degrees between January and March.
To enter her stick house, a visitor must squat and pull aside the cloth door — stooping alone is not enough.
Her children, who have no shoes and appear afraid of venturing too far away from their mother, mostly stay clustered near her.
“We are strangers to here,” the 30-year-old Barre explained in a shy voice barely above a whisper. “There are not children they know with whom they can play.”
Ali, 9, and Luul, 6 — and perhaps even 4-year-old Wiilo — are old enough for school, but they do not yet attend any classes.
Many of the Dadaab’s permanent residents live in houses made of sticks plastered with mud and roofs of corrugated iron sheeting. But there are also tens of thousands who squat in wastelands or live in the energy-sapping humidity of tents supplied by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Some stay with relatives while the UNHCR processes their cases.
The dusty expanse in eastern Kenya — 60 miles from Somalia and 300 miles east of Nairobi — consists of three main camps: Ifo, Dagahaley and Hagadera.
It is not easy for the camps’ different communities to mingle. Dagahaley and Hagadera are 15 miles apart. In between lies Ifo, which is 3 miles from the town of Dadaab.
To move around, refugees cram into battered minibuses or pickup trucks. They ride donkeys, motorbikes and in small cars navigating unpaved, sandy roads. Lazy donkeys and goats idle along the paths, paying little heed to approaching vehicles.
The UNHCR has been moving tens of thousands of refugees to two new camps — Cambioos and Ifo Extension — to help accommodate the 130,000 people who have arrived this year. Many of those refugees have been roughing it on the outskirts of the three main camps, where stray domestic animals scavenge in the garbage dumps.
In Dadaab’s settled camps — where some have lived so long that the youngest children are third-generation refugees — most families have their own latrines and more than one home. Some families depend solely on twice-monthly World Food Program rations of wheat flour, corn meal, beans, cooking oil, corn-soy blend and salt. They can receive hundreds of dollars in remittances from relatives abroad.
Most of the refugees are Muslim. Men wear mostly sarongs, trousers and shirts, while women are in hijabs and veils.
Many try to improve their lot. They spend nights in the bush to cut sticks or collect firewood to sell to other refugees. Tree-cutting is a big problem, and the local communities complain about the refugees’ actions.
While most women pass the time in their homes and children play in dirty roads, men frequent fly-infested markets and sit in teashops to discuss Somali politics.
The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders provides porridge to nursing mothers for the first six months after giving birth, but not all the new refugees know about medical facilities. Medicine is sold in ill-stocked pharmacies.
Barre seems worn down by despair and the travails of daily life.
She complains of chest pain and two of her children have stomachaches, yet they haven’t visited a doctor. While in Somalia, she actively supported her children with the proceeds of the firewood she fetched from the bush and sold in the market.
“Now, I’m sick. I find it hard to even go to the water point to fetch water for the children,” she said. “I don’t have someone to help me out.”