Bill Bryson’s African Diary

Bill Bryson, 2002.

This is a short book but I thought I’d review it because it was sponsored by CARE, the international charity. Bryson visited Kenya for a brief 8-day tour, sponsored by CARE, so he could add some celebrity status to their work and give them a nice little book. His journey included very brief visits to locations where the charity is doing some badly needed work. In Nairobi, the massive slum of Kibera is featured, with some photos and a very brief mention of the second President, Daniel Arap Moi, who slid into a kind of dictatorship after the first President, Jomo Kenyatta, brought the country to independence. For the most part Bryson avoids political commentary but does mention Moi’s mansion overlooking the Kibera slum.

Another major focus for the charity is the refugee camp in the northeast corner of Kenya, near Somalia, called Dadaab. At the time of Bryson’s visit the camp housed 134,000 people. A quick check of the CARE website ( revealed that in 2013 there are over 400,000 refugees in three compounds. This is a massive failure on the part of world aid organizations. In a revealing conversation with one of the CARE handlers, Bryson relates how “dispensing aid is much more complicated than most people realize. It is, for one thing, a fundamental part of aid protocol that you cannot make conditions notably better for refugees than they are for their hosts outside the camps.”

In 2002 there were 28,000 pupils in camp schools, one textbook for every 20 students, one classroom for every 75 students. One student complained to Bryson that it was not possible to prepare for the Kenyan Schools Certificate exam (entry into Secondary education, now called the KCPE) without facilities and equipment.

Today, according to the CARE website, there are 465,000 people in Dadaab. More than 70 percent of the 221,000 children in the camps are out of school. There is one textbook for every 13 students, a slight improvement, but there are over 100 students per classroom. Classes run two shifts a day; one in five teachers has any formal training.

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