In "virtual dialogue" with the Somali community: the value of electronic media for research amongst refugee diasporas.

Author:Horst, Cindy


This article illustrates the methodological potential of electronic media such as the Internet and e-mail for research amongst refugee diasporas. It will first describe research amongst Somalis in Kenyan refugee camps, which demonstrated the importance of transnational networks in the survival of refugees in the camps. The intention of the research set-up was to provide an alternative approach to common depictions of refugees, which often ignore their agency. A focus on agency, referring to every individual's level of choice and power, is as much a methodological decision as a theoretical or epistemological assumption, since people's agency clearly manifests itself in knowledge creation. After describing the possible dialogical nature of academic knowledge creation, the article moves on to illustrate how electronic media can play an important role in this. There are a number of apparent advantages to the methodological use of the Internet and e-mail in research, though at the same time pitfalls should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, when studying refugee communities that are dispersed across the globe and make active use of electronic media, "virtual dialogues" provide fascinating new insights.


L'article illustre le potentiel methodologique de medias comme l'Internet et le courriel pour la recherche parmi les diasporas de refugies. Il se concentre d'abord sur les Somaliens dans les camps kenyans de refugies, ce qui prouve l'importance des reseaux transnationaux relativement a la survie des refugies dans les camps. La recherche visait a fournir une approche differente des descriptions habituelles de refugies, qui ignorent souvent leurs droits. Le fait de mettre l'accent sur ceux-ci, qui renvoie au degre de choix et de pouvoir de chaque personne, est autant une decision d'ordre methodologique qu'une hypothese theorique ou epistemologique, puisque les droits du peuple se manifestent clairement dans la creation de la connaissance. Apres avoir decrit la nature dialogique possible de la creation de la connaissance academique, l'article poursuit en montrant comment les medias electroniques peuvent jouer un role a cet egard. L'utilisation methodologique de l'Internet et du courriel comporte de nombreux avantages pour la recherche, mais egalement des ecueils a ne pas sous-estimer. Neanmoins, s'adonner a l'etude de communautes de refugies dissemines sur la planete en se servant des medias electroniques permet des > qui ouvrent des perspectives nouvelles et fascinantes.


At the end of 1991, three refugee camps were set up close to the small town of Dadaab in Kenya to host the large influx of Somalis fleeing the collapse of their state. At present, approximately 135,000 refugees are said to live in Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera. Most of them originated from the regions of Jubadda Hoose and Shabeellaha Hoose, the lowlands of the two main rivers in South Somalia. There are also smaller groups of refugees from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda, and a few individuals from Zaire in Dadaab. Between February 1999 and September 2001, I carried out anthropological Ph.D. research in the camps. I wanted to understand how Somali refugees were able to survive in these camps, despite insufficient international aid and limited regional opportunities. Dadaab lies in Kenya's Northeastern Province, a vast stretch of semi-arid land that has been the object of dispute between Kenya and Somalia since independence. The area is unsuitable for agricultural production and is mainly occupied by Kenyan Somali pastoralists. The province has a very poor infrastructure and is insecure due to frequent attacks by shifta, Somali "bandits." (1) Inside the camps, UNHCR and various international NGOs provide assistance to the refugees. During my stay in the camps, this assistance often consisted only of three kilograms of maize per person per fifteen days, an amount impossible to survive on. Thus, it was clearly not their only means of survival.

My main aim in studying how Somalis were dealing with refugee life in the Dadaab camps was to provide an alternative perspective on refugees. Refugees are often depicted as "vulnerable victims" or "cunning crooks" in media and academic literature. This stands in sharp contrast to my own experiences with refugees during my work for VluchtelingenWerk (a Dutch organization assisting refugees) and in various research projects. I was introduced to many individuals who were not passively affected by circumstances but rather were resourcefully trying to utilize available opportunities. In my opinion, social scientists should continuously question accepted categories and forms of analysis, within both science and the larger society. This is even more urgent considering the fact that (theoretical) constructs not only are influenced by social reality, but also have an impact on the general discourse within that reality and thus on actions. (2) The ideas that exist about refugees in the end have a clear effect on the reality of their daily lives. As an alternative to common stereotypes of vulnerability and cunningness, I wanted to provide an image of human complexity. (3)

In order to understand the situation of Somali refugees in Dadaab at present, it is essential to place that specific situation in a historical context. In the academic world as well as within relief-providing organizations, crises are largely seen as external events interfering with a certain stable social reality. This viewpoint obscures the fact that insecurity is the normal state of affairs for many, and people have found their own ways of dealing with it. Before the civil war, Somalis had particular ways of dealing with the insecurities they were faced with, based on assistance networks, mobility, and dispersing investments within those networks. I wanted to understand what effect refugee life in Dadaab had on these existing social security mechanisms. In an earlier study on Somalis in refugee camps, Kibreab (4) found that their social security arrangements were largely based on precedents. Other research, however, has suggested that major changes take place within refugee communities due to life in camps. Harrell-Bond, (5) for example, has argued that the encounter with humanitarian aid leads to a serious rupture of social structures. I was interested to understand whether, in Dadaab, Somali refugees could still rely on social networks, migration strategies, and a variety of investment strategies for their survival. In short, I call this the "nomadic heritage" of the Somali, though "nomadic" here refers not to a livelihood, but more widely to a way of living.

Soon after my arrival in the camps, I learned about the existence of an extensive, informal system of communication and banking. It is called xawilaad in the Somali language, xawil meaning "transfer," usually of money or responsibility. (6) The Somalis use xawilaad companies with branches in many countries worldwide to send money to their relatives elsewhere. Overall, huge investments are made in means of communication and transfer, which may be an indication of the importance attached to maintaining strong networks. About 10 to 15 per cent of the refugees in Dadaab receive remittances, enabling the survival of a much larger part of the camp population and simultaneously stimulating development in the area. (7)...

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