Sapphire blue,

her headscarf gathers on her back

against an endless azure sky



pushed there to keep dry,

in relief, as she leans above

the small grey basin

set into crimson sand


footsteps outside a tiny kitchen



She is Somali

She is Cook

every meal for every person

lentils, rice, kale, ugali, chapatti

goat stew some days



in the agency compound


I find a place to sit outside near her kitchen

eat some chapatti

sun sets and like the air, my body

cools down in deep breaths,

lime-green the linen skirt

covering my ankles, while

a maroon buttoned-up shirt

covers my arms


my abundance of auburn hair is tied-up

over a face that can’t mask its whiteness,

the starkness of it, or cloak

the hint of a self-conscious blush




Cook moves from kitchen to basin

washing things

in a plastic orange tub while

I wonder about this woman’s story

too shy to ask about


mothers and children who walk here

through relentless seas of sand,

shifting always shifting with



borders to cross

drought instead of water

guns instead of food


refugees line up at the gate

babies under mothers’

vibrant garments

flowing over

babies who don’t cry



here blood-red sand

imprints footprints the winds blow away

like lives as temporary as


a mother trekking with a baby on her back

a wooden cart loaded down with twigs

a boney boy driving a boney donkey



while a United Nations van roars past

and kicks up sand that shrouds a woman

wrapped in black fabric

balancing a white container on her head

already passing through sprawls of tent dwellings

of bleached cloth, sticks, mud bricks


and a displaced generation already born

borne refugee



sitting face-to-face, Cook sees

I eat only the chapatti

leaving the whiteness of the plate

to show through, circular and empty,

among mounds of plenty


privileged stranger, me,

the Cook frowns – hurrumph

and her bittersweet eyes

burnt into my soul



later I watch Cook walking toward me

white plate in her hand

a yellow curve teetering there

a divine gift – a Kenyan banana – mmmmm


the indigo sky cracks a smile…

the new crescent moon lying on its back


you are welcome

Dr. Karen Meyer

I say, it’s hot
me a visitor
from the bitter cold
he says, we adapt


five of us find shade
sit in a circle
these black metal chairs
look foreign planted
in the red sand
so do I


above us a chorus of birds
joins our talk
stories between teachers
under the acacia tree


hot and heavy, a breeze
at least brings breath
back to my body
I ask, what’s it like
being teacher
inside a refugee camp?


the tall sturdy Ethiopian
his deep tender voice
fills in a picture
teaching children
a hundred at a time while
their promising tongues
mimic English


the young Somali man
a teacher after high school
arrived a toddler
to this bleak desert
he remembers still
being handed down to the sand
from the NGO truck


the high school teacher
says, I wanted
to be a doctor
not a teacher
the other says, one textbook
for twenty kids
we memorize here


hard to tell
these teacher stories
from the bitter hot
under the acacia tree

Dr. Karen Meyer

no electricity no library no Google
so many phases
to get used to the methods of learning


we share learn together put all our life
in the learning
help the guys who follow pass it on like a train


we memorize cram English ask the Watchman
if we can stay
in the light back at school no sleep tonight


we imagine what we’ve never experienced
between the gaps
see it back in our heads at the national exam


we drink tea at Stress Corner or the market
tell stories laugh
talk about Somali politics life in the camps


Somali culture is about sharing
whatever we have
somebody at the market will tutor will pay for tea


no going west no going east we stay
or carry a gun
we wait for the opportunity to go


sacrifice persistence deny the fact of refugee
manage the stress
so tomorrow I’ll be someone else not the same as yesterday

Dr. Karen Meyer

I asked               a question
of her
silence        spilled
in a roar


swallowed the room
her eyes       avoided looks
not knowing
too deep        to be hushed


she came       no more
i was left
holding her pain        my story


what more could i ask?
i am     teacher

Dr. Karen Meyer

there are places
at the ends of the world
fragile frayed fringes
long since forgotten


I see desert
Earth’s dusty brink
bone dry sky
so blue
burns my pale skin


I see footprints
watched over
burnt-red sand


scarves flowing
in color
bodies exiled
under scrubby green
acacia trees


I see litter
hollow plastic bottles
endure like sand


tall marabou storks
rummage pits and piles
their orange-red
vulture faces
gawk back


I see the mirage
of home
decades past


I see living colors
of hope
smile back


what say you at the fringe?

Dr. Karen Meyer

Imagine Hamlet to be…an overdressed soliloquy.

His ramble to an unbearable stage turned comedy.

Yes, yes, comedy! Such irony in the red sand.


On our simple stage, a headmaster’s office. Humble despite its clutter piled high, schedules taped on walls, chair, tall and tired, jabbers in squeaks. And there the Danish Prince sits lost on the busy desk. Inside a box. Glossy cover photo. Skull in hand. His DVD mission shelved. There is no TV in the desert school, no player, only scant resources. One plug arrived only a month ago to the red sand.


Alas, a clever plan strikes the boyish, leggy headmaster. Black shoes shined but sandy still. Brilliant at making do. Sends some boys on a quest milestones away.


“Bring us that big NGO TV.”


A pilgrimage heaven will direct.




The five boys chattering above desert silence trek back across the sand, embracing the mighty TV with all their might, like an entourage around a king. A blue-blooded wail out of the player on top startles the boys,

“Keep it moving, my word it’s hot!”


Long and sleek, the black chord dragging behind leaves a mysterious sinuous trail in the red sand, like a sly ghostly snake.


Back at the school a buzz of voices await Hamlet’s arrival. Minds gorged on his words. Memorized scenes. Still the meaning between the lines staggers in silence.


Fast forward… Finally enter Hamlet on the wide outdated screen in his puffy soliloquy. Blue tights tinged in red dust worn thin by the desert. He faces a crowd of curious eyes. Desperate with imagination.


Mission accomplished! And so it ends here in Dadaab.  Tragedy averted.


The audience now wiser to the slings and arrows Hamlet brought to this refuge called school. And given pause, they see something is rotten somewhere else in the world (with its ensemble of shady characters)


One switch and the drama fades.  The headmaster, prompt and astute, wearing a serous smile, reminds his students: the sea of troubles their flesh belongs to will ne’re end in tragedy


Bravo!  For the love of Shakespeare here in the red sand.

Dr. Karen Meyer

I see desert


sky burnt red

sand dry blue

relentless as blood lines


seeking scrubby shade

under the acacia

figures,  scarves, veils
gust and flutters,


talking, walking

people always walking


donkeys dawdle by

unhitched while

white goats

keep company

keep moving


voices, tangles, canopy

mingling shanties

fluted iron and wood

plastic scraps in gaps

UN blue on white


fabrics, brash, flower

clash on lines

goat, camel, dangling raw

rugs bear tuber


hawkers hawk

people talk

politics on mats

always drinking tea


I see desert alive

Dr. Karen Meyer

Maxaa geed ugu abuuri



Why plant a tree

in this desert?


whispers Fatima


her brown hands

dusty with red sand

the cloth, secure


the cloth stretches tight

across tall sticks

planted in sand


Who will carry

my tree its water?


when we leave

go back home

when it is safe


Abdi hears his mother

leaps out the opening


alight to daybreak


his shadow rouses

the faded cloth

like a spirited sapling


Hooyo, Mamma, Hooyo

geed, geed, tree tree


Fatima joins, sings

his English sounds

reaches for a tiny hand


sand, still cool

to bare feet

sends off their footprints

to school

Dr. Karen Meyer