Once I lay sleepless through a long night inside a tent in Somalia. The African refugee crisis was at its height then, and tents and makeshift shelters stretched out for several acres around me: 60,000 refugees lived in this one camp I was visiting on assignment.
I wanted to stroll through the camp staring upward, where the Milky Way shone spectacularly in the clear, equatorial sky. (In an odd inversion, our galaxy reminded me of the lights of Los Angeles as seen from the air.) But camp workers had warned against nighttime strolls, because of the scorpions.
They told horrific stories about scorpions lurking in towels and clothing, especially shoes. Victims of their bites must endure a pain like no other—“childbirth times 12,” said one nurse—for at least two weeks. A small scorpion had dropped from the slope of a tent onto the face of a sleeping doctor; for days the doctor got Novocain shots in his cheek, one every four hours, in an attempt to quell the pain.
As I lay awake I could hear a faint, eerie sound, like the keening death wail of a Muslim woman, in tone more animal than human. It was the sound of a Somali nomad bitten by a scorpion, carrying through the thin desert air. Each hour I lay in my tent it grew slightly louder. By morning, the nomad had reached the camp for treatment.
After a few days I left the camp, and as the truck pulled away from the thousands of huts squatting in hummocky rows against the horizon, a chilling realization set in. The camp doctor had told me that probably one in six refugees would die of malnutrition or disease within the next month. But it struck me with awful force that during my stay in the camp, I had spent far more energy and time worrying about those damnable ...1
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