According to his birth certificate, Huthefa Abdullahi Maalim was born on September 23, 1999, in Moyale Sub-County Hospital, in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. In fact, he isn’t sure when or where he was born, only that it was somewhere in the vast grassy plains of southern Ethiopia, where his father, a nomadic pastoralist, herds cattle. He is the seventh of his father’s 13 children, and only the third to have made it through secondary school. His parents didn’t attend school; they are illiterate. “Where I am from, people don’t really care about schools,” he said. “They care about cows.”
It was a warm day in June 2019, and Huthefa, having traveled two days to get to Thika, a town outside Nairobi, was sitting at the front of a classroom, where he faced a phalanx of Americans who would decide his future. He was a fan of American TV shows—whenever he could afford it, he would spend 40 Kenyan shillings, about 40 cents, to download a season of Heroes or S.W.A.T. on his phone—but this was the first time he’d actually met Americans. Come to think of it, this was the first time he’d spoken to white people.