#243 — Kakuma Refugee Camp — September 6, 2013

I have just returned from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya near the South Sudan and Uganda borders. “Kakuma” is supposed to mean “nowhere” in Swahili and it did seem like we were no longer in Kenya. When facilitator Peter Serete called me from Kakuma, he asked, “How is Kenya?” as if he were not longer in Kenya. The ride was essentially 16 hours from Kitale over what I call a “formerly paved road” so it was an extremely bumpy ride and we had a blow-out on the way back after the bus hit a major pothole. The local Turkana people, in the area around Kakuma, raise goats, some sheep, camels, and donkeys – they eat all of them. There is no grass so there are not cows. Interestingly enough there is a torn bush that can grow into a small tree which is always green even when there is no rain. I noticed that dew drops came off the iron roofing sheets in the morning so I suspect that this bush is somehow able to absorb moisture from the air. When it does rain, it pours, causing flooding. I was told that the refugees prefer the dry weather (they are not able to grow any crops) because there is more sickness, particularly among children, when it rains. There is also so much mud that people have to walk barefoot because they are unable to pull their shoes out of the muck. Sometimes it doesn’t rain for a year or two. The average daily high is 104 degree Fahrenheit, but it is dry heat and cools down quickly in the evening when the sun sets – St. Louis and DC can be much more humid and hotter so they didn’t understand why I wasn’t particularly bothered by the heat.

Housing is made from adobe bricks which the refugee has to make himself – about 2,000 of them are needed for one of these small houses. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), who runs the camp with the help of numerous NGOs, then gives them the iron sheets for the roof. There is also a nice hospital and some schools, staffed by local refugees at a low wage. The local Turkana are resentful of the refugees taking up their land and invading their space. They feel, with justice, that the refugees are receiving things that they themselves do not – they can see the big water tanks, for example.

There must be frequent conflict because any Turkana found in the camps after 6:00 PM is arrested. There are over 123,000 refugees in the camp which began in 1992. The biggest country represented is Somalia, followed closely by Sudan, but significant numbers from Burundi, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but there are also some from Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and elsewhere. Africa has more genetic diversity than all the rest of the world and it is obvious as you notice the very distinctively different ethnic groups in the camp. Moreover refugees from the same country may be coming from different tribes. Even though the camp is in a semi-arid region, water is not a problem. The large NGOs in camp have developed major water supplies with boreholes and large tanks. Pipes run from these tanks to many watering taps, but nonetheless many conflicts occur at the watering taps – something I cannot explain since there is more than sufficient water. There are also conflicts between the Muslims and Christians since most of the Somali, Sudanese, and Ethiopians are Muslim. Three months ago two different tribes from Sudan (who are fighting each other back in the Sudan, generating these refugees) got into a conflict which ended with the seven women, youth, and children dead. It is for these reasons that AGLI is introducing Alternatives to Violence (AVP) in the camp.

There is also a conflict between the “real” refugees and those whom I would call “opportunistic” refugees. Each year about one thousand refugees are given asylum in another country – the United States, Australia, England, and so on. These opportunistic refugees come to the camp, not because they have had traumatic experiences, but because they want to be sent to one of these receiving countries. Clearly the real refugees resent these pretenders and probably have no difficulty figuring out who they are. These seems to be a long shot as less than 1% are given asylum in any one year, but I guess the heat, hardship, and isolation of the camp (refuges are not allowed to leave the camp without permission) is like any lottery – some feel that they are going to be much luckier than the real chance they have.

Rations are given out every two weeks, but are not sufficient so people need to augment this with other activities. There are many thriving businesses in the camp – one that particularly struck me was that the Somali, who are energetic business people, were supplying electricity to those who could afford to buy it. A ration is called a “size.” Size one is a single person; size two, two people; size five, five people; and so on. As soon as a child reaches two months he or she is added on to the size of the family, meaning that they will receive more rations. One can easily, then, understand why the birth rate in the camp is high.

We are working through the local Quaker church which was started five years ago by Pastor Etienne Paul, a Quaker pastor from South Kivu, Congo. It now has almost 350 members of many different nationalities although the Congolese predominate. We did this “the AGLI way.” The facilitators (and me for the night that I was there) slept on mattresses placed on the floor of the church’s back rooms, the ladies of the church cooked the food for us and for the participants during the workshops, and were wonderful hosts – the chief cook, Elizabeth, cried when the facilitators left because she had catered to them for the three weeks they were there. Naturally at the closing celebration where I handed out certificates to the 96 people who had completed one or more of the AVP workshops, the church choir continued to entertain us with song after song with dance steps in that wonderful, Congolese lively beat.

Our three most experienced AVP facilitators, Peter Serete, Eunice Okwemba, and Bernard Onjala, conducted two basic three-day workshops, followed by an advanced, and a training for facilitators. These new facilitators then were apprentices in one of three apprentice basic workshops. Few Somali or Ethiopian refugees attended these workshops because, as Muslims, they did not want to enter into a Christian church. Nonetheless the Somali leader of Camp II where the church is (out of the six camps) came to me personally and asked for AVP trainings for the Somali community. Likewise I received a written request from the leaders of the Ethiopian community to bring the project to them.

Our next step will be to send back one or two of our experience facilitators to mentor the fourteen newly trained facilitators as they conduct 8 basic workshops – I suggested that they do some of these with the Somali and Ethiopian communities. Then we will assess what the next step might be. It is clear to me that these refugees need the Healing and Rebuilding Our Community (HROC) program which would be another major undertaking. Then they also need transformative mediation and transformative dialogue (where communities in conflict discuss their problems together). So there is a lot ahead of us. Regardless of the bumpy ride and heat, our three facilitators are all willing to go back to the Kakuma refugee camp.