Kakuma Refugee Camp

Kakuma Journal

January 4, 2013

Hello from Nairobi. I’m doing an experiment. Very hard. I finished the books I brought. A book I bought on Kindle didn’t show up on my ipad and who knows how long I can keep a charge. For a few days I am staying at an international hostel where the novels I found on shelves are in languages I don’t know. At a bookstore I found only bad novels in English. I do have my notebook and many pens. What if do not read as I travel north. It’s a 24-hour bus ride to Kakuma. What if for the weeks I’m here, I have no book. What if I live and scribble  in my notebook? Do I dare board a bus with nothing to read, and no reading in sight. I think this was an ARTIST’S WAY instruction that I never achieved for a day, to forego reading and experience each moment. All is okay here, but everything takes mountains of effort. I bought a Kenyan phone and credit – minutes – and registered it as the law requires. Now I can text home cheap. I hope. I’m excited to maintain a link home.

January 7

I will stay until Thursday at the KVDA hostel. A communications issue keeps me here that long. The Kenyans celebrate Christmas and the New Year until January 7. So the New Year and work has just begun. Fanuel, KVDA program officer, came today. He said, Let us talk. I have been in the country since Thursday hoping for this conversation. Fanuel said, “You are going to Kakuma, yes?” I said, “Yes,” doubtful because I knew no exact plans. He said, “What are your expectations?” Oh. What does he anticipate hearing? I see this is an interview. I also now see that other volunteers are in their teens and twenties. None are going to Kakuma. Some have been in the country four months to a year. My stay is a flash. He said, “Maybe you are open. Maybe you will see what you will see.” I see this is the answer. Then I get the facts. I will travel to Kakuma with Edgar, a young Kenyan who has volunteered there once before. “We do not allow volunteers to travel alone,” Fanuel said. I leave for Kakuma on Thursday morning at 6 a.m and arrive in Kakuma at 6 a.m. on Jan. 11. Fanuel said the bus is very packed. People go for work. On the return bus, many people from the refugee camp are coming to Nairobi. They will arrive in the city and “hope to start a business,” was the way Fanuel put it. I have seen where many live in Kibera, a vast city slum. I’ll stay in Kakuma until Jan. 15, then take the bus back. I am glad I will do this with Edgar. Hi Edgar. He just friended me on facebook. Fanuel said I will stay in the Kakuma Boarding School with a teacher. He talked about the heat but I don’t think I can imagine. Thank you so much for your messages here. I feel like you are traveling with me.

January 10, 5 a.m.  Edgar and I go to the Eastleigh section of Nairobi, a section not far from the city center inhabited by Somalis. This is where we go to find the bus that will take us north, the Dayah Express. At this early hour, women in full cover have set up coal stoves and are selling hot, sweet tea.  After some hours we are riding on a bus with Somalis who are returning to Kakuma refugee camp. A Somali man tells me he goes to Nairobi to buy sugar and takes it back to Kakuma to sell in the camp. On the bus, there is an altercation between a Sudanese woman who is trying to save a place  in very tight quarters for her possessions, and several Somali men who want to take it.  She loses the space.  The Somali women call the Sudanese woman “Mama Sudani.”

Later I read of a series of grenade attacks in Eastleigh the news reports say are  by the al Qaeda-linked group al Shabab. People call the area “Little Mogadishu.”

January 10, 9:08 PM

Still on the bus to Kakuma. We are near. Tense long night. So many people. I am the only white  that I’ve seen since we left the KVDA house. In the early hours of the morning I see only desert and stars.

January 11, 11:32 AM

We arrived in Kakuma at 8 a.m. 26 hour – ride. I’m in Kakuma village staying in a living room with beds and a table where I hope we will eat soon. I am faint with hunger. The headmaster met us, then streams of older secondary girls. I hope one is cooking. I saw a child with chapati and wanted it so bad! This is a nice problem compared with the last one — the bedlum in the night on the bus. I now know a lot more about the daily routines of refugees.

January 11, 11:41 PM

Muslim praying continued for hours in the night. People here speak Ki-turkana. Nothing is going as planned.

Saturday Jan 12, 2:13 PM

I haven’t had electricity since leaving Nairobi. I am texting this to my husband and he posts it on my facebook site.

The village Kakuma: dirt paths, round huts made of sticks, bars, Lucy’s Beauty Shop – Wash and Blow Dry, open market stands, extremely poor.

Today I saw a UN distribution of maize flour and oil for cooking to Turkana people who I’m told have less than those inside the camp.

Children at the school are teaching me Ki-turkana – their language.

Ejoka how are you?

Ejok – good – response to ejoka

Ejokonoi – thanks

Ikoku niichi  – little baby

Jan 13

I’m learning to text on my back under a mosquito net in the dark. Went to a 3-hour church service in Swahili and so did a snake. People screamed and then killed it. Later, children in a class tell me it was a black mamba snake.

Jan 14

I taught 3 classes this morning Drinking water by the liter. The air is like a hot sauna.

Jan. 14

“Would you tell us please, what are the names of the daughters of your president, Barack Obama?” A child in each class in Kakuma asks me this question in one form or another. Then other students say, They are Sasha and Malia. Then they want to discuss Michelle. We could continue on the Obamas forever. There are not enough words for them to hear. I am visiting the highest level classes, including a class 8, students who will be taking exams to enter secondary school. They are mostly Turkana along with South Sudanese from the refugee camp. Many had never seen a white person. Some had seen a woman named Catherine who came in 2011 and a girl asks if I am Catherine’s sister. I walk into a class room. 100 faces stare at me. The girls’ hair is as close cropped as the boys’ so I can’t immediately distinguish gender. They sit on benches with connected tables that wobble from side to side, 3 to 5 students across. Everything is dusty like the air, dust in the mouth. There is a chalkboard. They ask if English is my mother tongue. Most had not heard a native speaker of English (unless they had seen Catherine.)  They and their teachers speak a careful, formal English. This is their English class. They have to take their big exam in all subjects in English. I find that a way to engage with them is with folktales. I had some among the books I brought. I told The Sun and The Wind, that tale of the contest to see who is most clever. We made up a refrain and enjoyed all our voices repeating the refrain. I even told The Story of a Pumpkin which made them laugh. One student told me a story about a clever rabbit. Tricksters and contests and magic. I invite them to ask me anything. A student stands and I go to them so I can hear them well. They ask, Would you tell us about Martin Luther King? Then we talk about Sasha and Malia.

January 15

Edgar Mwaku and I arrive again at the Dayah Bus in Kakuma because we are beginning the journey back to Nairobi. I am wrapped in a scarf as shelter from the sun. Edgar is wearing a Smuttynose baseball cap. (Thank you, Lizzie) In the bus station, the Somali clerk is yelling at a young mother and father who sit among a pile of luggage with three small children. An elderly man tells us that the family is South Sudanese from Juba, as he himself is. He says the family were not allowed to stay in the refugee camp, so they are continuing their flight on the Dayah Express – Kakuma to Nairobi. (Express is an incorrect word.) The Somali man is yelling, we are told, because the smallest child is crying and it disgusts him. The father speaks sharply in return but he is warned by the elder to take the child out. I’m interested that people are leaving Juba now, after independence. Juba in 2000 is the setting for the first part of The Good Braider. The elder tells us that there is no food for many  people in Juba and it is insecure. Displaced people had returned to the city, but now are again leaving for Kakuma, like this family. I invited the mother to sit on the bench where I was sitting. I was too frightened of the Somali man to protest. To me he said, “I have been to Colorado.  Go go America. In Africa, they eat people.”

The day before, Edgar and I and Peter, a Turkana friend, walked through Kakuma I, the first part of the refugee camp. The camp is large. There is a Kakuma II, and Kakuma III is many kms. away. Kakuma I is the home of Ethiopians and some South Sudanese. First impression. It is an orderly rural village – power while I was there, cafes, pool hall, schools, playing fields, commerce, boda bodas- bicycle and motor cycle taxis. Much evidence of the UN and Western presence. No begging, common in the poor poor Kakuma village.

Jan. 16, Yes, I am back in Nairobi and catching up at the cyber cafe and not texting. How wonderful to read your messages. Van Gsottschneider asked my purpose with the trip. I am researching for a children’s book and hope to bring closure to my long research on South Sudan. Tammi, I have some pictures but found the Turkana people reluctant to be photographed. So have many more notes than photos. And when I was in sketchy situations, I did not photograph. Now that I am back in Nairobi among Kenyans who are now my friends, I have to confess the amount of fear I have felt. It held me so closely that I only told my husband. He texted back something like, you can do it. You will have seen something few Americans have seen. He gave me courage. The first night here I lay awake in fear and imagined my friend and yoga teacher Lily Sibley and being in meditation with her and Lily saying, where are you now, come back to this breath. And this breath. Thank you, Lily. On the Dayah Bus, we drove into the dark as we drove north, people sick, babies crying, fitfull sleep, people shouting. At some point, somewhere between Kitali and Lodwar, women began to scream. I had been asleep and bolted awake. Everyone then, was awake and shouting. A man was climbing the ladder that leads to the top of the bus. The top of the bus was a stockpile of sugar, potatoes, kat, Edgar tells me. The people were screaming a word that sounded like bandit. The ladder is not far from my window. All the men in the bus were up. The bus stops, men get out, many of them climb the ladder, shouting. They are trying to get the thieves, who have NOT entered the bus, off the top bus. We finally move on, come to a town. I remember we park in front of the Salama Hotel. Dozens of people come. They seem to be telling the story, acting out men climbing the ladder to the top of the bus. Shouting continues for a long time. Edgar says, “Do not worry, Terry. There is no need to worry.” The next day in Kakuma I met a teacher. She had just returned to Kakuma on the Eldoret Express. Ah, she said, “You were on the Dayah Express. I heard that 10 men with guns boarded the Dayah Express and robbed everyone.” I told her that a man had climbed up to the top of the bus we were on to steal but men had not boarded the bus. We do know if there was a second Dayah bus that was attacked, or the story of our bus grew and grew.

January 17

I love your messages, all Catherine’s sisters. I am leaving soon for the airport. At the international hostel this morning, a young woman from Holland is celebrating her 22nd birthday. We are drinking sweet milk tea and eating dense Kenyan cake. One comment about Kenyan cell phones and time. Everyone I met has a cell phone with facebook and e-mail. They have by-passed pcs and laptops. My friends use cell phones to transfer money and pay accounts. A big thing is to top up you phone. I’ve spend much time going to Safaricom shops buying cards for what we call minutes and Kenyan call credit, or time. Here, you can buy time. Time expands here. Time is an abundant resource. In Kakuma, we sat outdoors for the slight breeze in the night, ate ugali and green grams, nothing to press the time, the whole night to be there under the stars. Just people talking.

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