Kenya: Letter from the field : Kakuma Camp-"Hell" never looked so good

from Humanitarian Affairs Review
Published on 28 Jan 2002
By Jason Phillips, Kakuma Program Coordinator, International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Strolling down the main street in Kenya's "Addis Ababa", the Ethiopian market section of the country largest refugee camp at Kakuma, one cannot help but be impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the refugees. Well-stocked kiosks jockey for prime selling locations with video parlors, restaurants and bars. On a hot day, which in Kakuma means when temperatures go higher than the routine 40 degrees centigrade, visitors head for the Unity Bar for the coldest beers in "Addis". It has become almost obligatory for anyone visiting the camp to be feted at Franco's a tasty and affordable Ethiopian restaurant. Visit Franco's in the early evening and it is not unusual to see parties of Sudanese sitting next to Somalis, and with boisterous groups of Kenyan and European aid workers being served by the Ethiopians waiters as they enjoy the evening CNN broadcast.

Not just the Ethiopian community has thrived in Kakuma. Need to make a satphone call home? Visit one of the Somali shops. Want to see the latest news in Arabic from Cairo? Zakariah, one of the biggest businessmen in the Sudanese community, has three digital satellite antennaes, and charges only five Kenyan shillings for two hours of news. When our photocopy machine broke down recently and we needed to make several hundred copies of a survey questionnaire, to whom did we turn? An office supply store in the Somali community with a photocopy machine on a back-up generator. Don't come to Kakuma expecting to see only the destitute and vulnerable. It is a fully fledged municipality with the class and income divisions one would find in any complex society.

I have been working in Kakuma Refugee Camp for the last 10 months as the Program Coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has been in Kakuma since 1992 when the camp was built for thousands of unaccompanied Sudanese minors. Figures vary, but it is estimated that as many as 20,000 young Sudanese, mostly boys, came to Kakuma between 1992-4; its refugee population has since come to international attention as the "Lost Boys of Sudan". Although some 3,800 Lost Boys have been selected for resettlement in the United States, this obscures the fact that Kakuma Refugee Camp is currently home to nine different nationalities and more than 40 different ethnic groups. Southern Sudanese account for 80% upwards of 80,000 people in Kakuma, and there are substantial Somali and Ethiopian minorities. The remainder is a mixture of Great Lakes exiles from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, as well as a handful of Eritreans.

Kakuma's multinational character is enhanced by the interaction between the refugees and their Turkana hosts here in North Western Kenya. Kakuma present a case study of a phenomenom familiar to aid workers in which the indigenous population finds itself worse off than the refugee community in its midst. During the height of the drought in Kenya last year, the local Turkana people suffered more than the refugees, and at one point over 40% of in-patients in IRC's therapeutic feeding program in the refugee camp were Turkanas. This led to the short-term establishment of an emergency feeding program in the Kakuma township itself, and rates of malnutrition among the Turkana are today still significantly worse than for the refugee population. Relations between the host and refugee communities are tense but cooperative. Turkanas move freely in the camp, and are the customers of refugee businesses that often offer prices below those available in the town from local merchants. Wealthier refugees even employ local Turkanas, a practice that is most visible in the Somali community. On food distribution day it is common, for instance, to see Turkanas hired to carry rations. One of the unexpected consequences of breakdowns in the refugee relief food pipeline is that decreased rations lead to job losses for local Turkana. A symbiotic relationship increasingly exists whereby the livelihoods and household food security of the local population is very much tied to the refugee economy.

The camp's prosperous local marketplace is testament to the resilience and creativity of people living under difficult and traumatic circumstances, for Kakuma is a hard place to be a refugee. Kenya has no policy of local settlement, and there is a 100% dependence on the international community for food aid, the supply of which is often erratic. Refugees are not permitted to herd livestock, an activity that is monopolized by the local Turkana people. Freedom of movement is restricted, with refugees only allowed to live in either the Kakuma or Dadaab refugee camps. Employment options are extremely limited, and refugees are paid only meager monthly cash incentives by aid agencies and the UN bodies working in the camp. Sporadic internecine conflict within the refugee communities and between the refugees and the Turkanas has contributed to Kakuma's reputation as a violent place

Thanks to the "Lost Boys of Sudan", Kakuma has achieved of late a kind of international celebrity status among refugee camps in Africa. The BBC, NBC's "Dateline", and CBS's "60 Minutes" have all visited the camp in the last 6 months to cover the "story", not to mention scores of independent documentary teams. Unfortunately, reportage on the Lost Boys has taken a very narrow view of life in Kakuma. The camp has been used as a backdrop that somehow caricatures the endless hardship and desolation in order to establish a neat narrative of Biblical "exodus" to the "promised land"-the United States. "From Hell to Fargo" was how a New York Times Magazine cover story encapsulated the journey of several young Sudanese from Kakuma to their new homes in America.

Yet for those refugees who have called Kakuma home since the camp's founding in 1992, and for those who continue to stream into Kenya from neighboring countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia at the rate of 1,500 a month to flee war or drought, Kakuma is a safe haven. Yes, it is a very difficult place to be a refugee, but it is not a Hell on earth. The real and unreported story of Kakuma is the vitality and dignity of the refugee community in the face of tremendous challenges. The question to be asked about Kakuma is not why is there so much violence in the camp, but why is there so little? Kakuma's spirit is one refugee harmony and entrepreneurial spirit. From the vantage point of the Unity Bar in "Addis", enjoying an ice cold Tusker beer while watching children kick a makeshift plastic football in the streets, Hell never looked so good.

For more information, please contact Julie Bolle by e-mail or by phone on +32 2 738 75 92"