When people stumble off the small World Food Program (WFP) plane, they are often greeted with a hearty ‘How is Kenya doing?’
As time goes on, it seems more and more appropriate: Kakuma is not Kenya. When people introduce themselves here they say ‘I am Sudanese by nationality...’, as if there is a second half of the sentence... ‘but really I don’t know where I belong.’ People talk about Kenya as though it is a vague shape on the horizon somewhere else, instead of the ground beneath our feet, just as Uganda is the place where the rains occasionally come from and Sudan is where the ivory bracelets for trade originate, so Kenya is elsewhere. Here is Kakuma – it belongs to no-one. With none of the rights of Kenyan citizens, third generations of young people grow up here, unsure what nationality they really are.
Here, in these nowheres, people lose their working life, their childhood, their sense of nationality. They wait. But while they wait, they grow old, fall in love, kill time, have babies, watch premier league football matches, lose sleep, tell stories, build churches, catch up on sleep, go to school, create mosques, braid hair, menstruate, argue with neighbours, drink tea, check facebook, drink beer, dream, get married and, much to the frustration of NGOs, pass on rumours.
Like the one about MixMe.
The discussion starts because of a blue and orange t-shirt. Affiliation between t-shirt bearer and t-shirt message is not crucial, I soon realize. NGO clothing sells for 500 KS ($6.20) in Kakuma’s Ethiopia. But, I still don’t know this and the shirt bears the logo of the food supplement, MixMe, on the left breast.
MixMe prevents anemia, says WFP. The refugees say it prevents babies.
I ask if anyone eats it.
‘They put family planning in it,’ Sadia answers, surprised at my ignorance.
‘Oh Becky,’ she says in a fit of giggles. ‘No-one eats it.’
If people do try it, the powder is almost tasteless, though some people say it tastes of iron. It comes in handy as an adhesive when mixed with water. It is used for fixing broken shoes, or gluing together iron roofing.
‘It sticks to the ground like glue,’ says one boy. He postulates on how the active MixMe ingredients might interact with human stomach acid to dire affect. Eating it is not worth the risk, he concludes.
MixMe is not wholly useless to the economy of the camp, however – people are paid to collect the packages – strewn in the dusty soil at the end of food distributions. A nutrition survey in March last year was puzzled as to why there was ‘no significant drop in anemia rates among women of reproductive age’1 and calls for investigation into the low uptake of MixMe despite its distribution.
For 16-year old Libin, the reason is obvious: ‘Giving us MixMe is all about reducing the population of Africa,’ she says. She knows she can’t be sure this is true but she doesn’t eat it all the same – just in case. In a few months from now, WFP will give up on changing hearts and minds and will burn its remaining stock.
1 Division of Nutrinion of the Kenyan Government, March 2010 - Kenyan Nutrition Bulletin.
Act Seven: Storytelling will be published later this week.
Photos by author.