On a large outdoor screen, the flickering image is several meters tall
and illuminates the night. On screen, Rose Nakeny is sitting on the
dusty ground outside her mud brick home, swatting the flies away from
two children who wander in and out of the frame. Her face bears the
marks of domestic abuse. She is drunk.
Rose Nakeny is one character in a series of short documentaries my students and I made during my workshops. This is the premiere, and the audience is made up of hundreds of Kakuma residents. I know the sequence by heart – I have spent four days drinking luminous green soda and editing the films alongside my students.
On screen, the interviewer asks Nakeny why she drinks. She says it is because of another child she had: a child she saw hacked to death by a man with a machete in Southern Sudan. She is slurring her words, obviously drunk.
Disconcertingly, the audience starts to laugh.
I stare at the crowd, unsure if I am interpreting the roar of sound correctly.
Nakeny continues to talk in the Dinka language, her words subtitled in English. ‘My child was killed,’ she says. ‘I take alcohol because of my child.’
Sadia shrugs. ‘There are just so many people like this, weeping about their past,’ she says. ‘She’s funny.’
I used to think storytelling was healing. The people I meet in Kakuma don’t seem to believe this. Most seem terrified of telling their stories. Perhaps they want to distance themselves from tragedies that are all too familiar. Perhaps they believe they too will be laughed at or seem self-pitying. Or perhaps they do not want to endure comparing their stories with others that are worse, or better.
Many refugees tell me they believe forgetting is the best way to deal with their past. Forgiveness is too much to ask, they say, unless you’re in America apparently, where it will be easier to forgive. How can they forgive the people who killed their parents, torched their homes, forced them to carry guns and commit murders, raped them, left them to walk away from everything they knew, facing wild animals or militias? And, so the logic of Kakuma says: if they are not going to forgive, then what is the point of remembering? Forgetting is sometimes the only defense one has.
‘Everyone has a story here,’ says a Congolese resident. ‘People are tired of listening.’ There’s also the chance that you might end up living next to the people from the same community that set fire to your home. ‘You’re still living it here,’ he says. ‘It’s just not over yet.’
Sympathy, like everything else, is rationed in Kakuma. It makes storytelling as muddy as the streets after a storm.
I ask my boss to remove the Nakeny scene from the documentary. I don’t want her to be laughed at anymore.
The last part of this series, Act Eight: When you walk away, will be published next week.
All photos by the author.