Anatomy of a Temporary Country: Act One

Anatomy of a Temporary Country is our new eight-part series which tells stories from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Act One: Sanitary pads in purgatory is the first part of this series.


We are pushing our way through a mass of sweating women in brightly colored headscarves. On this particular morning, I am joining my students in performing that most loathed of activities: cutting a line. Glimpses of faces and bodies appear, then blur back into this throng of femininity: the hips of a Congolese grandmother, rounded and draped in green; a tear shining on someone’s cheek; an adolescent collarbone jutting out from a pink Lycra shirt. We are all headed toward a warehouse in the middle of a 20-year-old refugee camp in Kenya.

We are still far back, jammed in lines that weave and pulse their way into the warehouse, like veins to a pumping heart. But we are frantic: it can take all day to wait in these queues, and our small gang does not want to linger for hours in 110-degree heat, and I am supposed to be running a workshop that officially started two hours ago… and that is how I find myself queue-jumping an aid distribution line.

Operation Queue Jump is a ragtag bunch. Cala offers us determination; Amida is the strategist; Kailey has her sharp tongue, essential for clearing people from our path. Then there’s me, aged 27, a Welsh graduate student turned aid worker. My greatest contribution is my white skin – a ticket to privilege among the black, earthy and golden tones of one of the most cosmopolitan refugee camps in the world.

The Lutheran World Federation, the NGO running this particular handout, does not assign appointment times, so twenty thousand women wait for four or five hours in the baking heat to collect their aid. This is the way all distributions in Kakuma Refugee Camp work, from food to firewood. In the two-decade history of the camp, neither the NGOs nor the United Nations has come up with a better alternative.

‘You will go first, Becky,’ Amida, the planner, says, as she leads us away from these queues to the line at the back door of the warehouse.

‘We will follow,’ says Kailey.

The tools I teach in my video production workshops often seem less valuable than the privilege my students gain from my personal proximity. It lets them wander into the gated NGO compound, ensures us meetings with important people in the camp, and, as now, saves hours of waiting for basic necessities.


Cala laughs at how much of life’s basic workings she must explain to me. The bimonthly ritual of aid distributions has governed her whole life. She is originally from Sudan and is a noncitizen of Kenya, the country she has lived in all her life. She has no family. She dropped out of school in the camp early, but not before she learned English and Ki-Swahili, the lingua franca of Kakuma. Although her writing is patchy, her dark eyes flash with intelligence. They gleam as she pushes me through the crowd.

I take a breath, put my head down, and pretend that I am burrowing, instead of pushing my way through mothers, daughters, and wives. Kailey shouts at people to let us through. I hear Cala and Amida giggling behind me. I apologize when I feel the crunch of someone’s foot beneath mine.

Just as we reach the fence at the front of the line, we see her: the gatekeeper.

She is drenched in sweat and wields a white stick as she herds women back from the wire fence protecting the warehouse. Like almost everyone with authority in the camp, she is Kenyan.

Refugee camps bring trade, infrastructure and employment to certain regions, like this poor corner of Kenya. The international community donates most of the money that keeps Kakuma running, with the agreement that Kenyans get the jobs. Most of the time the jobs don’t go to the local population, the Turkana tribe, which has an even lower literacy rate than the refugees and higher levels of malnutrition, but to more educated folks from Nairobi, like this woman with her stick.

In and out.

For the women crammed against the wire fence that morning, she is all that stands between them and today’s aid allotment: a few bars of soap or a couple of bags of soap powder, two pairs of ladies’ underwear, thirty disposable sanitary pads, and two washable pads, all meant to last four to six months. Some 20,000 women here each received 64 disposable pads last year, while an average North American woman uses 264 sanitary items per year.

The refugees of Kakuma come from many conflict-stricken African countries, such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Forbidden to settle in Kenya, Kakuma’s 76,000 residents have no option but to wait for resettlement elsewhere. Kenya has nearly 400,000 refugees, mainly restricted to camps which seem designed to keep refugees from getting too comfortable and neglecting to emigrate or go home.

The United States usually accepts less than a fourth of this number each year from across the entire world, and it is one of the largest recipients of refugees. As the number of refugees far outweighs the number of resettlement spots, most people spend years waiting. Thus, temporary places of protection have morphed into modern-day purgatories, limbos, waiting rooms. More than ten million encamped refugees worldwide have fallen through the gap between nation-states.


I came here to train refugees in filmmaking, in part to allow people to tell their own stories in their own words, for what good it might do them, and in part to shed some light on what it means to spend so much of your life waiting.


Act Two: A Temporary Country will follow later this week.

All photos by the author.

Some names have been changed to protect the women's identities.

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