Act Two: A Temporary Country

In camp myths, the name Kakuma means ‘nowhere’.

From the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, most aid workers fly 530 miles over the Great Rift Valley which splits this part of Africa in half. Passing the glittering waters of Lake Turkana, turn left at the Ethiopian and Sudanese borders, and just when it seems you might crash into the lush mountains of Uganda, you will see it, springing up from the desert plains: row upon row of corrugated tin roofs and mud homes. The earth is cracked by years of baking under a hostile sun.

Behind walls of recycled plastic bags stitched together and under roofs made of World Food Program cans hammered flat lives a population almost the size of Berkeley, California.

This is nowhere.     

Living Nowhere.

Nowhere has bad drainage. The unpaved roads don’t usually need it, since the region averages less than 12 inches of rain per year. But I arrived to storm clouds – and streets already swamped with murky water. The indispensable white 4x4 van that carried us and our equipment through the camp on our filmmaking missions was covered in mud those first few days.

‘When it rains, the streets of Somalia smell so bad,’ said Abdul, a skinny 18-year-old who talks too fast in every one of the four languages he uses. He was sitting up front just then, where he could manage the music, while the rest of us crammed into the back.     

‘Somalia does not smell as bad as Ethiopia,’ 17-year-old Amran shouted, hitting him on the head, yet somehow keeping her headscarf tucked in place. The yelling moved between Ki-Swahili and English and back again. Abdul updated his Facebook profile through his phone and yanked up his baggy jeans.

By Ethiopia, Amran didn’t mean the country between Sudan and Somalia. She was talking about a stretch of market in Kakuma, where the 6,000 Ethiopian residents live, many of the other camp residents shop, and the impoverished local population, the Turkana, sell firewood in exchange for some of the refugees’ food rations.

When Kakuma residents say Baghdad, they don’t mean the Iraqi capital, either, but the area of the camp favoured for drinking local home brew, fist-fighting, and passing out in the street. For these young people, this cosmopolitan encampment is the whole world.

The whole world.

The camp was built in 1992, when the Kenyan government carved out a space for the thousands of Sudanese ‘Lost boys’ fleeing across the border 80 miles to the north. Despite growing to hold 76,000 residents, in certain ways, Kakuma Refugee camp is still a temporary fixture on the harshest landscape in Kenya. Over time, other people fleeing conflicts and persecution arrived: Ugandans, Rwandese, Congolese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Burundis, and Somalis.

In a way this is a temporary country, now composed of 14 nationalities; 88 churches and mosques; 12 primary schools; one hospital; one high school; three graveyards; three libraries; and any number of ‘hotels’, as they call the small restaurants. It has its own laws, regulations, and customs. Yet this is a country almost entirely reliant on social security handouts meted out by the humanitarian aid workers – the de facto government.

Kenyan law stipulates that refugees cannot leave the camps without a permit. The camp residents are not allowed to work for a real wage, own property, or grow almost anything in the dusty soil, and so they are forced into dependency, often for decades; the average protracted refugee situation lasts for 17 years. As Jeff Crisp, head of policy development for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees writes in the Refugee Survey Quarterly, ‘The right to life has been bought at the cost of every other right.’

In not out.

Like the concentration camps upon which the first post-World War Two refugee camps were modeled, control of the residents seems as crucial as protection of them. Lives are summed up in measurements: 2,100 calories of food per day, 2.5 liters of drinking water, and shelters that measure 3.5 square metres. One of my students called Kakuma a ‘cold, hard prison’ – somewhat ironic, since he fled persecution in search of a better life.

Picking out the ironies of Kakuma would become part of life here for the next six weeks, as would generators, sweet Ethiopian coffees called macchiatos, red tablets to overcome iron deficiency, endless meals of cabbage, and accompanying my students on the quest for ladies’ necessities.


The first part of this series: Act One: Sanitary pads in purgatory.

Act Three: It could be worse will be published later this week.

All photos by author.

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