Act Three: It could be worse

The gatekeeper with the stick is in midscream when she sees me.

Cala, Kailey, Amida, and I are now crammed against the fence. My smallest finger curls around the wire. The woman’s face changes; she recognizes I am an obvious member of the ‘aid worker’ set and shouts at the other women to let us through. I put my hand on Cala’s and talk about the importance of my workshop and why these women can’t spend five hours in a queue that day. Suddenly, we stumble into the warehouse clearing.

Kailey, like Cala, is Sudanese and grew up in Kakuma. Since Cala has no family, both she and Kailey live with Kailey’s mother in a tiny shack. Kailey often uses her mobile phone as a speaker to play music, and the two of them dance, to shrieks of applause from my other students. Cala is the quieter of the two, and the more stubborn. Her face stays blank right up until the moment she bursts into giggles. Amida, the third woman with me on this mission, arrived in the camp a year ago from Congo and is not as confident in English or in the rhythm of camp life.

Within minutes they are all clutching bags bulging with feminine goodies. We drag ourselves back through the disgruntled throng.

We are sweating, but triumphant. I see the green plastic packages of Naturelle pads already arrayed on the dusty ground for sale next to the line. Amida, Kailey, and Cala will sell some of their feminine products to buy fresh vegetables, milk, and clothes. None of these items are provided by the camp, but they can be obtained in the markets, which are supplied by outside traders. Life in Kakuma requires constant negotiations.

Constant negotiations.

When their supply of pads runs low, women look for alternatives (reusable pads, old clothes, paper) or ways to make money so they can buy more disposable pads. One option is also to use the washable pads the NGOs hand out. Washing the pads requires water, which is only available at certain times of day and must be carried from shared taps through the streets. When the allotted soap is used up, more must be bought in ‘Ethiopia’ at more than a dollar per bar. In addition to this, carrying soiled reusable pads around in 110-degree heat is unpleasant, my students tell me; it puts students off coming to school.

The Lutheran World Federation now gives extra pads to girl students attending classes. But that’s still not enough for everyone.

‘The pads usually don’t last until the next distribution,’ one woman tells me. She has sex with men, for less than sixty cents each time, to earn money for milk for her child, lotion to protect against the dry climate, clothes, and sanitary wear. She never uses condoms. The men don’t like them.

A report released last year by the Humanitarian Accountability Project confirms what women tell me: that the lack of alternative livelihoods pushes women to trade sex for clothes, lotion, and pads.

On the world’s television screen, refugees are almost always seen as products of the conflicts they fled, their past, and as problematic immigrants arriving in Western countries, embracing their future. What we forget is their story in between: often, decades spent in refugee camps, waiting. They are almost never understood as existing in an extended present, a nowhere place, like Kakuma.

Extended presence.

In contrast, in that ongoing present, I notice people rarely speak of their past. Although I spend many hours talking with my students, I never ask why they left their home countries. It seems taboo. Instead, I wait for them to bring up personal anecdotes and stories. But they seem to prefer focusing on day-to-day moments.

One of the things we do talk about is women’s panties. Victoria’s Secret lists seven distinct panty categories, and hundreds of colors and patterns. In Kakuma, when the underwear is included in those seasonal distributions, there are only four options: small, medium, large, and extra large. All are variants of the granny-pant.

‘We don’t want to wear them,’ Joyce says, swinging her bag. ‘They are so unsexy.’

An employee of the Lutheran World Federation designed the panties herself, here in the camp. Some refugee women make the panties, using 19 sewing machines. The women are paid 20 Kenyan shillings (23 US cents) for each pair they stitch. Amida thinks the low price shows.

‘They fall apart,’ she whispers. Everyone screams with laughter. Amida speaks English accented with the French she learned in Congo. Her family converted from Catholicism to Islam recently, and she tosses her veil over her head haphazardly as she walks. She often forgets to wear it.

‘They’re made for old women,’ Cala agrees. Kailey puts one hand up to her mouth to guffaw. She wraps her other arm around Cala’s shoulders. Living together as they do, they act like best friends or sisters. Their skinny frames shake with laughter. At moments like these, it’s easy to forget that both Cala and Kailey are mothers.

Not what I want.

For schoolgirls only slightly younger than Cala and Kailey, the underwear is sometimes too big, Cala and Kailey say. But just as some refugees find ways to work illegally outside the camp or to escape to Nairobi without an official permit, others find ways to bring different types of underwear into the camp.

‘You can buy nice panties in “Ethiopia”,’ Kailey says, referring to the main place to buy black market clothes. Cala nods. The nice panties, which include lace and tiger print varieties, are trucked in from Nairobi by Somali or Ethiopian traders. But they must be paid for. ‘You need money for nice things,’ Amida says, playing with the plastic bracelets that jangle at her wrist. She wishes she had more nice things.

But, my students inform me, it could be worse. We could be in Dadaab. Dadaab is a series of camps 450 miles away, where 270,000 more refugees live; in Dadaab there is not enough funding to offer any sanitary pads or underwear. Kakuma, with its unsexy panties, is known among aid workers as a five-star camp. The residents are reminded to be grateful.


Act One: Sanitary pads in purgatory.

Act Two: A Temporary Country.

Act Four: The Waiting Place* will be published next week.

* The Waiting Place... For people just waiting.

All photos by the author.

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