Act Eight: When you walk away

This is the last part of this series, Anatomy of a Temporary Country. Links to all eight parts are below.

When you walk away: Take One

‘I couldn’t stay in the room,’ Scisa says. ‘I said I wouldn’t go to one of those meetings again.’

The 30-year-old incentive worker from Congo is talking about evacuation protocol and a meeting of humanitarian agencies about what happens if things go wrong. It’s an evacuation plan. It doesn’t include Cala, or Amida or Scisa. It doesn’t include any of my students. If the region becomes too violent, the expats and Kenyans (the first-class citizens of the camp) will be evacuated, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.

‘It makes it hard to trust the NGOs or the UN,’ someone says. ‘How can you trust them?
If things get really bad, they’ll leave us.’

Everyone else nods in agreement.

‘How can you trust anyone who leaves you like that?’


When you walk away: Take Two

The sun is setting. I am standing on top of the white van, looking out over the camp. I can see Kakuma spread out, in its dusty, dirty, yet sunset-infused beauty. Even the rocks where people shit and the gulley where trash rots look glorious, from this distance. We will be showing our final films later that evening, and we’re exhausted from an intensive week of film editing.

In 10 hours I will be in an armed convoy driving towards the horizon, away from Kakuma. Soon, I will leave all this behind.

One of my students, Libin, is dressed in white from head to toe; she is dancing. Her whole figure looks like made of white linen. The cloth blows in a wind I can’t feel. Her limbs are like water – billowing out around her as she moves – and when she looks up at us, the world tilts and this feels like the center of everything.

Dance the pain away.

Cala and Kailey are sitting with their heads together, and I go over to them. Cala doesn’t look up, and Kailey silently leaves, making me the designated listener. Cala sits with her arms wrapped round her knees. I ask her if everything is okay.

‘I can’t stay with Kailey’s mother anymore.’ Cala says. ‘She doesn’t like the baby. She tells me to go out onto the street and sell my private parts.’

What about the NGOs in the camp, I ask. Could they help? A list of programmes available to women runs through my head. She has already tried.

‘They gave me some hand lotion,’ she says with disgust, and laughs a little under her breath.

‘When I told my boyfriend I was pregnant he hit me and said I was sleeping with other men,’ she says. Then when he ran away, she, like most single mothers in the camp, was called a prostitute. Soon there was no other way of making a living. ‘Now, I have to sleep with men.’

Cala is shivering. Her voice loses all its lulls and lilts.

‘I tried to hang myself,’ Cala says. ‘That’s why I missed the workshop on Tuesday and Wednesday.’ She licks her upper lip and moves to cross her legs.

‘Why did you do it?’ I ask.

‘I didn’t know what to do.’

‘What about your baby?’ I ask.

She scrunches up her shoulders, like a teenager shrugging off her parents’ nagging.

‘I don’t have anyone here, Becky,’ she says. ‘I am a size two.’

In Kakuma, people are given numbers to mark the size of their family, to determine how much food aid they receive. Until Cala had her baby, she was a size one, meaning she was an unaccompanied child.

‘My throat hurts,’ she says, from where the rope was. I try to talk about other options. I suggest ideas for other jobs she could do to earn money. I try to listen properly – I don’t want to lose her. I press into her hands all the money I have on me, but it is not enough to start over.

‘It is so hard,’ she says. ‘Just so hard. This is how we live.’

Almost every single mother I meet in the camp seems to have been pushed into a form of prostitution. Men will come at night to your home and insist on sleeping with you, they tell me. Your honour is ruined, and at the water tap in the mornings, other women push you to the back of the line and call you names.

The prejudice against women like Cala can be so palpable that redemption seems all but impossible.

I ask her what she wants.

‘A shop,’ she says, in the market. ‘I want to be able to make my own money.’


People are gathering in front of the white van, ready for the film to begin. Someone, probably Abdul, is using the van speakers to blast his favorite Tanzanian pop.

Kailey comes over and puts her arms around Cala protectively. Together, we pull Cala to her feet. And suddenly, we are dancing.

It is a song I don’t know, but I dance. The air is full of music. I dance because I don’t know what to say. I dance because in this moment, I too want to forget, and want them to forget. I dance frantically and ridiculously to make Cala laugh. The moon rises. The sky is huge, and it feels as though we are dancing in it. The ground seems far below us.


Act One: Sanitary pads in purgatory.

Act Two: A Temporary Country.

Act Three: It could be worse.

Act Four: the Waiting Place*.

Act Five: The Crossroads.

Act Six: the Rumour Mill.

Act Seven: Storytelling.

All photos by the author.

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