I lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Northern Kenya, between 1997 and 1998. The name, Kakuma, is Swahili for ‘NoWhere’. So I (among 60,000 others) lived nowhere between 1997 and 1998. While living nowhere is an apposite description of living in a refugee camp, the local Turkana (and I, and, I hope, others) don’t think it’s really nowhere. If one was free to make a living there, if social, political, economic and historical conditions had not conspired to edge its inhabitants to the very margins of existence, and treated the refugees for whom they would have been hosts as hostile aliens, it would have been a wonderful place. If you like open landscapes (like the north-west of Ireland, or the Highlands of Scotland, where I was brought up), then your eye is attuned to the vastness of the landscape and you appreciate the fragility and hardiness of the people and ecology that survives there.
Packed into a razor-wire-fenced enclosure of around 6 square miles, the ground reduced to dust by the heavy tread of vehicles and too many people (many of whom, heavily traumatised, hungry and homesick, were in no humour to appreciate the view), things begin to look rather different. The dust is everywhere and resentment builds. Recruiters for the Sudanese army would come and spirit away bored young men who hoped at least to fight for the freedom of their country, but ended up as corpses, or brutalised by the experience. Gunshots in the Somali sector, resentment building between refugees from Rwanda who were forced to share living space, Hutu with Tutsi, breaths apart from survivors and cousins of those who had raped and brutalised, murdered and tortured their own close relatives barely months before. Incestuously close, it was. And frozen with fear. The woman sitting rocking herself and her baby in the burnishing sun outside the UNHCR compound because she was a rape victim who had been too ashamed to admit to being pregnant but now had two mouths to feed and only one ration card. The wonderful project for survivors run by the JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) that taught women who had been tortured massage skills that they then practiced on one another. The palbable tension between the nuns. A swimming pool in the UNHCR compound, and cold beers, while beyond, in the beating sun… but you get the picture.
But I was drawn to northern Kenya partly because, years before (in 1991), I’d lived, for a few weeks, in Port Sudan, and I’d worked with a mixture of local and refugee trainee teachers, some of whom were southern Sudanese. I’d always been fascinated by southern Sudan. Something about the cultures, and something about the nature of the place, had made a strong impression. There was something almost undisturbedly ancient about the relationship between culture and nature, to my ignorant mind. I think Jared Diamond saw the same thing in Papua New Guinea, though obviously the place was more isolated for longer and with less prozeletyzing or what we call in Ireland ‘souperism’ (you take up this faith, we’ll feed you) there than in Sudan. Colonialism, first, and then invasions from the north, and finally civil war, and the battle (fuelled largely by external forces, including Russia and China – and the US – in their insatiable quest to control the oil fields), had ravaged both the land and the culture, was deeply disturbing.
I was sent to Kakuma as part of a four university research project into the impact on health and wellbeing of living in (or out of) refugee camps. The hypothesis of the study was that living in camps was detrimental to health and wellbeing in just about every way imaginable, from the impact on sexual violence, to the impact on psychology, to the number of cases of malaria and malnutrition – you name it, it was worse in the camp. And as far as I know, those were the findings of all the researchers. My own research involved collecting oral testimonies from young, unaccompanied, mostly Dinka (yes, I was particularly interested in Dinka culture because it seemed so relatively unchanged, in essence, for thousands of years, until the impact of all the invasions and primarily the war) but also other southern Sudanese. (I grew to develop an interest in the other southern Sudanese cultures and to appreciate the potential for positive interactions between all the communities of southern Sudan, and indeed the need to recognise that there was an element of fusion in all of this that required nurturing, because if this society continued to factionalise, there was a danger that civic society would never recover enough to develop in its own characteristic way). I had wanted to collect and transcribe all the stories into a compilation of evidence for the hypothesis that coming to the camp had impinged, in particular, on the boys (they were all boys – but more on that later, perhaps) ability to develop respect for themselves as adults in the cultures from which they’d originated. So basically I wanted to see if I could show that they would have been better off if they had not come to the camp, but had been hosted by the communities of the area, who were Turkana people. I loved the Turkana people who struck me as fierce and proud and who evidently loved their land (and consequently hated the camp, and hated, too, all the disparagement of their land that so many of the people in the camp, including UNHCR and Aid workers, heaped upon them and the place). Thoughtlessly. I loved the land too. I loved its wildness, its ethereal beauty, the strange almost moon-scape aura to the place, the extraordinary wildlife, the Turkana so at home there, so much belonging, which the rest of us sweated and moaned, and they floated through with their cattle and their goats.
It was evident from the stories I collected that the boys would have been better off out of the camp. I was told about their journeys to the camp. These are well documented elsewhere. I was told about how they were processed to enter the camp and how difficult that was for them. I was told about how they learned to play the system, to leave and return to the camp, because they realised that there was no one really observing them as human beings: they were just numbers, just arms and legs and bodies to clothe, stomachs to feed, numbers to process on a form. I was told that they had to have more than one ration card or they couldn’t survive. That they were put together in huts with other boys, that sometimes this resulted in abuse, sexual or physical, since often the boys didn’t know one another, and sometimes there were tribal tensions between them. I learned all about the tribal tensions in the southern Sudanese community, and also about recruitment drives by the various factions of the southern Sudanese army who would send men into the camp to demand that the boys fight for their country. I learned that it became like a rite of passage to kill someone, and that in some instances, this became a replacement rite of passage for the traditional ones. I learned that the boys no longer received the traditional tattoos, but that the war wounds they received replaced these traditional tattoos. All this evidence I collected, but I lacked any sense that my putting this evidence together would show, incontrovertibly, that the refugee camp was a bad place to grow up, and that there would have been more chance for these boys to have kept a sense of themselves, to have developed self respect elsewhere (and I argued there and elsewhere that self respect is the one essential for the development of any democratic society, since it gives an individual a voice, a self belief). So I silenced myself. Sat on the evidence. I did nothing. I was nowhere. I did write one short paper. Amazingly, it was accepted for a conference that was to have taken place in Gaza in 1998. But the conference was moved to Jerusalem and I was pissed off about that – apparently Clinton was visiting and there were security issues – and anyhow, I didn’t have any money (don’t get me wrong, I would love, love, love to visit Jerusalem! I believe my great grandmother on my father’s side was Jewish! I just wanted the refugees to be able to attend the conference and in Jerusalem, they couldn’t). I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any self-belief. And that’s how it goes.
I also taught English in the camp through the Windle Trust (I hadn’t managed to get any money to support my research so I went as a VSO – even though I have difficulties with the operational model and vision of VSO, they’ve been fantastic to me over the years – I was with them in Sudan, and in Indonesia, and I always had a difficult time, but they always supported me – thanks, VSO!) The Windle Trust was set up by a guy called Pilkington, whose family had made money by being successful businesspeople in the glass industry. Hugh Pilkington was killed, tragically, in a car accident in 1986 but the trust was set up and operated, and when I said I wanted to work in the camp, arrangements were made for this. It was an amazing experience. I was tired, sick, and had lots of personal issues to deal with (not least amongst which was the fact that I fell in love and agreed to marry Joseph weeks before I was due to leave for Kenya, and neither of us had any money, but he had enough shares to sell to buy a plane ticket, so he married me in the camp… but that’s another story) and I’m a chaotic teacher at the best of times, but I really relished the idea of helping people to develop their language skills enough to pass an exam so they would have a ‘passport’ out of the camp, and I worked very hard to make sure that I was there for the students as far as was humanly possible.
I also decided to try to live on a refugee diet for a couple of weeks, because I was deeply frustrated by the amount of sick days my students seemed to take, and that, in turn, made me wonder if I was succumbing to the Northern Nations disease of stereotyping. I got malaria pretty soon after I’d finished what was, effectively, a rice fast (I simply couldn’t stomach the flour when I saw live weavils in it, and discovered them baked into the bread). I was very low on vitamins and minerals and developed a scurvey-like rash, and my gums bled. I got prickly heat which never recovered while I was in the camp. I was only on rations for two weeks (though one evening, I was bored and went down to the Ethiopian community for a drink: I can’t remember how I got home (I had a bike) but I do remember feeling extremely sick the next day).
I played chess and smoked lots of cigarettes (and other things) with Armin, who I liked enormously, but whose attitude and values I sometimes questioned (in my own mind, generally, unless I’d had too much to drink). I made friends with some people I’d never, ever have imagined making friends with: Aukot, John Deng Garang, Festo, and many others. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I memorised The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner: ‘he prayeth best who loveth best both man and bird and beast’. I rode my bike through the camp. I practiced yoga. I drank beer. I swam in the UNHCR compound pool. And then one day I got on the plane to Nairobi, and I left. I lost touch with all of them. Until today. Today, Festo rang. It’s made me want to see if I can get in touch with people again.
I can still see the place, the sunsets, the dust, the mountains. For me, it was a magical place, a place that was deeply beautiful and deeply dangerous and difficult. I wrote a story about an accident I had while I was there. There are many other things that happened that I wrote about but will never publish but they’re all as vivid and clear as yesterday. I had a vision for the place then: that flowers would bloom in the desert, that respect between the peoples, their cultures and the place, would blossom and there would be a huge transfer of energy, so that all the hierarchical thinking which came from UNHCR completely unconsciously and filtered all the way through, causing resentment, power hunger, and corruption, would dissappate, and be replaced by a kind of busy energy of real democracy, of debate and discussion, of voices all participating, problem solving, respecting, communities asking the host community, the Turkana, how they could use their particular culture and skills to help them, even if ‘help’ meant ‘leave alone’. And how, in turn, the Turkana could help or leave be, the peoples, and most of all, because I love the land so deeply, I could imagine the land itself healing, the Rift valley relaxing as the pressure was taken off for ridiculous things like a swimming pool, and instead orchards were planted, rainwater was harvested, in pools of oases, sensitively managed, but mostly the land was allowed to be what it was, vast, open, and home to the strong and the brave creatures which, with intelligence and sensitivity, all can appreciate. But not when a people has ‘nowhere’ to live, without choice.