From Wednesday 18th June to Friday 20th June 2014, I got to experience life in Kakuma, at the refugee camp. A couple of bloggers and I went there courtesy of UNHCR to commemorate World Refugee Day, and each day, we had opportunities to interact with the host community, the Turkana, and the refugees, who are of more than 13 nationalities, and are about 150,000 at the moment.
Every morning, between 8 – 9 am, a lorry would arrive full of people displaced from their home countries, and they would head to the UNHCR offices to register themselves. Many of these people spoke English, and one could tell they were well-educated. Each day, we went into the camps and interact with the refugees. They told us stories of their countries, some like Somalia which have not known peace for over two decades, others like South Sudan which had earned a fresh start, only to throw it all in the wind and return to where they started.
The camp was hot and dusty, and a majority of the structures were made of either mabati (corrugated iron sheets) or mud (bricks). We heard stories of journalists from Ethiopia having to run away because they published stories the regime did not approve of. One such man was now making a living constructing bottle brick housing for people in the camps. There was a principal of one of the schools on the camp, who had come to Kenya as one of the first South Sudanese refugees, studied here and made a life for himself. Once South Sudan attained independence, he and many others went back, only to return to Kenya and have to start from scratch as refugees because of the infighting in South Sudan.
We heard stories of fights between the Turkana and the refugees, over firewood, water and other resources. The Turkana were resentful of the refugees because they received these things from humanitarian organizations while the Turkana had to go out and look, while the refugees insisted that they did not receive enough, thus they had to venture into Turkana territory. The Turkana complained of their children being like chokoraa (homeless/street children), not being allowed to study at the schools for refugees, and even having to work in the camps to eke out a living. There were frequent battles inside the camp that leave people dead, with the disagreements usually boiling down to cultural differences.
On World Refugee Day, a government official working with the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) had the gall to say that “There is no pride in being a refugee,” as he spoke of initiatives the Kenyan government was involved in to better their lives. On a day meant to celebrate these brave human beings, he decided to put them down.
When one’s country has imploded and you have been forced to run away, trading your valuable iPad, smart phone and everything else you have to your name to gain passage across the border, is there time for pride? When one has come from being a senior manager at a company to operating a boda boda (motor cycle) in Kakuma refugee camp for a living, what happens to their pride?
Yet it seems that many of us are as insensitive and idiotic as this government official. We do not imagine that a time could come when we could be seeking refuge in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda because our political situation got out of hand. That we may have to trade our cars, laptops, smartphones and other comforts in order to gain safe passage across the border. That we would then be packed like cattle, in a lorry, and ferried to safety, and once there, no amount of “pride” and “Do you know who I am? I am on the fast track to partnership at my firm!” would save us from our new reality: that we have burned our country, and that we are refugees.
This possibility has never seemed more real to me, especially after this trip.
We have already managed to displace people in their own country severally. An internally displaced person is a refugee in his/her own country. They rely on humanitarian aid, and experience the same troubles in the camps set up for them as external refugees do, including friction with the host community. It must be jarring to imagine that your own country would do this to you. Yet Kenya keeps doing it. As at January 2008, 404,000 people had been displaced from their homes as a result of post-election violence. Let us not forget those displaced by drought, floods and inter-community clashes.
Monday 7th July 2014 marked yet another Saba Saba Day. This is a historically important day for Kenya. In 1990, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia called for a protest against Daniel Arap Moi, and the one party state system. Moi’s government responded by arresting them, Raila Odinga, George Anyona and others. However, Rev. Timothy Njoya, James Orengo, Martin Shikuku among others led a rally at Kamukunji Stadium, which ended with the protestors being attacked by security forces and KANU insisting that multi-party democracy would lead to violence and friction along tribal lines.
This act of civil disobedience led to the birth of the multi-party democracy we enjoy (or suffer under) today, along with relative press and other freedoms. However, when one surveys the internet today, civil disobedience is portrayed in a negative light, with every other Kenyan and their grandparents posting messages like “Let us be peaceful and not fight. Let us love one another…” One cannot help but notice the fear and potential chaos bubbling under these messages. We have a government that has all but failed to protect us, security personnel who do not take their jobs seriously, and a president who barely seems to care. People have every right to be furious, in fact, it is insane not to be. Our problem tends to be that we take this furiousness personally, as if we have been attacked as individuals, just because we share a tribe with the person/people under fire. The worst part is how we never seem to learn.
We come close to burning our country every so often, for example, on 19th June 2014, leaflets were distributed in Rift Valley asking all Luos to vacate or be attacked. This is the same idiocy that led us the 2007/08 post-election violence. When Kenya is attacked by terrorists, we oppress Somalis and put them in a concentration camp. When people are killed in Mpeketoni and Al Shabaab takes responsibility, our president comes out and denies that it was them and instead blames the opposition, leading to idiotic Kenyans attacking their neighbours because they come from opposition strongholds. In all this, it is we the people who suffer, who die, yet we continue to propagate the same stupidity over and over, somehow convinced it will yield different results. Perhaps we are a nation of idiots, and we deserve each other.
We need to understand that our problems are endemic, and of a much deeper nature, and “cleansing” the country of one ethnic group or the other will not solve them. Poverty and corruption are not by-products of ethnicity, they are born of greed and lawlessness. We need to abandon this constant state of fear and chaos, which has been used time and time again to keep us in check.
There are only two tribes in Kenya: the haves and the have-nots, and this constant ethnic tension and chaos ensures that the demarcations between those two groups remain, and that few cross over from one to the other. We are at a very important place in our democratic journey as a country: the true shambolic nature of our government is clear for all to see. We have a constitution that gives us recourse on what to do, let us not be afraid of our constitutional rights and powers as citizens, and hold our leaders to account.
Democracy is government of the people BY THE PEOPLE for the people, yet we always forget that little part – by the people. It gives citizens great power compared to many other systems of government, but this power comes with great responsibility. The work of change is hard, as our heroes Rubia, Matiba, Odinga, Anyona, Njoya, Wamwere, Shikuku and others would attest. Anything worth doing is going to be difficult, but it must be done. Once we confront the fact that our attitudes are flawed, and our leaders are hopelessly inept, we will have made the first step to recovery. Your neighbour’s tribe has nothing to do with your poverty. In fact, your neighbour is likely as poor as you are. What has her tribe done for her lately? Does it put food on her table? That is unlikely, which is why it is foolish of us to even allow ourselves to be pulled into ethnic violence.
I believe in market forces – demand and supply. I also believe that demand is a much more powerful force than supply. If we demand better leaders, and behave as we demand them to behave, the supply side (i.e. the leaders) will have to acquiesce. We will get what we work for, but we must first work. The next time there is an election, do the right thing. Vote on principle, not based on your tribe. Stand up against injustices, do not be afraid. The work of liberation has never been easy, but it is worth it. The first step is to liberate our minds. Otherwise, we are steadily on our way to joining Somalia, South Sudan and other war-torn countries in their crises, and I would hate for us to go that way.