CHRISTMAS AT KAKUMA
At this corner of the Northernmost frontier region of Kenya—touching on one side, South Sudan, a little bit of Ethiopia, then Uganda at the point furthest North—is what is infamously known as the largest refugee camp in the world. Hosting close or slightly more than two hundred thousand individuals, the site is as humbling as it’s touching. Here, people live in close proximity in plastic tents. Turkana, the County under which the camp is situated, is a dry zone where water is a scarce commodity. Winds carrying dust from all of the neighboring countries blow into the furrowed brows of many an adult staring into space, dreaming of a different time and place.
No Christmas carols are to be found around this settlement. No music of any sort either. The Christmas noises here are loud arguments from disgruntled youths, who are drunk on local brews. The elders just sigh and stare out in silence.
Kakuma is a loose Swahili word that stands for ‘Nothing’. Looking closely, one sees that nothing presents itself in many forms.
There are the missing limbs of survivors of the South Sudan wars, who haggle over the politics of a land they love and hate for stealing their lives. The trauma of their lives is clearly superimposed on their bodies over the brutal tribal marks that vividly separate one tribe from another, even as they share the uprootedness of their circumstances. The men, women, and their children stand out in the camp with their impressive heights that tend to go beyond six feet, as well as their beautifully dark skins.
There are other communities inhabiting Kakuma. Men and women from the larger Congo, the Darfur area, as well as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. It’s a cauldron of cultures united by sorrow and deep wounds of war back in their countries of origin.
The World Food Program (WFP) and myriad other international humanitarian organizations do their best in providing basic survival kits for each household, including health care and education for the children. But what organization, however well intentioned, can bring the joy and celebration to a people who are clobbered by memories of their past into a stupor?
Rot has permeated groups of refugees in search of the assumed better things in life. Young people have gone on to experiment with drugs and engage in unprotected sexual escapades. Unwanted pregnancies, and illegal and unhealthy abortions are common consequences. There have been a few deaths. As if that isn’t enough of a price for these youths to pay—the older folks have carried their traditions to the camp and implement them ruthlessly. This Christmas was no different.
Men of marriageable age, and who through the camp’s assistance got asylum to other countries, make visits to pick brides from the camp. And this was the case with Aisha and Nyayiel, which became the whispered talk of the camp.
A beautiful South Sudanese girl of thirteen years of age had won the admiration of a general in his mid-fifties, who had six other wives living in the city of Nairobi. Nyayiel’s parents were ecstatic with the proposal because the girl was worthy of a hundred heads of cattle and ten thousand dollars in dowry. It was enough money for her father to marry a new bride, and for her sixteen-year-old, grade-eight brother to marry.
Unfortunately, Nyayiel had not been impressed by the proposal for she loved school and had for a long time nursed the idea of becoming a teacher after school. So this Christmas morning, Nyayiel did not wake up. She had taken an overdose of Malaria tablets along with an assortment of other drugs, and died without the parents sensing it. The general was cheated of his price fetch. But he was a resourceful man and presented a bargain. He was willing to take for a bride Nyayiel’s younger sister, Nyawitch, who was only nine.
The offer provoked a big sigh of relief from Nyayiel’s father, his sons, and other tribal elders who stood to benefit from the dowry catch. Nyayiel’s father had beaten his wife senseless before the camp authorities intervened. A morose air swept through the Sudanese side of the camp—a terrible silence that wouldn’t break even with drugged and drunken youths prowling and howling around. It was the silence of death on Christmas morning.
Ironically, once the general paid the monetary value for the nine-year-old, silence stepped aside, and a debate on the merits of kinship and the beauty of early marriage erupted among the men. Tragedy doesn’t come in darker subjects and behavior!
Across the divide of the Somali invisible wall, another war raged. Aisha had been subjected to female genital mutilation two weeks before Christmas morning, and the parents were ready to hand her over to their choice of a husband. He was another elderly candidate who was also her father’s cousin. Aisha had not argued to spare her mother the fate of Nyayiel’s mother. She knew the drill. Obey. Do as instructed. But any hopes or dreams she had nurtured died the day her clitoris was nipped and her labia stitched with cowherd thread. This Christmas morning, she had used her mother’s special protection military knife to dig into her heart. By the time the blade was pulled out, it was too late. Blood was spurting out like a burst water main. The family’s screams drew everyone around. She was declared death on arrival at the camp clinic. Having died before noon, the Muslim faithfuls and her immediate family were making arrangements for her burial before two in the afternoon.
Kakuma is a place of great sadness and incredible resilience. This is where memories bring madness while hope spits at defeat. This Christmas afternoon did break the cold hold on the camp with the two registered deaths. Fires were lit and cooking started in earnest. The smell of Fufu from the Congolese section wafted up into the blazing afternoon heat to meet up with kisra bread sizzling from the Sudanese section. The Ethiopians and Somalis were at their makeshift hearths working on Anjeela. And as the afternoon welded into the early evening, the dead were buried and the living fed.
Nancy Ndeke is a multi-genre writer. She writes poetry, hybrid essays, reviews, commentary and memoir. Ndeke is widely published with four collection of her full writings Soliama Legacy, Lola- Logue , Musical Poesy and May the Force be With you. She has recently collaborated with a Scotland-based Writer and Musical Artist, Dr. Gameli Tordzro of Glasgow University on the Poetry Collection Mazungumzo ya Shairi, and also co-authored the poetry anthology , I was lost but now am found with USA Poet Renee Drummond -Brown . She contributes her writings to the Atunis Galaxy Poetry ( Belgium), TUJIPANGE AFRICA( Kenya, USA), Ramingo Porch, Africa Writers Caravan , WOMAWORD Literary Press, BeZine for Arts and Humanities( USA), Andinkra Links 5, Wild Fire Publication, Williwash Press, The poet by day webzine, Writers Escape at Poetry, Different Truths, ARCS PROSE POETRY. Nancy Ndeke also works as a literary arts consultant, copyeditor and Writers’ Clinics Moderator.