Kakuma is like the answer to a sailor’s invocation: “All is lost! Everyone, to prayers!” Its silence is like the silence before the ultimate threshold. Everything seems forgotten, passions and myths—everyone here is a shipwreck survivor. Life has been tossed to and fro like a thin raft in the storm—and here, in the last place to make land, one finds a static life that hardly resembles peace at all. It is an implacable immobility with inscrutable intentions. Here, life is lived halfway.
This is Kakuma, at the outermost border of Kenya, on the frontier with Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia. A territory inhabited by 147,670 people who come from half of Africa: these are the refugees of the many wars, old and new, that have scarred this beautiful continent, wracked with pain for so long. This refugee camp has existed for 26 years, but it is still said to be only “temporarily inhabited.” A place in suspended animation bordered by the eternal kingdom of sand—Turkana land—defined by the oppressive heat and invisible walls of a truly “impassable” border: the desert. The camp is a humanitarian institution, conceived exclusively with the goal of “saving lives,” but it also involves a powerful effort to minimize the impact of the refugees on the host country: it is in it, but not of it—a kind of “transitory” extraterritoriality.
Kakuma was born to house the “lost boys” for 18 months: the Sudanese children living in the Ethiopian camps that had become lost along the way. That was in 1992, and Kakuma is still here now. An agglomeration in the shape of a town, but deprived of citizenship rights. Kakuma is made up of many housing units, each built according to the time of arrival of the occupants, and office space for the NGOs and for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. These three spaces intertwine, but function on two distinct economic levels, with two separate currencies: the dollar, which represents outside-driven growth, and the Kenyan shilling that underpins the development from within. The dollars pay for the aid, whether it comes from UNHCR or from the refugees’ fellow countrymen and friends who emigrated abroad, while the shilling (in addition to bartering) gives life to the local markets, featuring the productive handicrafts that support livelihoods, which also act as a medium of encounter between the local population and the refugees.
To go from Nairobi on the thousand-kilometer trip that separates the Kenyan capital from the camp is a crash course in humanity, a search for answers to fundamental questions, a road toward “the essential nature that is invisible to the eyes.”
The silence, the hot air, the solitary paths of men and animals point to the notion that this is a path toward “the origins.” But it is not a romanticized one; it is taken with feet and hands cracked by fatigue, with thirst and a stomach that goes empty for days. Here one seems to be walking on a fine line, a true boundary between life and death. To follow this path is to take a hard look, in a way both subversive and humble, at what we have been until today, at the choices we have made, the mistakes and true joys, and all our relationships. One is naked here, laid bare without any protection, like the lives refugees.
The bus leaves once in a while from Eastleigh (the Somali district of Nairobi, resembling a miniature Beirut). I went there and find a transport company that goes to Kakuma regularly. Then, at nightfall, together with 60 refugees, I climbed on the bus and set off toward Kakuma. We crossed the Rift Valley, Nakuru, Kenya’s green granary, the large cattle farms, the lands of Moi (a former president of Kenya), where beyond the bridge, on the grounds of the Moi University, there is even a church bearing his name. Then we went through Eldoret, Kitale, and entered the Kenyan desert, which felt as if the bus had just driven into a ventilated microwave oven. We saw goats and sand dunes, Lodwar, and finally the unending “kingdom of sand.”
Ten military checkpoints punctuated the journey: out of 60 refugees, about 30 were forced to go out to “come to an agreement” on the kitu kidogo (a bribe), while the others are “in order,” as they have already paid it directly to the driver. After 24 hours, we were in the camp.
Last Saturday, for the first time ever, a TEDx event took place in a refugee camp: TEDxKakumaCamp, with local and international speakers exploring the theme of the meaning of “Thrive.” There were speeches on innovation, education and transformation, reflecting on refugee lives and telling extraordinary stories of resilience, generosity and creativity.
For instance, the story of Victor Lufungula, born in 1965 in the forest of Kisangani during the post-colonial rebellion. “When I was born,” he said, “my mother cut the umbilical cord with a sugar cane because there was nothing else. I’ve seen America, Europe, and after the years of carefree living offered by the priests, when I had no worries about food, clothing and housing, I returned to the origin, to the womb of Mother Africa, who still looked out for me and gave me a wife.”