Kenya: Riding on the back of a tortoise
01 March 2010

One of the main roads in Kakuma refugee camp. Some refugees have lived here for more than 16 years but work opportunities are extremely limited. (Angelika Mendes/JRS)
With no work, all the days of the week are the same, except in name.

Kakuma, 1 March 2010 – My name is Abebe Feyissa Demo and I was born in Addis Ababa in 1960. Before I had to leave my homeland, I was studying in the University of Addis Ababa’s Department of Psychology. In 1991 I fled to escape the brutal torture of student leaders such as myself. In 1993 I was relocated from Walda refugee camp to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. I have lived here ever since. I am actively involved in my community, and also have worked for many years for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Kakuma as a Community Counselling Focal Person, which involves both counselling those in my community and training others in counselling skills and massage.

Most of the Ethiopian refugees living in the camp were students in higher education institutions or skilled professionals from cities and towns in Ethiopia. Most were single, and between the ages of 18 and 35. There were more men than women. 

The opportunities for refugees in Kakuma to improve their lives are limited. Kenyan government policy dictates that refugees must stay in one of two designated refugee camps (Kakuma or Dadaab). Refugees are not allowed* to keep animals, since this is considered likely to increase conflict between the refugees and the local Turkana people, and the semi-arid environment is not conducive to growing crops. It is possible for refugees to start small businesses, if the capital is available (either through a loan from an NGO or money sent by family abroad). However, the market is finite because Kakuma is in a very isolated area and the majority of customers are other refugees, a small number of NGO staff and local Kenyans. All NGOs in the camp ‘employ’ refugees but due to Kenyan laws prohibiting employment of refugees**, they are engaged on a voluntary basis and then paid an ‘incentive’, which is far lower than a wage would be for a Kenyan in an equivalent job.

“Each day of the week falls on Sunday” was a saying of Zemede Bezabih, a fellow refugee, when he explains the day-to-day life of refugees in Kakuma refugee camp.

With no work, all the days of the week are the same, except in name. The only concern of refugees is now and then hiding themselves from the scorching sun and the dust-storms. Once or twice a day they cook inside their shelters made of plastic sheeting, every day, every week and every month, every year, maybe forever. When Sunday happens more than just once a week, it becomes a cursed day. 

All the refugees want to escape this unhealthy situation. They do not know what to do about it and, more frustratingly, they do not know whether it will ever come to an end. 

Refugees were like a vehicle whose brake and accelerator were engaged at the same time: much roaring and agitation but no forward movement. Eventual engine break-down is the result. And as time slowly went by, refugees began behaving differently. They fell prey to illnesses. Personal hygiene became too much effort. No-one bothered much to take meals.

Refugees run here and there, trying everything they can think of to find a solution to their problems and a way out of their refugee life. Despite this endless activity, their progress forward is painfully slow. We call it ‘riding on the back of a tortoise’. People are ready and willing to make every effort to ride away from their problems but the only animal available to them is a tortoise, so the rider makes very little progress despite their efforts. After years of this, there are some who resign completely, come down from the back of the tortoise and hang themselves on an acacia tree. 

Some refugees, however, seemed to cope better than others. It was common to find many refugees gambling behind closed doors, often for many hours at a time. Strangely enough, they were less anxious than others about the refugee life that seems to have no end. The hours passed quickly for them. Some other young refugees used to spend time playing and listening to kirar (a traditional Ethiopian stringed instrument). It was common to see on their faces a rested look.

At that time, it was a frequent experience to hear at night-time the cry of “Leba, leba!” (Thief, thief!) Sudanese refugee minors (the ‘Lost Boys’ now resettled in the US) used to raid the Ethiopian community at night. Everybody chased the thieves in the pitch darkness but those Sudanese minors were rarely caught. What was amazing were the reactions of those who had been chasing the thieves. They returned without catching them, without retrieving the stolen goods, sometimes wounded, bruised and swollen, but they would chat for hours with unaccustomed vitality. Why was that? What was the reason for the sound sleep and rested face they showed the next morning?

Those of us who are counsellors and social workers used to regularly discuss those experiences and incidents. We concluded that pleasure and satisfaction in life is to be found in having something to look forward to and in free release of physical energy towards a meaningful goal.

Based on this belief we decided to find ways to help our fellow refugees. We focused first on the youngsters. It was they who were much affected by this unending refugee life. Ex-students of higher education and young skilled professionals with ambitions were watching idly as the prime of their lives passed them by. Our aim became to engage these refugees in activities that were meaningful to them. 

One member of our community was working for one of the NGOs in the camp but back home he had been a well-known football player. He quickly managed to form two teams of young refugees and, after a few more weeks of training, a match between the two teams was scheduled and all were invited to watch. On the day of the match, the number of refugees who gathered to watch the game was spectacular. They walked three kilometres to the football pitch and watched the game with a spirit of liveliness as they were waiting eagerly to see the team they supported win.

Returning to the camp, most refugees were walking erect and head up, talking more loudly and smiling more frequently to one another. Since then, refugees have come not only to watch matches but also to participate in regular training sessions. Eventually many young refugees formed a number of football teams, each with their own team name. The sports activities that started in the Ethiopian refugee community spread to other refugee communities – Sudanese, Somali, and Congolese. Inter-community sports matches were held.

Refugees who were followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox church decided to mobilise refugees to build a church large enough to accommodate everyone. Within two years, with financial support from abroad, refugees built two sparkling churches. Youngsters and many older people were more than willing and ready to help build the church. Church activities and the number of church-goers grew each day.