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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 91-92, April - August 2003, p.137-146

Impressions from Kakuma Camp, Kenya.

"What the eye has seen, the heart never forgets"

(Bandibu proverb) 


Rev. Fr. Frans THOOLEN, S.M.A.

Official of the Pontifical Council for the

Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

A low, one room house, made from mud. Small triangular openings of around 20 centimetres in the walls, functioning as windows. Roofed with worn-out UNHCR tarpaulin, stretched and attached to eight big stones. Some other bits of plastic filling the holes. A catechist lives here, together with his wife and five children. He and his family fled from Sudan. It took them three months to arrive at the border, all the way on foot. Next to his house are others, but some had recently collapsed. So he gives shelter to four other people. At night they are eleven, sleeping in one room.

Some insights in the life of the Kakuma camp

Houses are leaking, food is not sufficient and people are without a future. Welcome to Kakuma Refugee Camp! It is located in the North of Kenya, in a very remote, semi-arid area where the rule of law is weak. Famine and drought are regular features. The climate is harsh and rainfall unreliable. The main economic activity for the local population, the Turkana, is centered around livestock - camels, goats, sheep, cows and donkeys. Nomadism is a dominant way of life with about 65% of the pastoralists moving frequently (on average, 8-14 times a year) with their livestock to follow receeding pastures and water for their animals. It is one of the poorest districts in the country with 60% of the population living below the poverty line.

The Turkana population is estimated at around 500,000 of which 90,000 are Catholic:

  • 70% of the adults cannot read or write.
  • More than 50% of school age children do not attend school.
  • The mortality rate for the district was 159 deaths for every 1000 live births, as compared to the national rate of about 62 in every 1000 live births.
  • The life expectancy for men is 44, and for women 46 years. 
  • Some 34% of the population are infected by the HIV/Aids virus.

Turkana District has seen a continuing decline in government health services, education programmes, roads, security and even the provision of food and water facilities.

In this region the government, with UNHCR, decided to construct a refugee camp in 1992 after the arrival of 12,000 "lost boys of Sudan”. The policy of the Kenyan Government concerning refugees is regulated under its Immigration Law and leads to requiring refugees to live in camps and designates those who stay elsewhere ‘irregular’. It does not allow refugees to work.

Over the years the population has come to include Somalis and Ethiopians from camps closed elsewhere, as well as refugees from the Great Lakes Region, transferred from Nairobi. At present the population stands at 86,000 refugees from nine countries, of which 40% were born in the camp. The main groups are Sudanese and Somalia. 

UNHCR co-ordinates and monitors various programmes carried out by different agencies: shelter (World Vision), food (World Food Programme), health (International Rescue Committee), education and community services. The Lutheran World Federation is the lead implementing partner and also provides the camp manager. 

There are 6 preschools, 23 primary schools and 3 secondary schools. The current number of students enrolled in primary school is 20,785 and in the secondary school 1,823. Health services are provided in one hospital and five clinics.

One can distinguish three categories among the refugee population: 

1. Those who have relatives abroad who regularly send them some money. This is additional to the food rations and can make all the difference. It provides the possibility to start some business, one of the few income generating opportunities if access to capital is provided. 

2. 3,000 - 4,000 refugees, who besides food rations, receive incentives (varying from $ 20 - $ 60 because of their involvement with programmes of the NGO community.

3. Those, the overall majority of the camp population, fully dependent on food rations.

People depend on food rations from the World Food Programme since they are not allowed to work, nor to raise animals. Officially the rations come to 2,100 calories per person per day. However, food rationing has been seriously affected for longer periods by limitations of money. Last year an average of 1,700 calories per day was handed out, consisting mainly of maize. A broadening of the food basket is urgently needed. In 2001 the global malnutrition rate in the camp stood at over 17 per cent. The International Rescue Commission observed: “What is more alarming is that global malnutrition rates on Kakuma have not significantly deviated from this level for the last six years. These are rates that one would expect to see in severe nutritional emergencies. What is particularly notable is that this is happening not in an acute emergency setting, but in a care-and-maintenance camp that has been in existence for ten years”.1 In 2004 UNHCR will only donate 50-60% of what is required.

But at first sight the town looks quite normal. The main street is full of businesses, small restaurants, shops which offer the most diverse items, barbers and hair saloons. Music sounds in the street, quite a number of bicycles used as local taxis - financed by a micro-credit system. A Coptic Orthodox church with a library, a mosque, some other churches. Other projects which look impressive and where dedicated people are assisting others. A counselling programme treating people against post traumatic stress, psycho-somatic diseases and depression. Refugees are trained to treat fellow refugees, sometimes by massage and relaxation techniques. A counselling programme for women who are violated and/or threatened and are now living in a special protective area. A drop-in centre for teenagers with babies who get a second chance to finish their interrupted education or learn a profession to get a small living. The girls are stigmatized and many times they are rejected by their family, but no sanctions are taken against the child’s natural father. The Kakuma Distance Leaning Centre offers 29 students the possibility to follow academic courses with the University of South Africa. A farm where local herbs are grown and animals treated against diseases came into existence in good collaboration with members of the local population, who are experts in the use of different plants. A vocational centre offers training in carpentry, plumbing, weaving and computer skills to 700 students, annually.

However walking around, seated with groups of men and women and listening to their stories, gradually a different view of Kakuma emerges, quite different from the beautiful description of documents, in which standards are set. Many times people suggested that if I wanted to see the real situation of the camp and its population, I should visit the cemetery. That growing site indicates better than anything else what is happening. 

People who arrive, have to be registered. This happens in the reception area separated from the rest of the camp. The idea is that people stay here for maximum two weeks. However some have to remain for months. They are accommodated in a big open hall, with three walls and a roof. People are seated in groups, men, women and children, all mixed.  

I sit down with a group of women, on the bare ground, without a mat. They fled Sudan because it was too dangerous. Anything is better than staying. They walked to Kenya. Some of the husbands are fighting in the ‘movement’, others were killed or are missing. It turns out that they are three months here already.  

Around five women from the main camp Kakuma are assisting in the kitchen. They receive an incentive, about 20 $ a month, on top of the food rations. They explain that they can only prepare porridge, because they do not have sufficient charcoal. So it is not possible to prepare beans because that demands a longer cooking time and consequently more charcoal. This evening they will only prepare plain rice. 

Just before we leave this area, we encounter somebody in a wheelchair. Very thin legs, the diameter of a pulse. He was hit by bullets from an AK47 and still had one bullet in his body, which could not be removed. He is paralysed and stays, since last year, in the reception area. He now wants to return to Sudan, to his mother, and waits for repatriation.

We go to another part of the camp and meet an elderly looking woman, dressed in a thin blue dress. Tribal marks all over her face. Several piercings in her ear, from the top of the ear downwards, one next to the other. During one of the raids, the soldiers killed her husband and kidnapped her two daughters, she was wounded and left for dead in front of her house. That’s why the attackers were not interested in her. However she survived and walked to the border, It took her one month. Now she is here with her son. She is a practising catholic and was married in the Church. Which life does she have now ? She lives only for God. All the time she has pains in her chest where she was wounded. The hospital had given her some tablets. She was never referred to the Catholic hospital. One can not go directly to the Catholic hospital, unless one pays oneself. She cannot afford this. Look around for yourself. I keep quiet. She takes a basket and starts picking small green leaves from branches. She bought them from the local population, and uses them as vegetables. She is not allowed to grow anything. Life here is really hard, we face hunger. Moreover we are not accustomed to the food. At home it was much better, there she could go to to the farm and grow her own food. But the war and the violence had brought her here. 

In another compound we get together with an old man who sits on a kind of woven bed. He speaks English, slowly, looking for words which one day were familiar to him. He arrived one year ago, he is sick. One son came along to take care for him. His wife and the other children are in Sudan. He shows some documents and it turns out that the man is 56 years. At present he cannot walk any longer to the hospital. Relatives live in the United States and sometimes they transfer money to Kenya. 

Near the clinic we enter a huge tent strewn with mats and cloth. All over the place women and children. A lot of noise, children crying. Some eat food from red and blue plastic containers, other just sit and wait. Some people in charge explain that these people are the ‘vulnerables’ and that they get therapeutic feeding. I go around and greet some of them. I sit down and start talking. Everybody watches. Some children are scared and start crying loudly. The mothers sway the children to get them quiet again, and they smile. They are surprised that somebody wants to listen to them. A translation takes place from one language into another which is then translated into English. I learn that she was a farmer, she grew food herself. Soldiers attacked her, she was violated. She fled. In this place she is not allowed to do any work. She just sits the whole day. She eats the food which is given to her, but this life is no good. She is worried, thinks a lot about her village.  

We walk to another compound between fences, made from bushes with sharp thorns. One way of protecting your house against attackers. I met one of the ‘lost boys’. He looks like a person of 45 with some gray hair, though he is only 26 years old. When he was a boy of eight, he left home. For sixteen years he did not see his family. A few years ago, he met his mother. His sister was a child when she left, and now she is walking around with a child. Two brothers died during his absence. Already he is eleven years in the camp. He wrote down his experiences of the journey, the walking, the danger, the pain, the hunger. Now he does not fear anybody or anything, he just prays whenever there are difficulties.

The Congolese section in the camp looks somehow different. They planted trees everywhere, which over the years have grown and give shade. Quite of number of this refugee group are graduates from university, one did tropical agriculture. He was transferred from Nairobi to Kakuma. They raise questions about their own future, and the future of their children. The level of education in the camp is low, too many pupils in one class, hardly any textbooks. It was better in private schools, but where to find the means to pay for it. Life is difficult, the climate is totally different, and also the food. One women has swollen legs. She was referred to hospital. Medicines were not provided. She had to buy them herself. But where to find the money?

Quite a number of people hardly see a future. They lack hope and are in despair. They are too long in this situation. The needs in an emergency situation which lasts for some months to a year are different from a situation which has, for the time being, become permanent. Provisions sufficient in an emergency situation no longer adequately answer the essential needs of people who live, more or less, permanently in the camp. They need other answers to live a safe and dignified life. 

I visited the heavily guarded, airdonditioned UNHCR compound. An Official is astonished to hear that charcoal is lacking in the reception area. At the beginning of the year the Lutheran World Federation had asked too much charcoal for the year. I noted that this morning, for one reason or another, it is lacking and that people staying there do not get their normal rations on which they depend. I also raise the question whether individual mud houses would not improve the quality of life by guaranteeing some privacy to the different families staying much longer than the officially indicated two weeks. Some other observations, from both sides, were shared.

Holy Cross Parish - Kakuma Refugee Camp

The Diocese of Lodwar opened a parish in the camp for the Catholic population and treats the parish and its pastoral team as any one of the 17 other parishes in the diocese. Two of the forty priests in the diocese, together with one sister, form the pastoral team. They are living among the people in the camp and they are also the only expatriates who are not in in the UNHCR or the NGO protected compound. The Catholic population (29,000) is estimated at one third of the entire refugee population. The parish has been divided into 10 ‘Chapels’. One has a permanent building with 700 seats, which however on Sundays is too small. Two have a structure, made of iron rods which is roofed with iron sheets, the other seven are ‘chapels’ made of a fence surrounded by thorns, in fact open spaces. Eucharistic ministers have been trained so that in all chapels on Sundays communion services are held. 

These major ‘chapels’ are divided into 26 Small Christian Communities. This makes pastoral administration, prayer, charitable activities and conflict resolutions easy for the pastors and all commissions involved in the pastoral work in the Camp. Daily services are held in the small Christian communities.

Twenty-one registered catechists receive a small allowance of $ 7 a month and twenty volunteers work as catechists. A one-day catechists’ meeting is held monthly. Three times a year there is a formation session of three days, centred on biblical knowledge, pastoral and practical issues. 

Each Chapel has a chairperson and a secretary. The Pastoral Council is formed of the chairpersons and secretaries of the ten chapels, and representatives of the different departments: youth, justice and peace, catechesis, assistance, small Christian communities and one catechist. The total pastoral council numbers 26 persons plus the pastoral team of three.

Every two months they meet. At present the priorities are:

  • attention to the small Christian communities;
  • the construction of chapels so that people can meet to pray. 

A system has been created whereby needy refugees approach the leaders of the small Christian communities of the ‘Chapels’. They are then referred to somebody in the Justice and Peace Commission. A lot of problems can be solved at this level. Others are referred to existing NGOs in the Camp, i.e. Lutheran World Federation, WorldVision or the Jesuit Refugee Service.

The Catholic faithful are refugees from Sudan, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia. The 

Sudanese belong to 26 different tribes. 

The following challenges are expressed by the diocese and parish:

  1. The special nature of this parish and ministry and the mind-set peculiar to refugees;
  2. The urgent needs of refugees and how to address them; 
  3. The immediate construction of six small chapels;
  4. The Diocese of Lodwar (already with very little) is carrying the entire pastoral responsibility and provides the means for the pastoral care of refugees at Kakuma. 

Developments after my visit:

At the end of June, two weeks after my visit, fighting started between groups of Turkanas, some of them armed with AK 47 rifles and Sudanese refugees who defended themselves over a cattle dispute. Officially twelve people (nine refugees and three Turkanas) died in this period. Aid agencies stopped the distribution of food, provision of water and health services due to security problems. 36,000 people living in the camp were displaced. As calm returned food and firewood was again distributed. Turkana and refugee leaders met and stressed they would try to avoid violence. But bitter feelings remained. The Turkana complained that the UN aid agencies operating in the area were all catering for the Sudanese instead of the local people, while the refugees said their women were being raped outside the camp while searching for firewood, and having their food rations stolen during raids. The main source of friction is the competition for the meagre resources in this desert-like landscape while the population of Kakuma refugee camp is almost double that of the local Turkana community.

Concluding remarks

The question should be raised as to why the situation is as it is? Why was this camp situated in this remote region, not suitable for human living? And why could it grow to its present size of 86,000 people? 

Is a camp of this size still manageable? Or is this adding to the breakdown of so many services? Could this be the reason why the the UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies recommends as standard that camps should not exceed 20,000 people? 

What are the plans for the future? Do policies exist to ‘break down’ the size of the camp and to move part of the population to southern areas where they could be involved in income generating activities like agriculure or will large financial means be used to restructure the existing services in the camp forcing people to stay at the same place? 

Being close to refugees presupposes seeing, touching, tasting and smelling their situation, taking up the cause of those for whom we work. To look into their eyes and to get to know their feelings by listening to their hopes and despair. This experience will not leave one untouched and this is the first step to develop adequate policy decisions.

[1] No Solutions in sight: the problem of protracted refugee situations in Africa. Working Paper no. 75. Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit UNHCR. January 2003.