Salome Magazine
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LAce Posted Monday, June 14th, 2004
The Face of Kakuma
Jessica Lee

Kakuma refugee camp, located just south of Kenya’s border with Sudan, is one of the largest in the world: home to over 80,000 refugees. Kakuma’s worn face tells the same stories as its inhabitants. Its landscape is cracked, fired by the hot sun. The branches of trees grow in angles, sideways, and towards the earth in search of water. Dead grass litters the expanse; weeds cling to the ground like hair. Shallow craters mar the periphery of the camp. They are filled with trash: plastic bags and bottles, torn paper. From a distance they are beautifully pocked with color.

Early morning, local Turkana gather firewood, shave branches into weapons, herd goat. They are sexless: their bodies muscled and wiry, their skin dark and thick as sap. They walk bare-chested, cloaked. They do not wear shoes. The young women walk with straight backs, adorned in tight coils of necklaces from chin to collarbone. On my way to work each morning, through a car window, I have been witness to the routines of their lives: A young boy whipping a goat into the line of the herd. A woman balancing a mass of branches on her head, baby tied across her back, eyes shut against the sun. An old man crouched under the jagged shade of a tree, his limbs as thin and stretched as the sparse branches overhead.

Kakuma refugee camp is lined with cross sections of identically sized mud houses. They are covered in tin roofs, weighted down by sandbags. Circles and triangles are cut from the sides for ventilation. Children walk hand in hand, parentless. Women carry their family’s rations in sacks atop their heads. Groups of boys play soccer, barefoot. They invent rules and make accommodations: they play between the makeshift church and the road. Their teams are fluid. Boys in passing run into the game as others tire and drift away. A single pole marks the goal; a tattered string dangles from the top.

As an employee of the United States Refugee Resettlement Program covering Sub-Saharan Africa, I have worked primarily with Somalis, Sudanese, Ethiopians and Eritreans. I have had the opportunity to work extensively with the Somali Bantu population, traveling from Nairobi to Kakuma refugee camp for month long stints. In addition to obtaining biographical information, I am responsible for recording each refugee’s story of persecution. Case after case, I hear details of discrimination, abuse, rape and death. Many of the people that stand before me have witnessed the murders of their parents, sibling and children.

The Somali Bantus are currently being resettled in the United States by the hundreds. Soon, they will be a common sight in most American cities. In Somalia, before they fled, the Bantus lived off the land. Both men and women worked as farmers; their young children sat on the sidelines, guarding the crops against the destructive hunger of monkeys. Each family sustained itself on the crop at hand: maize, sim-sim­ (sesame), mango, coconut, and banana. They lived in simple mud huts. Using clay bowls, they cooked over flame and a triangle of three hot coals. The Bantus were denied access to education and were treated as slaves by the more predominant and powerful Somali tribes. In the early to mid 90’s, many Somali Bantus fled from Somalia, seeking asylum in Kakuma refugee camp.

The Somali Bantus absorb the Kakuma sun. The heat settles on their shoulders like the weight of a giant hand pushing them down. They move in slow groups, swathed in layer upon layer of kanga and cloth. Their children are petite shadows, muted by hunger. The Bantus are an exotic blend of high cheekbones, large eyes, deep brown skin and quiet demeanor. Beneath the silt and sweat, they wear the charms and scars of their pasts. The Bantus are a superstitious people. Under the guidance of the community witch doctor, parents adorn their children’s necks, wrists and ankles with stones, beads, strings and shells. Often, sick children are prescribed to wear amulets containing improvised verses or scripture from the Koran. A pregnant woman fearing difficulty in labor ties a string bearing charms around her belly. Certain illnesses are believed to be warded off and even cured by holding a flame to the ailing body part. Babies and adults alike wear the marks of these burns across their faces, stomachs and limbs.

My experiences with the Bantus in Kakuma have left images of desperation and suffering imprinted beneath my skin. Specific names have melded together, but the faces they belong to have not; their stories are wound around and around my heart. The first week on the job brought me face to face with a seventeen-year-old mother holding her malnourished son in her arms. The mother was as famished as the child: shoulder bones sharp as a hanger beneath her dress. The baby’s tiny fingers refused his mother’s breasts, which hung above his face like small bags of dried skin. He was absolutely silent and seemed to move in slow motion. His eyes labored to open and close their lids and settled finally at half-mast. Once inside the interview room, the young children are always anxious to examine the floor—they hunger to chew on anything: wads of paper, bottle caps, even dirt. I have looked down from my seat to see them consumed by sucking the metallic bitterness from stray paperclips and staples. Sadly, I have interviewed many young widows: men and women who have lost their spouses (sometimes more than one) to a brutal death in Somalia or starvation as a refugee in Kenya. An applicant I interviewed one morning had recently lost his wife to malaria. He was now a single father with four children; the youngest was merely an infant. The child was tied to him with a large piece of cloth in the traditional way, but he could not maneuver as deftly as a Mama, and the baby cried and cried—his head was wedged uncomfortably under his father’s armpit. The man was defeated; with tears streaking his face he told me that he needed his wife back, he did not know what to do; he needed help.

And the stories go on and on. The Bantus are a people who have stood eye to eye with misery and loss. I have been lucky enough to interact with some of them, to look into their eyes and see past their destitution, to capture a glimpse of their spirit and humor. Last week, a party was thrown for a colleague leaving Kenya. A busload of Bantus was shuttled in to Kakuma’s UNHCR compound from the camp; they wanted to show their appreciation for the work of this colleague, and to join in the festivities. They performed Abalisha, a traditional Bantu dance. It was outdoors, under the light of the stars. Four men crouched to the ground, holding drums between their thighs. The women began the dance, chanting and singing, pulsating to the rhythm of the drumming. Watching this group of men and women, I felt a surge of relief—I felt strongly for the first time that they would be able to cope with their new lives in America. And the reason was simple: joy. That night, the Bantus exuded joy. They were laughing, and flirting—in the midst of their provocative dancing, they’d look you in the eyes and smile. Two of the women stood out as the prize dancers. One opened her arms up to the sky as if to praise the cool night air, as the other delighted in the attention that the movement of her hips was attracting. Eventually, the performance came to an end and the night became quiet. I found the two women sitting amongst the other Bantus, waiting for the bus back to the camp. I kneeled down to them, “Mahatsantaan.” No, they replied, “Thank you.”

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Eleanor Stanford [ ] on Tuesday, June 15th, 2004 at 9:55 AM
What a beautiful essay. It conveys the poignancy of the situation in an understated and eloquent way. I especially like the way details of the Bantu culture and belief system are woven in.

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