Kakuma News Reflector – A Refugee Free Press

A Tale of Two Cities, or One Mixed Metropolis?

Posted in Kakuma Town and Kenya by KANERE on February 28, 2009

 Volume 1, Issue 3 / February 2009

 When a small Kenyan town becomes host to a huge refugee camp, the cross-cultural influences are many, multidirectional, and far-reaching


A bird's eye view of Kakuma Town

A bird's eye view of Kakuma Town

Kakuma is a unique locality in many ways, manifested in its vibrant culture weaving many nationalities and walks of life. The establishment of the refugee camp has brought both negative and positive impacts to the local communities and environment. In light of this, can one speak of Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kakuma Town as two separate places?

Initially established in 1992 to serve Sudanese refugees, Kakuma Refugee Camp has since expanded to include a diverse population of many nationalities. Currently the camp hosts a population of 51,000 registered refugees, including Sudanese, Somali, Ethiopians, Ugandans, Rwandans, Congolese, Burundians, and Eritreans.

Meanwhile, Kakuma Town maintains its own Kenyan identity even as a refugee-camp town. It boasts a Kenyan “Posta” (post-office), a bustling market, a hospital and several churches, and a few popular night clubs. Villages clustered outside town form vibrant suburbs of cultural activity and local life.


A dull and sleepy town

In the early 1990s, Kakuma was a dull and sleepy town. But when the first batch of refugees began arriving in Kakuma, things changed. Kakuma became alive and bustling with activities.

Lokwel is a local Turkana who has lived in Kakuma Town for decades. In the days before 1992, he says, “There were only about ten houses here in Kakuma. There was no business market at all. In 1993 the market was introduced by refugees, especially Ethiopians in Kakuma Town.”

But by 1995, Lokwel reports, most of Ethiopians had relocated their businesses to the refugee camp. Around the same time, locals began to find jobs with NGOs and constructed houses and business on the proceeds of their income. 

Soon after the camp’s establishment, the refugee community outnumbered the locals. This initially created competition for scarce resources and sparked conflict and resentment. A series of reconciliations organized by UNHCR, the host community, and local government officials contributed to improved relations.

Today, resentment between locals and refugees seems to have largely subsided. Peaceful coexistence has had mutual rewards for both communities. The locals benefit either directly or indirectly from the presence of refugees, while refugee communities collaborate with locals in many aspects of business, education, religion, and culture.


The “University of Kakuma”

In many respects, the refugee camp brings new knowledge to everyone, including refugees, locals, and humanitarian aid workers.

Both refugees and locals are exposed to ideas of human rights and “modernity” through their interactions with humanitarian aid organizations. Public messages are a key tool of humanitarian agencies in their activities with refugees and locals. Communities are exposed to messages touching on nearly every aspect of their lives.

One major emphasis is gender equality-a sign in the NGO compound reads, “Both men and women are good decision makers.” Similar messages are promoted to educate communities on children’s rights, good hygiene, proper sanitation, disease prevention, cultural attitudes, and nutritional practices.

Public awareness campaigns are not shy, either. One signpost near the UNHCR Compound proclaims: “Abstain from sex before marriage.” The sign depicts a man standing near a river with a loincloth locked and chained around his middle-he is throwing the key into the river.

National and international humanitarian workers gain new knowledge from their interaction with diverse cultures and customs. This is particularly true when one considers the concentration of cultures here. It is not atypical for Kakuma to host up to 16 different nationalities at once, including aid workers from around the world, refugees from many African states, and Kenyans from diverse national communities.

The challenges of administering a refugee camp present opportunities for innovative humanitarian solutions. How should justice be administered where refugee communities have unique prescriptions for domestic affairs such as early marriage and dowry, while international law prescribes another code of law? Solutions for complex problems such as these contribute rich knowledge and experience for all involved.

One humanitarian worker with GTZ (German Development Cooperation) believes the Kakuma experience bolsters career opportunities: “International and national staff learn a lot about how to give services to vulnerable people, which is why many staffs go on to join work in countries like Afghanistan, Indonesia, Darfur, and other parts of the world.”

Humanitarian workers acknowledge this reality in their playful but common reference to Kakuma Camp as the “University of Kakuma.” Recently, one creative humanitarian worker designed t-shirts printed with “University of Kakuma” on the front and “Wish you were there” on the back. The t-shirts raise eyebrows and spark laughter from Kakuma to Nairobi.

Aid workers have been known to announce their completion of a term in Kakuma Camp as “graduation from the University of Kakuma,” and there is more than an element of truth to the jest. 


Essential services reach local community

The living standard among the local Turkana community is generally poor and severe poverty is widespread. But directly or indirectly, the local community benefits from the services provided to refugees. Host community members have equal access to all educational and health services free of charge, including in- and out-patient treatment, nutritional support, and primary and secondary education.

One Turkana mother of a malnourished child says, “I’m staying at Nadapal Village near Kakuma town. I am not able to provide enough food for my children. As you see now, I am in IRC feeding centre to collect supplementary food for my child. He was discharged from the refugee hospital just a week ago.”

She adds, “I have no money to take him to other private hospitals, so this refugee hospital helps us very much.”

Ekeno is a local Turkana youth learning in Kakuma Refugee Secondary School. He believes the refugee camp school offered him a rare opportunity: “I don’t think that I could learn if refugee schools weren’t here. It costs us a lot to learn in Kenyan schools. At least 16,000 Ksh I should pay to learn in Kenyan school, which I can’t afford.”

“So,” he concludes, “The being of refugees here is a lot to us.”

The local community also benefits indirectly by the food distributed freely to refugees. While locals are not entitled to food rations, the reliable supply of food stuffs from refugee rations creates a cheaper and more accessible food market for all local consumers.

Refugees are not provided with all necessary food types, such as sugar, milk, tea, and vegetables. Thus, some sell a portion of their rations for cash, driving down the price of food commodities in comparison to other parts of the district. They also contribute to demand for common products such as tea and sugar, helping to fuel the local economy.


Business and income generation

UNHCR and NGO operations in Kakuma Camp create job opportunities for many local community members. Humanitarian organizations employ locals for full-time employment in offices, and many locals also gain periodic employment through one-time contracts for specific projects.

The small-scale businesses run by refugees in the camp also offer employment opportunities. Many locals manage to provide basic necessities for their family on a daily basis as a result of these opportunities.

Anna, a local, is mother of six children and works as a cook in Bole, a refugee-owned hotel. “I worked for the last seven years at this job,” she says. “It’s really assisted me a lot because this is the only thing I depend on to raise my children’s school fees and other necessities.”

Other locals wash clothes and clean rooms for refugees or humanitarian workers in exchange for payments. After work, they often go back home with clean water, an important benefit as the local villages do not provide easy access to clean water. Although far from sufficient, this means of exchanging water has contributed to an improvement in local water access for locals.

Additionally, many locals earn cash by selling tree cuttings to refugees as firewood. The firewood supplied to refugees by GTZ (German Development Cooperation) is never enough for household needs, so many refugees pay cash for locals to provide extra wood fuel.


Religious transformation

The Ethiopian Orthodox has used their exile as a chance to disseminate the word of God among peoples in their new community. As growing numbers of local community members joined the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, a new church was constructed in Kakuma Town to sustain this religious linkage.

At the inaugural ceremony of St. Gabriel Orthodox Church, Priest Alemu declared, “It was our long ambition to see today’s special day, because we always hope that one day we may go back to our home land and we need to leave them [the local community] something important. This is it.”

According to Priest Alemu, about 500 followers have joined the Ethiopian Orthodox congregation from the local community, and three Sudanese and five Turkana deacons have been appointed. “Our objective for this project is they should have their own priest and serve their people by their own language,” he explains.

Ekaum is a local Turkana deacon for the newly established Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kakuma Town. He says, “I feel happy about this religion. I have a strong belief and with that I will be a priest to serve God in my lifetime and teach others to join this holy religion.”

Turkana Orthodox followers appreciate the effort of Kasahun, an Ethiopian refugee who translates the mass and prayer books from Ethiopian Amharic into Kiswahili, enabling them to pray in the language they know.

Religious organizations in the camp also play a role in community development. “We have tried to support a few family members among our Turkana Orthodox followers by providing small amounts of money to open small-scale businesses, so that they may become self-reliant,” says Priest Alemu. The assistance is supported by refugees’ contributions and is modest, but the aim is much appreciated.

“We still build the local community with knowledge of the religion,” explains Priest Alemu. “And it’s our belief that God will assist us so that they will have their own priest and deacon and continue worshiping God in our absence even.”

Another visible advantage of international church congregations arises in relations between humanitarian workers and refugees. Some Kenyan and international staffs worship in the refugee camp churches, fostering understanding and social cohesion between refugees and humanitarian aid workers.

* * * * *

Although local community members in Kakuma benefit in various ways from the presence of a refugee camp, negative impacts can also be observed. 



Local woman carry loads of tree cuttings for fencing

Local women carry tree cuttings for fencing

Before 1993, Turkana District was scattered with big natural trees providing deep shade on hot days. But now, many of those trees cannot be seen. Refugees cut many trees for fire wood and building materials, while locals also cut down trees to produce charcoal to sell to refugee communities. These were important factors contributing to the deforestation of Kakuma.

Although locals continue to cut and sell trees, some members of the local society complain that refugees are the major cause of deforestation. Refugees are each provided with a 10-kg bundle of wood per person per month, which averages out to 51,000 bundles for refugees in the camp each month.

Isaac is a local community member working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). He explains the deforestation of Kakuma: “Before 1990, there were lots of trees and wild animals in Turkana District. When refugees came, these wild animals ran away and trees were deforested. This contributes to the climate change.”

Trees are also used to supply refugee and NGO compounds with thorny cuttings for fencing. Such fences must be replenished with new cuttings periodically. Every morning Turkana women can be seen carrying large loads of fresh tree cuttings the camp. As they move, they shout “Mti, Mti!” (“Tree, tree!”) to alert refugees of their wares.

Efforts are being made to alleviate the impacts of deforestation. GTZ leads reforestation activities throughout the area, and maintains a well-stocked nursery for this purpose. It has also been suggested that the supply of paraffin to refugees for cooking purpose could be one solution to deforestation.


Child workers

Many local children can be observed doing petty work and running errands for refugee businesses in the camp, and it is believed that child labour is widely used in domestic house help. Many local elders are concerned at this trend, and note that it was not present before the refugee camp appeared.

“Since refugees came, our children refuse to go to school or to work for their parents. If they are sent to keep the goats, they leave the goats in the bush and disappear to the refugee camp because they work in hotels and individual houses and are given food,” says Ekaskot, an elder wearing traditional garb of the local community.

He explains that children are attracted to work by promises of food. “Here we have a shortage of food and that is why they run to the refugee camp. They do not know but they are not paid for what they worked for, only food is provided.”

On the other hand, refugees do not believe that child work is exploitation. Fasil, a young man from the Ethiopian Community, says, “In my understanding, child labour is for children under the age of 18 involved in hard work which may harm their physical, mental, and moral development, and also block them from their educational rights.”

Using his own family as an example, he says, “I have one local child who helps me and my children at home. The work he is doing is the same as my children do and at the same time he learns in one of the refugee schools where my children also learn. So I don’t think I exploited him, instead I helped him. He also has his wage at the end of the month, which he helps his parents with.”

It is a pity to see a large number of Turkana children left out of school, doing small work in the refugee camp for their daily bread. It serves as a chance for them to eat and wear clothes, or to assist their family with food when they return to their village. But it remains as a testament to the changing nature of things in Kakuma since the arrival of the refugee camp.


“Forgetting our culture”

Perhaps inevitably, the influx of diverse cultures which came with the establishment of Kakuma Refugee Camp has impacted the local youth generation.

Isaac, the local man working for IRC, comments on the effects of cultural change for the young generation. “These children are totally spoiled. They forget their culture, and instead they adopt other nations’ cultures which are completely different from ours. On the side of girls, they intermarry with refugees which our culture doesn’t allow. Also, these young generations are addicted to alcohol.”

“In our society,” Isaac explains, “It is only old men or women used to take alcohol-in fact, a local beer called Busaa. But now that other types of alcohol called chang’aa were introduced, all men, women, boys and girls are addicted to it. As a result most women and men leave their children and spend their time in the refugee camp enjoying it while their children suffer from lack of parental care at home!”

Another local community member, Festus, adds his perspective on the impact of international community on traditional practice. “In our culture, we do not circumcise. But these days, agencies promote circumcisions.” He adds, “The first religion preached to us was Christianity, but now people change to Islam because we have many Muslim refugees who dominate the community.”



In reality, the origins of both negative and positive impacts on Kakuma and its environment are ambiguous, and the process of change is always multidirectional. In the spirit of give and take, it is important to recognize the role and agency of all actors in a refugee-camp town such as Kakuma.

In search of food and financial security, both locals and refugees have contributed to deforestation, child labour, and business and market transformation. In search of cultural fluidity and authenticity, both refugees and locals have participated in cultural transformations such as religious conversion, loss of traditional mores, and chang’aa abuse.

Have locals finally accepted the refugees in their midst? Have refugees finally accepted Kakuma as their community, whether for a year or a decade? The answer seems to be continually evolving.

One Response

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  1. WILFRED MUTUKU said, on May 1, 2009 at 6:09 pm


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