Perceptions of Aid Organizations in Kakuma Refugee Camp
By Michele James-Deramo, Virginia Tech
Introduction: Uncovering Voice
In the book What is the What? author David Eggers gives voice to Valentino Achak Deng, who escaped violence in his village of Marial Bai and joined the walking boys in a journey from the southern Sudan, to asylum in Ethiopia and Kenya, and eventually to third country resettlement in the United States. The novelized memoir, written as a litany that moves between the challenges of his new life in the United States and the perils of displacement, flight and encampment, serves to also bring the reader into places remote and foreign to Westerners: specifically, the refugee camp. Much of Valentino’s formative years were spent in camps — first at Pinyudo, a makeshift camp along the Gilo River in Ethiopia and later at Kakuma, a UNHCR site where he was officially registered as a refugee.
Valentino’s stories about camp life reveal a civil society fractured by the trauma of displacement and the uncertainty of a future, yet engaged daily in the processes of negotiating resources and rules necessary for survival. Even as a youth, Valentino had opportunities to find mentors, develop leadership skills, and cultivate aspirations for his life as a resident of the camp. However, the camp environment posed an obstacle to achieving the fullness of agency. Thus, the individual and his/her community were locked in a state of frustrated dependency. The author writes:
What was life in Kakuma? Was it life? There was debate about this. On the one hand, we were alive, which meant that we were living a life, that we were eating and could enjoy friendships and learning and could love. But we were nowhere. Kakuma was nowhere. Kukama was, we were first told, the Kenyan word for nowhere. No matter the meaning of the word, the place was not a place. It was a kind of purgatory, more so than was Pinyudo, which at least had a constant river, and in other ways resembled the southern Sudan we had left. But Kakuma was hotter, windier, far more arid. There was little in the way of grass or trees in that land; there were no forests to scavenge for materials; there was nothing for miles, it seemed, so we became dependent on the UN for everything. (Eggers, 334-5)
Deng’s depiction of the Kakuma refugee camp as a “purgatory,” a liminal place where even the geographic landscape embodied desolation, captures well the human experience of being in limbo, with no access to a durable solution nor the capacity to seek resolution. Yet despite this description, Deng’s story reveals that even in the refugee camp, individuals seek to exercise their human rights and to express a political imagination.
The purpose of this article is twofold. First, I want to explore the perceptions of individuals residing in the Kakuma refugee camp regarding the Aid organizations operating there using the Kakuma News Reflector (KANERE) as the primary source for accessing resident’s voice.
The second purpose is to demonstrate the performance of civil society through KANERE. The existence of KANERE reveals the persistence of agency despite the environment of dependency fostered by the camp structure. KANERE’s Internet presence creates a portal to the world beyond the camp. KANERE has received international attention, primarily around its status as an independent news source, and the opposition it faces from humanitarian agencies. Ironically, it is KANERE’s desire to remain wholly independent without interference from the United Nations and other aid organizations that threatens the demise of this critical refugee voice.
The Condition of Lives Caught in Protracted Conflicts
Refugees who are caught in protracted conflicts are confined to camps for extended periods where they are forced to rely upon humanitarian assistance. According to the article, “Warehousing Refugees: A Denial of Rights, a Waste of Humanity,” more than 7 million of the world’s 12 million refugees (approximately 58%) have languished for ten years or more in refugee camps. Their lives are marked by conditions of forced idleness and military control.
The empirical data collected by international refugee agencies reveals critical details about the effects of warehousing on health and well being, and the human rights abuses inherent in them. Over time warehousing produces “pathological dependency” marked by fatalism, lack of initiative and fearfulness of speaking on one’s own behalf. The external forces that oppress populations are internalized, resulting in a deep‐seated belief in the insidious messages conveyed, directly or indirectly, by the oppressor. Ironically in situations of human warehousing, the oppressor shifts from the entities prompting flight to those designated to protect refugees from nonrefoulement.
Among the rationales for warehousing refugees are security concerns posed by refugee populations, particularly in disputed border areas; the perceived economic burden presented by free working refugees on local markets; the infusion of relief aid associated with encampment to host countries; and the visibility that camps give to the political plights of refugee groups. These rationales do more to problematize the refugees rather than address the structural issues underlying their plight. In order to protect security and market viability, refugees are subjected to military control that does more to limit their human rights than to protect.
Bethany Ojalehto, a Fulbright scholar who lived in Kakuma for 16 months and collaborated in the launch of KANERE, writes that “the refugee camp is a commingling physical imprisonment, monotony, and environmental oppression.” Yet she contests assumptions that the psychological dependency related to the protracted refugee experience is a result of the individual’s psychology. Rather, it is the space-time conditions of the camp that produce the sense of powerlessness. The refugees that Ojalehto encountered in Kakuma continually exerted their agency and political will within the extreme confines of the camp. Yet they were persistently reminded how the relentless sameness of each day imposed a barrier to their thoughts and required intentional action to counteract.
Life in Kakuma: A Profile
Kakuma Refugee Camp, located in the Turkana District of northwestern Kenya, was established in 1992 to serve Sudanese refugees who were fleeing their country. The 2004 World Refugee Survey listed Kenya’s Kakuma camp as one of “the worst examples of the long‐term warehousing of refugees”:
Kenya confines the majority of its refugees to these camps, denying the right to work and live where and how they choose. The camps are rife with human rights abuses: rape, domestic violence, and other crimes were common in the camps; traditional court systems imprisoned refugees for offenses including adultery that were not crimes under Kenyan or international law; and the local population clashed with refugees over resources like firewood.
UNHCR planning for 2011 lists among its objectives increased security within the camps, implementation of fair protection processes, improvements in the basic standards of living through livelihood opportunities and multi-storey gardening initiatives and continued coordination with the government of Kenya and its refugee-hosting communities.
Despite these efforts, life in Kakuma is difficult. The climate is semi-arid, making the area incompatible with agriculture. Employment restrictions prevent refugees from seeking jobs outside of the camp therefore all provisions for food, medical care, personal hygiene and household management must be imported from outside the camp. The scarcity of resources contributes to tensions between refugees and Turkana residents thereby increasing the need for armed security and strict controls over the movement of refugees. The protracted conflict in Somalia continues to produce an unabated influx of people entering Kenya and seeking asylum, without any foreseeable chance of repatriation.
Among the many challenges facing residents of Kakuma the process of refugee status determinations (RSD) is particularly difficult. Individuals wait indefinitely for determinations to be finalized. After years of living in limbo, some are notified that they don’t meet the criteria for asylum and are asked to leave the country by UNHCR, which creates extreme negative impacts on the lives of asylum seekers in Kenya.
“Horrible” is a word that appears frequently in postings to KANERE about life in the camp. Mansur Mengesha, one of the first persons to arrive in Kakuma in 1992, sardonically describes his time there as a “life workshop for me and my family.” He goes on to say that “more than you know Kakuma is a horrible place to live. I think some of the authorities chose Kakuma not to be a living place for refugees but to serve as an eliminating chamber to finish refugees” (September 10, 2010 ). Others address issues related to security, water scarcity, haphazard development initiatives, and programs that are cut short without explanation. The unfiltered voice of the residents and former-residents reveal impatience with their conditions of dependency, and a strong desire to make claims for their rights.
The Case of MixMe
One of the aid programs that generated significant discussion on KANERE was the MixMe program administered by the World Food Program. MixMe is a micronutrient powder produced and donated by DSM, a global science-based company active in health, nutrition and materials and based in the Netherlands. Product distribution was in response to the high levels of anemia and micronutrient deficiencies found in refugee camps as a result of insufficient food rations. The MixMe packets were distributed with the monthly food rations, with each beneficiary receiving a box of 30 one-gram sachets. The contents of the sachet are sprinkled over the food prepared in the home just before consumption. The intended outcome is to significantly reduce the prevalence of iron-deficiency anemia among Kakuma residents.
Despite its ease of use, along with an extensive communications campaign employing film, pamphlets and plays to promote proper use of MixMe, the product was not well-received by residents. Foremost among the questions raised by residents was why an investment was made in what appears to be a non-food product rather than local food production.
The powdery appearance of MixMe, along with the fact that it is available only in the refugee camps, raised additional concerns about the integrity of the product. Individuals who spoke to KANERE reporters asked a variety of questions ranging from the content of the ingredients and whether these would conflict with religious dietary restrictions, to the protocol and decision making processes behind the allocation of MixMe to Kakuma refugees (and not Dadaab refugees, or consumers at local markets and shops, or among Aid staff). Specifically residents wanted to know if MixMe was a product trial and if they were the “guinea pigs” for testing the effectiveness of the product. These questions reflect a heightened sensitivity among residents to the vulnerability of their situation. As this comment by a Congolese man makes clear, the need for full disclosure and consent was necessary to achieve the nutritional claims of the product:
“The way we see MixMe as refugees seems to be having a secret behind it that is not yet clear, but transparency will still come out. Can WFP change this MixMe into locally available or locally produced food rather than bringing externally produced chemicals that are harmful to refugees who are used as laboratory animals for someone’s university research?”
The resident’s perception of MixMe as a chemical shows as well the proliferation of rumors surrounding the product roll-out. The rumors, which included speculations that MixMe was a family planning drug, demonstrate the kind of suspicions harbored by the refugees toward Aid efforts that appear to have ulterior motives that may not be in their best interests. As a young person from Jebel Mara Primary School asked: “People don’t want this stuff, as it has created many different perceptions among the refugees… It also has no country where it was manufactured, and the expiration date is not visible clearly. If it is good for human consumption, then even Kenyans should be able to get it or buy it in the shops, but it is not in shops. Why?” (Similarly local Turkana residents who were queried asked why they were not able to access the product since their nutritional needs and health issues were the same as the refugees.)
The refugee’s lack of choice in receiving a product perceived as exotic in a context where they are already at the mercy of political forces beyond their control catalyzed fear and mistrust. This discourse of suspicion was not unfounded. Disenfranchised communities throughout history living within frameworks of domination and external hegemonic control have been well aware of how their vulnerability could be exploited. Even though the World Food Program, the UNHCR, or DSM, the developers of MixMe, do not fit the ideology of dominators, they nonetheless occupy positions of power in relation to the refugees. This power includes the capacity to feed people who are without the means to feed themselves, and who have very limited recourse for altering their circumstances without the approval and cooperation of the Aid agencies.
KANERE sought to address the questions raised by refugees by approaching World Food Program officials in the camp for answers. Some of the questions pertaining to nutritional content were publicly available, and KANERE responded with the information in their articles on the MixMe topic. KANERE was, however, unable to secure a face-to-face interview. A WFP official indicated that the organization would not provide information to KANERE until the free press was registered as a Community Based Organization (CBO). There was no indication for why CBO status was necessary in order for an interview to occur. Yet the decision by the organization to distance themselves from the concerns of residents reinforced the suspicions circulating about the product.
The MixMe controversy illustrates well the problematic relationship between aid organizations and the recipients of aid. While the MixMe product may in fact be a viable resource for improving overall health in a high-risk population, the handling and delivery of aid overlooks the participatory health model that integrates the concerns and interests of the beneficiaries into the program. Residents already coping within the restrictions of forced dependency and diminished material conditions are now asked to use a product that is unfamiliar in appearance and content with uncertain side effects and health benefits. Clearly the residents resisted being viewed as undifferentiated bodies available for experimentation. Refugees demonstrated their resistance through a 70% refusal of the product, resulting in MixMe sachets littered across the camp. Ironically the waste of MixMe sachets created a new employment opportunity for refugees who were hired to collect the discarded sachets by the World Food Program. Presumably the incentives earned through MixMe rubbish collection was used to purchase whole food products not typically found in the food rations basket.
Preferences for Capacity-Building and Direct Encounter
A DSM designee on a fact-finding mission who visited the Kakuma camp and observed the waste of the MixMe product wrote in her blog:
Can you imagine, refugees, I repeat, refugees, who have basically nothing, going to the food distribution standing in line to pick up their ration of food, and then just leaving the boxes of MixMe there… Or worse, picking up a box, and then instead of taking it home and using it throwing the sachets up in the air, watch how they shine in the sun, and then walk away. You can probably imagine how it hurts me to see sachets lying around on the ground all over the camp.
The author struggled with how to convey her observations, concluding that she needed to respect the views of the users despite her initial astonishment at having the great product like MixMe turned away:
I am so convinced that it is good for them, and I watch them struggle to survive even, and for a short moment I felt like they do not want to accept our help. But this is not the way to look at it. Apparently the product does not serve their direct needs. All we can do is respect that, and think of ways to make it attractive to them, either in product form, communication, or anything else we can think of.
Even as she grappled with the recognition of refugee’s concerns, the subtext of the MixMe designee was clear: the refugees need to be convinced that the product was something they should use, that their concerns—while important to note—were somehow based in misinformation or camp politics rather than the residents’ self-determination of what they wanted to address health and nutritional concerns.
From a Western perspective, refugee resistance might be construed as ungratefulness. Yet a careful reading of KANERE proves otherwise. Gratitude is woven throughout the comments posted to the blog, even in messages that are critical of camp operations and the discomforts of the environment. Frequently expressions of appreciation mingle with comments on the importance of helping one another and developing one’s capacities through aid organizations, even as complaints are made about heavy-handed security, lack of organizational transparency or communication about decisions made by nongovernmental organizations. In my interpretation, the theme of gratefulness suggests not only a generosity of human spirit and resilience, but also an insight into the complexity of negotiating asylum. The context for gratefulness is generally connected to human development, whether the development occurs through an engagement across communities and cultures through interaction with particular aid organizations or by access to established structures that guarantee protections and rights. KANERE Editors cite several organizations that do a better job of promoting human rights through their work — namely, the Refugee Consortium Kenya (RCK), which has provided legal assistance and advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers before and since passage of the Refugee Act in Kenya in 2006, and the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), which conducted livelihood and income generating activities for women and girls surviving sexual and gender based violence. KANERE’s observations paralleled my own research uncovering the transformative potential of encampment in situations where refugee’s encounter with Aid workers presented them with new opportunities that were unavailable in their prior circumstances. What was unique about these encounters, though, was not the provision of assistance so much as the respect and recognition gained through the interactions and the subsequent collaborations that followed.
The future of KANERE
The discourse of suspicion characterizing the MixMe controversy provides valuable insight into the critical relations between Kakuma refugees and the aid organization operating in the camp. As a case study of resistance within a framework of domination and control, the MixMe controversy demonstrates the enactment of agency that disrupts existing relations and forces new models of engagement. Yet an important third actor in the MixMe resistance is KANERE. As a free press that is committed to documenting and amplifying the unmediated voices of refugees, KANERE provides a politicized space for the production of civil society within the highly regulated environment of the refugee camp. It operates as a place where refugees can speak directly to various publics, including the aid agencies, about their experiences.
KANERE is not the first effort to operate a refugee press. From 1993-2005, the United Nations ran the Kakuma News Bulletin (KANEBU), which functioned as a newsletter to share information about events occurring throughout the camp. While KANEBU employed refugee journalists in writing articles for the newsletter, the local UNHCR unit retained editorial control of what was actually published. KANERE, as a free press, aims not merely to inform but also “to counter the monopoly of information enjoyed by humanitarian organizations that largely control access to and information about refugee camps.” KANERE’s independence from the Aid organizations thus marks a departure from existing constructs of refugee life during encampment.
KANERE’S decision to maintain itself as a free press was not without grave risks. Soon after its initial publications, objections were raised by UNHCR about its lack of participation, citing concerns over confidentiality, protection of identities of people living in the camp and ethical standards of reporting. In response, KANERE’s editors stopped providing article by-lines and using the full names of residents, and removed some sensitive articles from its web blog. Even after taking these actions, KANERE journalists cited incidents of intimidation. The editor was assaulted and his house destroyed. Other journalist were interrogated and threatened with deportation. Some feared that their status determinations were in jeopardy because of their association with the Free Press. Even the American Fulbright scholar, Ojalehito, who collaborated in the launch of KANERE, was told that her work on KANERE was not relevant to her research and therefore could lose her housing through the Lutheran World Federation. The climate of fear cultivated by these tactics led some journalists to distance themselves from KANERE, choosing instead to either establish better relationships with UNHCR and other NGO’s or to speak out against KANERE.
KANERE made modest headway in its negotiations with UNHCR after international human rights lawyer Dr. Ekuru Aukot visited Kakuma and prepared a document responding to the question of whether refugees in Kenya have the right to a free press. Aukot’s article appealed to various ratified legal documents including the Refugees Act of 2006 and the Constitution of Kenya to clarify that refugees enjoy the right to freedom of expression through a free press, provided they follow the ethical standards for journalism. He wrote:
No one should see KANERE as threatening, for example, the security of Kenya, for that is often what typical bureaucrats would argue. There are more worrying and pressing things in Kenya at the moment than to worry about the freedom of individuals to speak out, whether exercised by refugees or Kenyans.
In view of Aukot’s solid argument on behalf of KANERE, the local UNHCR unit agreed to provide the letter of support needed for KANERE to proceed with its application for CBO recognition. But, its support remained conditional on its involvement, arguing that the free press couldn’t be purely independent if it was receiving relief funds.
As of this writing, KANERE continues to function precariously. Free or affordable Internet access is irregular. Journalists continue to work on a voluntary basis, often facing intimidation. Local authorities and camp governance appear reluctant to provide the necessary protections for the journalists against their detractors. Despite these difficulties KANERE prevails. According to the Humanitarian Futures Programme blog, KANERE “is an absolutely fantastic example of citizen journalism, empowered by the web, completely changing the game of humanitarian business” with the potential to catalyze “the next stage of growth for the aid industry.” As was evident with the MixMe case study, information is critical in empowering people to act in their own best, collective interests. Freedom to access, produce and circulate accurate information is foundational to creating open, civil society.
How can the Western world help? To fully address this question is beyond the scope of this article. We can nevertheless identify some preliminary efforts. The Internet brings the distant near, closing the information gap between spaces as divergent as a university in Southwest Virginia and Kakuma’s cyber café. As intellectuals we can promote free thought and expression through our vast networks of professional societies, disciplinary listservs and more by telling the story of KANERE. As persons concerned about international development, we can advocate that aid dollars be directed toward initiatives that foster the infrastructures needed for functioning civil societies. As scholars and practitioners addressing the global dilemma of forced migration, we can incorporate the marginalized work of refugee journalists into the mainstream of knowledge production that guides our research and praxis. Finally as global citizens engaged in the human rights discourse, we must recognize that full humanity includes not only the basics of survival—food, water, shelter, protection from harm—but also conversation, self-expression and shared meaning.
Will this article make a difference in the struggle for human rights faced by refugees living in Kakuma and beyond? This remains to be seen. What it will do, I hope, is to contribute to the political imagination of people living in Nowhere who are claiming their place as citizens of the world.