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Kenya: Gary Smith reflection from Kakuma

Jesuit Refugee Service/USA National Director Fr. Michael Evans, S.J. works with children at the special needs center at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. (JRS)
Friday, October 28, 2011
By Fr. Gary Smith, S.J.
Jesuit Refugee Service Pastoral Coordinator, Kakuma Refugee Camp

(Kakuma, Kenya) October 28, 2011 — There are twelve refugees of the Small Christian Community waiting, seated in the small one room dir- floor, mud-wall tukul. One bed and a few mats are on the floor. On entering, the first thing I notice is two cheapo artificial legs splayed next to Rebecca and Marie; their real legs were shot off by attack helicopters during the Sudan civil war. Seated on the floor, they are more comfortable taking off the legs. Their smiles defy the misery they have endured because of that stinking war and its damn guns. This Nuer Sudanese group will spend time talking about the coming Sunday Gospel. It is a hot day, flies on the move. And hearts.


What greets you first stepping out of the plane at Lodwar, a small commercial center in North Kenya, is a wall of heat. It is an unwanted companion that never leaves you. From Lodwar we were off to Kakuma, 90 miles northwest, the pickup snaking its way along crummy roads through semi-arid desert. It is a stark landscape, populated by indestructible and forlorn-looking Mathenge trees, the occasional Turquana tribesman herding goats or camels and termite mounds whose chief characteristic is a stove-pipe looking, gravity-defying appendage that extends meters above the main nest.  There are two hired, Kalashnikov-bearing Kenyan police riding shotgun in the back seat.

We arrive in Kakuma in mid-afternoon. It is a small town and sits next to its much more ugly duckling counterpart, the Kakuma Refugee Camp. At one time, before the UN came here (because of the civil war in Sudan), Kakuma was nothing but a little trading center for local nomadic tribes.  It is less than a hundred miles from the borders of Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia. Somalia lays hundreds of miles to the east.

The Place

It is a huge sprawling camp, jammed packed, several miles north to south, 80,000 plus refugees, with the majority being Somali and Sudanese, and large numbers from Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and seven other African nations. The camp is overseen by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Kenyan government; there are many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s), including Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), all implementing partners of the UNHCR’s mandate to care for the refugees.

Kakuma was originally setup by the UNHCR in 1992 for Sudanese refugees who fled their civil war. There is a camp hospital, which of course sees the kinds of illnesses one would expect in a poor and crowded environment: malaria, typhoid, HIV, skin fungus, intestinal amoeba, chronic diarrhea, to name a few. They are diseases that play no favorites.

Walking down the central "street" of the camp: Turquanas running their goat herds through, NGO pickups creeping along, dust everywhere, women in the traditional bright attire of their country, kids gawking at white me, cottage industries from old shoes to fresh meat to Arabic toothpaste to Ethiopian coffee, greetings in several languages, smiles, motor bikes darting in and out, East African music, beggars, lines of people at the wells (boreholes), garbage dumps, the sounds of hundreds of voices; there are the smells of burning charcoal, cooking food, latrines, diesel, and the odors that only extreme heat can produce.  


Our staff is 15 strong, composed of Kenyans and Internationals, some experienced in refugee work, some new to the scene. We live in a large compound composed of the offices, storehouses, garages, workshops and staff residences of several NGOs. Because of security, one does not move out of the compound at night. Somewhere in the center of all of this there is a plain and unadorned little dirt-floor bar, Catherine’s. Nice place to go for a cold beer, especially on the brutally hot nights.

JRS has major efforts:

In education: a scholarship program for at-risk girls; scholarship programs for physically-challenged kids; Jesuit Commons, Higher Education at the Margins (JC-HEM) which is an internet diploma-awarding program connecting with a consortium of Jesuit universities in the States, with Regis College in Denver being the flagship of the whole endeavor.  I help students on a part time basis in that program with their English writing. I was hopeful that Kakuma would afford me, and therefore the Society, the chance to come to know the Somali people, their hopes, their Muslim faith, their pain. And mentoring students in the JC-HEM program has fulfilled that hope.

Amin, a Muslim Somali, 24, is a grade school teacher in the Camp. She is smart, personable, and given the opportunity, wants to be a lawyer; a stunning wish in the face of Kakuma’s poverty and obscurity. She wears the traditional long dress and hijab (head covering) of the Muslim woman. We talk about her essay on interpersonal communication.

What do you think of the essay, Father? 

Its good; excellent conclusion; but it would live more by adding your own experience.

What do you mean? 

Well, when you are giving examples, think and write out of what you know and not necessarily about what you have read; write  about that which you have authority.       

Yes, I can do that; do you have any other suggestions?

Yes, Amin, have mercy on the reader, and dont write the way you talk; (We both laugh). Maybe shorter sentences will help you; for example look at these two sentences (one tortured and looping; the other quick, clean, to the point); read them to me.
She does and nods reflectively.  

Yes, I understand; even I get lost on the first one (more laughter). She prepares to leave for her job. 

Can we meet again tomorrow, Father?

Yes, I will be here.
In psycho-social mental health and counseling programs:  There are 200 refugees trained to work with their respective language group refugee sisters and brothers as counselors and as assistants to the mentally challenged. They work in JRS centers and in the homes of clients. Related to this work JRS also directs a facility called Safe Haven where at-risk women and children are housed and protected until the precipitating causes of their conflict are resolved (physical abuse and forced marriages would be two examples of causes for assisting such individuals).

There are two other Jesuits here: a Portuguese priest and a German scholastic, working primarily in the education wing of the project, specifically in Information Technology. Good guys. Committed. Compañeros. I am involved in pastoral work, notwithstanding the education piece I mentioned earlier. Of course this means being a pastoral support for the JRS team. On a larger scale it also involves assistance to the Salesians (Indians and Africans) who oversee the Catholic pastoral efforts in the camp. I assist in the life and growth of Small Christian Communities in the homes and compounds of the refugees and I celebrate Mass on Sundays for at least two chapels, usually for refugees from Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Like one of those huge steam-driven piston trains, wheels whirling, St. Stephens chapel roared full speed ahead into the final thanksgiving hymn of the Easter Sunday liturgy. Celebrating Mass, I was swept along in the wake of that last song which was a bubbling, overflowing pot of spectacular formation-dancing children, ululating women, rhythmic hand-clapping, and an irrepressible singing congregation of several nationalities that, with each verse, increased its volume and that brand of joy which mysteriously attends the African Church.

I am simultaneously a veteran and rookie in this world of refugees with all the confidence and terror that those two appellations evoke. It has always been so for me in Africa. I think that such feelings accompany everything we do as Jesuits, whether it is our first day in a classroom or leading other Jesuits as a superior or breaking open a tough piece of scripture to a hungry parish.

We try to be faithful in doing these things as we address the signs of the times in the best way we know, self-assured and/or insecure. We try to be open to the inspiration of God’s Love and Call which benevolently conspire to lead us to where we are.