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Kenya: Christmas in Kakuma

Fr. Gary Smith, S.J. writes that the gift and challenge in JRS is to share in the lives of all the refugees. We try to figure out the way to love and educate and accompany them in a world where there lurk the dual demons of past conflict and uncertainty, affecting negatively the perception of life. (Angelika Mendes — Jesuit Refugee Service)
Monday, March 05, 2012

(Kakuma, Kenya) March 5, 2012 — Sometimes liturgies knock me out. It is the processional of the Nuer (a Sudanese tribe) Christmas Morning Mass, chapel packed, a dozen dancing Nuer girls, ages eight to 12, leading me in, a centipede of long thin legs and arms.

Up ahead, to the left of the altar, the choir, maybe fifty young Nuer men and a dozen women, swaying to the rhythm of a welcoming Swahili hymn. With the growing heat of late December and early January, the Christian community of Kakuma Refugee Camp, fueled with energy and song, powers irrepressibly into the Holiday of Christmas and the hopes and promise of a New Year. I’m into it.

The Nuer Catholics liturgies are well-organized, the singing precise and polyphonic. It is accompanied by a base guitar known as an Adungu and the tambourine-like instrument called a Yi Yi. Right down to the smallest child the Nuer know all the congregational responses of the Mass. They know them in three languages: Nuer, Swahili and English. Their responses at Mass, like the singing, are full and strong.

Every Sunday there is an effort to break open the Gospel with a small drama. I invited forward a young Nuer mother with her new baby and asked her about the child and where it was born and was she happy and why did she love her child and what were her hopes for the child, figuring Mary must have had similar thoughts.

I asked some Nuer young men and women to be shepherds, and report what they had seen and what they made of all this. They made a lot of it. And so The Story was told again, by a new generation of Africans in the unlit chapel of Peter and Paul with its crummy tin-roof and dusty pews, in a refugee camp a kajillion miles from nowhere. But you know, we could have been in a Broadway production as far as the actors and audience were concerned. It was a moment to die for. Like I said, sometimes liturgies knock me out. 

The Nuer are a large tribe originating in South Sudan. The majority in Kakuma are young men (14-25), here seeking an education. They are here because there is still instability, still turf fights, still old scores being settled in their home regions.

They are a tight group, very observant of their cultural social practices. They are tall, (I am tall but often a shorty in a crowd of their men and women) serious, long-suffering, welcoming to the stranger, love conversation and a good joke, deeply religious, totally committed to family.  

Though most of the 80,000 plus refugees remained in the Kakuma Refugee Camp during the Christmas/New Year break (travel permits are not easily obtained when you are a refugee), the majority of the staffs of non-government organizations returned to their home village for the holidays, part of the Kenyan tradition as well as a chance to get away from the grind of Kakuma’s heat, its demands and dust.  

I remained in Kakuma for Christmas, with two other JRS Jesuits, a Portuguese priest and a German scholastic. We helped out in the pastoral efforts with the refugees; there are six Catholic chapels scattered throughout the Camp of various language groups.

I have spoken a lot about the Nuer people, but the gift and challenge in JRS is to share in the lives of all the refugees. We try to figure out the way to love and educate and accompany them in a world where there lurk the dual demons of past conflict and uncertainty, affecting negatively the perception of life.

We can't take away this awful stuff, born and reinforced by years of suffering and the seeming dead-end of refugee camps, but we can walk with refugees in their fragility. We can be a moment of stability for them by our belief in them.

In such moments, I believe, the heart is touched and the way is cleared for the Spirit to unleash life and nourish the refugee’s deeper longings for self-love, hope and new possibilities.

Christ's Peace to all in 2012. 

~ Gary Smith, S.J.

Fr. Gary Smith, S.J., is the Jesuit Refugee Service Pastoral Coordinator at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.