Between Photographs: An Essay on Kakuma Refugee Camp

I vividly remember the planning process that eventually culminated in our trip to Kakuma. I had heard much about Kakuma and tried to visit the camps once before. All of the many bureaucratic processes that are required came together and passed so seamlessly that there was little for me to do this time round.

 Manuela and I rose early to make whatever last minute arrangements were required to get us to the airport. I for one, did not take any malaria tablets. I had a problem of taking the tropics for granted, given the fact that I lived most of my life here. Nairobi though, is hardly tropical in the strictest sense. There are hardly any mosquitoes for example and my exposure to any insects at all was at a minimal. In terms of weather, I considered anything over 30 degrees to be unbearable; seldom characteristics associated to a tropical dwelling veteran.

 My father was not particularly keen to take a chance with my carelessness on the malaria issue so he rushed me the 24 hour Nakumat supermarket where we woke up one of the few cash counter workers, paid for our malaria pills and quickly made it back into the car to be rushed off to the airport. Upon arriving, we were quite confused as to where the UN flight scheduled to take us was. An indifferent airport official informed us that the plane was to take off from Jomo, the airport some 10 kilometers (and heavy traffic) away. Had this been Germany, we would have certainly missed our flight but the African way of doing things lent themselves to challenges as well as accommodations. We were able to hitch a ride with some NGO workers from the International Rescue Committee, who like us, were not informed of the change in itinerary, and had to deliver an icebox which contained God knows what. At the time, I remember psyching  myself with the assumption that it might perhaps be an organ required for a transplant but then again, I considered matters and thought that perhaps such a person would be brought straight away to Nairobi rather than performing the complex operation in the refugee camp itself. The driver went through a yet to be constructed road in order to bypass traffic. The economist in me quickly evaluated what the value of this particular strategy was and I told myself that a remuneration of about 1000 Shillings would be a sizeable and appreciative gesture, even though our hosts for the ride asked nothing from us. God knows if we’d see these people again and the sum was a pittance compared to the costs of reorganizing an entire itinerary or possibly even cancelling the trip in its entirety.

 Our ordeal was not over though, as nobody could find this flight. The airport officials were convinced that it was some other terminal and by some strange premonition, Manuela was possessed by the idea that we were in the right terminal and that the airport officials were misinformed. It turned out that she was right. Improvisations can be extremely valuable and in conditions of the sort, it really comes down to luck.

 Perhaps if it were not for my Dad’s foresight and the only just opened 24 hour super market, I would have been struggling with malaria on my second day and unable to venture out into the 50 degree oven that was the outside world. Perhaps if it was not for the IRC officials being there, we would have not had a ride to the airport and had the driver decided that the paved and finished road was the way to go, we would have been stuck in meaningless traffic for eternity only to miss that crucial flight and then again, had Manuela not been so adamant about staying at the terminal we would have just as likely have missed the plane. All these variables could have gone one way or another and even if one of them were to work against us, it is quite likely that this trip would have not resulted. It’s a bit like hitting a green light at 10 consecutive intersections – a sort of tail event that is gifted to people once in a lifetime and unlikely to ever happen again. Those that use their luck with the green light intersection are certainly not aware of that the likelihood that they would be presented with such luck elsewhere was snatched away from them. The Gods had decided for them that they would relish in this meaningless marvel of 10 consecutive green lights, only to be early to their destination and wait. Another possibility is that the Gods worked more often in this part of the world, especially with hapless journalists and photojournalists.

 Every time I am set to travel to some place, I always think of it in a way that the media and stereotypes portray them. Often times, of course, the areas are never as I had envisioned them to be. Prior to making this trip, I was immersed in the worlds that Salgado, Nacthwey and McCurry created, a post conflict environment with temporary shelters, lines and improvised schools, health care centres, churches and mosques. Kakuma was not a refugee camp in the way that you would imagine it to traditionally exist. The settings was not unlike a little African town and upon arriving at the UNHCR base, it appeared that the settlement was destined to be somewhat permanent, expecting to serve an operation for quite some time. Our residence was the World Food Program quarters. It was my first time coming across the WFP warehouses. I’d seen the video for WFP logistics and their impressive efforts including  feeding the entire population of Iraq during the American invasion. Here, we were told, that at any given time, they were required to stock up three months worth of food for the camp residence. Imagine, three months of food for a hundred thousand people stocked in tent warehouses! Impressive by any measure.

 I walked into one of these tents only to draw the attention of the security officials who politely informed me that this was not an area that I had access to and should return to the residence.

Calling Kakuma hot would be an understatement. It was the Africa I never knew for I had been shielded away by the lush green highlands of Nairobi. There were so many house flies that tea drinkers had to be wary and cover their hot steaming cups with their hands and painfully endure the heat from it, lest a fly or two suddenly found their way into the tea. The highlight of the dining room was a certain spot which was invaluable to say the least. It was the spot that aid workers strategized to get to dinner early just to sit there, or simply frown at their bad luck for any delays. The sublime spot was made special by a fan placed directly above a minimally sweat-stained  chair. It provided much needed moving air that braced those seated below it and as well as battled the flies, preventing them from settling on one’s food or face. So anyone seated here will be twice blessed. My inexperience with tropic conditions was made more acute when one of the aid workers informed us that the conditions were actually much better now since the rainy season had passed. It reminded me of my fathers insistence on taking malaria medication. It seemed that luck was really well on my side. 

 The day of the shoot felt much like being on a conveyor belt. I will admit that I was afraid of the whole process. There were immense expectations and the shoot required quick decisions and sound judgements. In hindsight, what I appreciated the most was the time and freedom I had to organize the shoot. What was particularly difficult was the fact that it was mid-day, probably the worst time for photography where the light is harsh and heavily contrasted. So I took my photographs in the shade and had time to converse with the girls about what they liked, what they didn’t like, their families, etc.

Each situation had a different feel to it. I had little idea of where I was going. I had never been to Kakuma before and our modest time here had a very tight itinerary and besides, there was a mandate; both for myself, as I wanted to learn and grow, as well as for the 60 million girls organization which was literally changing the lives of these girls as well as many others around the world.

I had never before been here or places of the sort so I was, of course, rather green in how I carried myself. Still, it was important for me to connect with the people that I was photographing and learn of their stories.  

Leyla, for example, was one of the girls that we had a chance to meet and learn her story. The shocks in her life had strengthened her. She bore the burden of household responsibilities while her little brothers played outside and went to school without having to worry about the larger questions in life. Leyla, in addition these responsibilities, went to school as well. There was an element of seriousness and honesty in the manner in which she spoke to us. She was someone on a mission, fighting fate and deciding for herself what the future held for her.

Leyla's family depended heavily on rations provided by the world food programs. By selling some of the marginal surpluses, they could purchase some of the other things required for their family. It was a careful balance in how resources were negotiated. Such stories were the norm in Kakuma and yet, when you enter someone's house, their hospitality knows no boundaries as they are quick to try to provide you with whatever they can as you are their guest. 

A few months ago, we learned that Leyla received a scholarship to study in a boarding school outside of the camps for her secondary education. When we asked her what she wanted to pursue as a career, she said she wanted to become President of Somalia. So much of this trip was about a deeper understanding of myself and what I saw as possible as well as what others saw as possible. I was incredibly inspired by their conviction and drive and I will admit that when I first heard her say this, inwardly, I shrugged it aside a comment and a dream by someone who hasn't seen the real world. The truth though, had dawned on me that night when I went back to my room after another dinner battling flies. Hers was the real world and that true inspiration comes not from a set of linearly designed accomplishments that people feel entitled to, but rather the pursuit of something that the world as a whole sees as abstract: A mission that everyone believes is outright impossible and yet, somehow, they make it happen. 

Much is talked about the development world, in classrooms and academic papers, policy makers and aid workers, protests and articles – but seeing and conversing with people led to my admiring the strength and resilience of people.

First there were the teachers – who were all refugees themselves and were able to succeed through the system, despite the terrible conditions of the facilities. They were so far away from home, their families so deeply engaged in an identity struggle in a multi-ethnic camp and devoid of the strongholds that communities often provide. Still, here they were, so welcoming of us and even looked up to us. In the moment, I felt that the admiration and gratitude should have been the other way aroudn because in many ways – these people were greater than I ever could be. I had always felt privileged, not because my family had much but because my parents raised me with such impeccable protection, educated me in the best schools and sent me far away to Canada for university and yet, here were self made individuals – who were defying all odds and were certainly role models in their own communities. They provided the pillars over which a community can build itself and over which peace and prosperity could prevail and unknowing of this fact, they faced us with great humility.

The same must be said of the girls. Life is incredible in that human beings have a way of figuring it all out. I know that it is highly unlikely that anyone ever revealed themselves to me but in that moment, I thought about a number of things; human nature, the differences between wants and needs, what was essential to life – family, friends, education, security in both the physical sense but also in terms of food and the luxury to think about the future. And yet, I also thought about it in an entirely different way. When people look at photographs in a humanitarian context, they often search for and find a great deal of vulnerability but seldom recognize the strength and resilience of the people in those photographs. There is a focus on what they lack, the essentials, but not so much their resourcefulness and the understanding that life isn't about the excesses. I say this with a great deal of hypocrisy given that I myself have a want for a great deal of unnecessary luxuries and an adamant focus on paying the premium for quality. It is these moments and these interactions that help me realize my inadequacies and guide me towards becoming the person that I really want to be. In these moments, I am inspired by the strengths and resilience of the people that are ever so welcoming but are, deep down, not only pondering on the questions of how to build back their own lives but also the lives of their communities and loved ones.

This was something that I tried to bring in the photographs. Ultimately, I think we came away from the camp finding role models and wishing for these people to find success in whatever they strived for. For me, this was a strong lesson on several fronts but most importantly, I think it made me realize that there are heroes everywhere and that we often forget to search for them in the world around us. It is merely a question of perspective and simply a matter of believing the best in people and helping them live up to their potential.

This article is on Arvind Eyunni's reportage in the Kakuma Refugee camp. Arvind is one of the founders of Ambient Life.The main article is published in Ambient Life's main site. You may find it by clicking here 

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