July 17, 2017
post by Michael Schwartz
Today, I got to know my friend Okello, a screenwriter, journalist, actor, and soccer player who lives here in Kakuma. Though South Sudanese by birth, he really considers the camp to be his home because he was brought here in 1997 at the age of two, and has no memories of Sudan. Because of a problem that he doesn’t know or understand to this day, his mother brought him to Kakuma and then abandoned him here to fend for himself. For a short time, he was taken in by distant relatives but quickly progressed to living on his own since before the age of 10. From there he went to elementary and middle school, walking to and from school often without shoes, then managed to earn a spot in high school, and then in FilmAid’s training program. Now he writes for a magazine, sometimes for a website, and as we walked through the streets strangers would call out and greet him.
As the day progressed and we traveled through Kakuma and Kalobeyei, he talked to me about how he never knew his father and never heard from his mother again after she abandoned him. Only once did he see her, when he went to South Sudan in 2009 for her funeral; then he came back because, for all the brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles that he might have, they have no real connection to him. Instead, he calls a young Congolese boy brother, and shares his home with a Congolese and a Burundian, contrary to the traditional practices of the various people here.
From what I’ve learned in my time here already, I know that such relationship aren’t just unusual but actively discouraged. However, Okello very clearly told me that to him people are just people, and that everyone should just work together to make an extremely difficult life a little more bearable. Perhaps that’s why he, and so many of the other camp youths that I’ve been able to meet and work with over the past few, short days are so driven to make their community’s better. Many of them have told me that their ideal profession is actually journalism, rather than film because they believe that journalists are better able to tell the true stories they think need to be told and should be told. Just as many also told me that they were interested in serving as governmental watchdogs, seemingly unconcerned with the very real danger such a job could present, not just in Kakuma, but particularly in the countries that some hope to return to one day.
Having been assigned food distribution and shelter, in a group that consisted of me and Laurel from the Penn group, and Okello, Josphat, Walter, and Peter from the FilmAid alumni, we took a trip to the Kalobayei Settlement to take a look at the marketplace, the firewood distribution center, and to talk to some of the residents on their feelings about how the settlement was being run, and what things new arrivals should know. Unfortunately, we discovered that the food distribution we were hoping to film wouldn’t be for two more weeks, the firewood distribution wouldn’t be for at least another week, and the marketplace was deserted. Much more alarming however, was the reason for the marketplace’s lack of activity. In Kakuma and Kalobayei people receive cash vouchers that they can use to buy food to supplement their rations. However, this is done electronically and so far, the money for the vouchers hasn’t been sent to them. As of tonight, it will have been 17 days since they were supposed to receive their money, and people are now beginning to starve. Some shops are allowing people to take on debt but there are still numerous problems.
In other words, we had a very emotional day, and I was far from the only one who felt it when we were finally done. But on the positive side, now that we’re finally getting a chance to see the real camp, I think that we’re all beginning to get a more realistic sense for what people actually need and the problems they face, as well as how we can actually help. That and I was actually able to set up some interviews. Still, today was only the first day, and from here the real work starts.