Penn in Kenya, Day 12

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Jesse Raines, Jennifer Chen and Michael Schwartz conduct an interview with their team.

July 18th, 2017

Post by Melisande McLaughlin, Class of 2019, a Cinema and Media Studies and fine arts double major and creative writing minor from Toronto, Canada.

As we sped down a bumpy dirt road to one of Kalobeyei’s central water towers, I sat in the front seat next to Abdullah, who spoke to me of his story. He came from Burundi to Kakuma in 2010 with his younger brother and grandmother. His mother died before he departed for the camp and his father left for South Africa in 2004. They have not spoken since and, when asked if he wishes they did, he answers in the negative, stating that he has become the parent in his family now. “I am the one who takes care of my brother and grandmother now,” he said, “I am the one who supports them.” At the young age he arrived in Kakuma, however, he was entirely unprepared to take responsibility for a family of three. He had to find work, which is not a simple task in a refugee camp to begin with and certainly not for a teenager who had yet to complete high school. FilmAid was a saving grace. It allowed him to gain technical filmmaking and photography skills as well as create his own company to document birthdays, wedding and other events, which in turn allows him to earn a living in order to support his family. His brother, he says, is not interested in filmmaking but loves football. In a world where they feel an enormous lack of vital support systems, he added, he feels it is important to encourage his brother in what he is passionate about. While Abdullah will join a game when he can, his passion is cinema and being employed as a facilitator by FilmAid means he has a busier schedule and less time for sports but he does not complain as this schedule’s regularity gives defined purpose to his days.

As an alumna of the program, he has also been given the chance to create his own projects. On Thursday, in fact, one of his short films will be premiering at a festival in Nairobi. While he expressed great joy at his film being seen beyond the camp, he also noted that it was a difficult piece to make given the despair of its subject. The film, titled It Killed My Mother, follows the story of a young woman who was circumcised as a child in Somalia before she came to Kakuma and after living here for some time and getting married, faces serious pregnancy complications as a result. When I asked if this story was based on a true story he said that it was and that this situation was seen all the time. “I am interested in film that will help my community, that can make change in my community,” he added and expressed hope that the visibility of his piece in Kakuma and Nairobi would bring greater awareness to the issues it discusses. He went on to tell me about the other films he hoped to make with the support of FilmAid.  

Not all refugees in Kakuma are as lucky as Abdullah though. Most NGOs, he says, do not continue to support participants after their programs end and so despite gaining valuable skills, these skills are seldom utilized. As a result, those who live in Kakuma must find ways to survive off the five-dollar ration card given to them monthly by the UNHCR. Some barter prices in food distribution centres, others exchange credit for goods, and the more physically able ones often offer to transport heavy water jugs and food bags to people homes in exchange for money. The majority of refugees, however, are children under the age of seventeen who necessarily rely on adults for support. The process is complex, he explained, and people are forced to find creative ways to survive. Recently, however, it has become even more difficult with the drought making water an even more vital necessity than it already was.

Water is a key focus for my group as we are creating a video on WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) and it was at one of the central water tanks that we made our first stop. Arriving just as the carrier trucks were being filled, it was incredible to be able to record the process, especially as a couple of us were able to climb the water tank to capture some beautiful aerial shots. Focusing on the smaller details of the images, however, was impossible not to do, particularly watching the many litres of water pouring out of the holes on the bottom of the vehicle, the cracks in the pipes, and even the slight misalignment of the water output pipe and input slot in the truck. Aware that according to the Sphere Protocol each person only receives about twenty litres of water daily, I felt a mixture of sadness and frustration at the amount that was being wasted. It must be noted that I also watched all this water go to waste in the sweltering heat of Kenya, having already drank three of my average nine daily litres of water and it still being only morning.

Once the truck was filled and had gone to deliver water to the taps in Kalobeyei neighbourhoods, part of the group walked towards the houses to ask in the area if someone would be willing to be interviewed on the treatment of rubbish in their community. Peter and I stayed behind a little longer as he went back up the water tower to film a virtual reality video overlooking the settlement. By the time he re-joined me on the ground, we were met by ten or so Turkana people, locals to the region in Kenya, wrapped in brightly coloured fabrics and adorned with beaded necklaces. All but one were women and among them one stood out in a black burka. She lifted the veil from her face as she began to speak with us and it seemed she was the only one in the group who spoke English well. I was not sure how to think in this moment with this action as it had me wonder why she wore the veil at all if immediately to remove when speaking to someone, Peter or I, man or woman, and how unusual it was for a woman to be leading the group given we have seen very few women in the schools we have visited and when we do most try to remain inconspicuous. She did it all without any hesitation though and began to speak of the water shortage in the area and the relation between Turkana people and refugees, briefly noting that she would like us to communicate this to whomever it is we are working for. I tried to pay closer attention to her words but found myself distracted by other women pulling on my hair from behind. “They said you have beautiful hair,” the woman in black translated for us and when I said, “Thank you,” or “assante,” pulling my head away slightly, they all laughed.

The Turkana people have quite an interesting role in Kakuma and Kalobeyei. The camp and settlement is no Nairobi but they do have pockets of bustling streets and market places that give it a semi-urban character. Still, Kakuma remains a closed camp for humanitarian relief despite the reliance of the Turkana region on it for economic reasons being undeniable. Recognising this, the UNHCR in 2014 released a new Policy on Alternatives to Camps that recognised this informal economy and called for refugees to be better integrated with local host communities as their presence often stimulates development. Kalobeyei is seen as a model for such settlements fostering social cohesion and providing a higher standard of support for those registered. In regard to infrastructure, an elaborate system of boreholes, pumps, generators, reservoir tanks, treatment facilities and taps was put in place within the development of Kakuma and Kalobeyei. This aspect of the settlement has been on my mind since our discussion with Catherine Witt from UN-Habitat last night as she sees many of the issues faced by refugees in Kakuma and Kalobeyei through the lens of an urban planner and focuses on issues of infrastructure, which balances out are view of them through the lens of a filmmaker and focus on issues of representation. These structures have not only helped refugees to gain access to more water – Madalina, a woman we interviewed yesterday, recalled a time before the taps were installed and they received only two litres daily – but help the Turkana people as well. Not only does the Kalobeyei settlement’s focus on economic integration, with shared markets, community gardens, schools and so on, but many Turkana people have been employed by refugee families to fetch water for their homes if they cannot manage on their daily rations. Of course, Kalobeyei is not a seamless example as much of the infrastructure still needs to be laid out and overall conditions still need to be improved. In building formal infrastructure however, it will be very important for the UNHCR and its partners to maintain consciousness of the informal economy they will affect and to search for solutions that will enable both refugees and Turkana people to have sustainable livelihoods.

It was not long before we were more or less surrounded and decided it was time we should re-join our group. We walked through the houses and found Rey and Abdullah waiting for us, with Maddy and Angelo already at the house of the woman, Elisabeth, we would be interviewing. She came from South Sudan, has two young children and is employed as a garbage collector and burner in Kalobeyei. Her house is made up of wooden beams and a white tarp that read UNHCR all over it, and was surrounded by a fence made up of branches and rocks. In one corner of her yard was a tree providing some covering for the small garden planted below. Training for Kalobeyei residence on how to build and maintain kitchen-gardens, such as this one, was part of the plan for the new settlement and though the program has not fully gotten off its feet, particularly with the draught, a number of green plots can be seen throughout the neighbourhoods. Though Elisabeth was quite timid and spoke almost inaudibly in Arabic, her kindness in welcoming us into her home, putting on her uniform and for allowing us to film her, even demonstrating the rubbish burning process, was incredible. As with every location, however, we were soon surrounded by a large number of children, most in their matching but worn-out, mint green school uniforms. Many stared at the recording equipment and some tried to get a peek at the image on the monitor, others stared at Maddy, Peter and I, clearly outsiders not only to Kakuma and Kalobeyei, but the greater Turkana region and the Kenyan nation as well. It was time to go.

The afternoon was spent reviewing footage and syncing sound between the zoom recorder and camera we were using as well as beginning to piece together some of the film. At five thirty, however, the FilmAid alumni had to return to their homes in the Kakuma camps as dusk was falling quickly along with the six o’clock curfew. It had been a long day for the other groups as well and so we all packed up and returned to the main housing compound shortly as well. It seemed everybody was burnt, literally as well as figuratively, but in the best of ways.

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