Kenya - August 13, 2011

Sorry to write again so soon, but today has been an interesting day. I finally got to see the camp here in Hagadera. What I didn’t realize is that everything I’ve seen to date has actually been the camp. It’s not what I expected. It’s not like the camp in Liberia which was completely walled in and a planned development of tents and other structures and you enter through a main gate.

 We drove through the sand into the old, established part of the camp. It was a sprawling area of little stick huts and tin structures, surrounded by little fenced-in plots. They weren’t living in the UN tents I have come to expect but had more permanent structures instead. I could definitely tell these people had been living in this area for a long time. We drove out a little further to the area called the “outskirts”. This is where the new arrivals are living. It was out in an open stretch of dessert and it was a ramshackle mass of UN tents and other more improvised shelters. Right now there are not many new tents being given out. Little kids were all over the place with their tattered clothes and runny noses. And it’s not just the women that are covered up, the little girls are too, even baby girls.

When the refugees arrive, after walking endlessly through the dessert to get here, they wander until they are pointed to the reception center. This is probably an area you see on the news a lot. I’ve seen a lot of press here, and we even host a few in our compound from the AP or BBC, and today there was a crew filming at reception. The people wait outside and are funneled through a security screening area. Then they are put in a waiting area and the vulnerable people are separated out to try and be fast tracked though the line. These are the elderly, unaccompanied minors, disabled, and pregnant women or women with a lot of children. Then they are screened to try and determine if they are “recycles” i.e. people who are either already registered or have been through reception before but are not yet registered. They take their fingerprint and run it through the registration database. While I was there an old man had been fingerprinted and they discovered he already had a ration card so he was sent out.

 When the people go through reception, they are given about 21 days of rations and some non-food items like cooking utensils, blankets and a little jerry can for water. It is not much at all, but enough that people try and go through the reception multiple times. Sometimes the people have been through reception and are not yet registered so they also question them to try and find out if they’d been there before. They pay close attention to the children as they enter the immunization area. If the children start crying when they enter, it is often a give-away that they have already been through which is why they are scared. They ask the children if they’ve already been syringed there and, if so, they know they are recycling (I don’t think that is an official term by any means. I’m not sure where it came from but it seems to be the term the UN is using).

 They also screen to try and determine if the people are actually Somali Kenyans. The Kenyans are not getting the refugee services because there are supposed to be other organizations and programs to serve the host community. Without ID cards, it’s difficult to determine if someone is Somali. They quiz them about where they come from in Somalia. Sometimes the people start speaking Swahili and give themselves away. They also question the children. The children might not speak Somali or don’t know enough about Somalia to answer the questions. If they find they are Kenyans, they are sent out.

One they’ve been through the reception process and gotten their (minimal) supplies, they are pretty much left to fend for themselves until they can be registered. They wander out of reception and give some of the supplies to the donkey man who will drive them on a donkey cart out to the outskirts. Then they wander around until they find someplace to go, often paying 3,000 shillings (about $35) for a piece of land to stay on and put up whatever makeshift shelter they can find.

 If you are a woman on your own, you are basically screwed. There is really no protection for you. We run Gender Based Violence services and hear lots of reports and stories of women’s tents being slashed open and women being attacked at night or while in the bush getting firewood. And what gets reported or discussed is only a miniscule fraction of what really goes on. People are traumatized from war and famine, they are separated from their communities and families and the normal social structures that help prevent against rape and violence have broken down. There is essentially lawlessness and I think it’s a manifestation of the low value these men already place on their women. It’s just so impossible for me to wrap my mind around how these men can attack and rape these women. They are all coming through the same situation and fleeing from the same circumstances. It is just utter madness to me.  

It can take a long time for the refugees to get registered once they have gone through reception, up to 21 days or longer. The Government has to finger print them and take their picture before the UN then does the same and the Government only wants there to be one central place for registration, plus they continually say they have “technical glitches”. Whatever the reason, the reception and registration process takes a long time and is exacerbated by people trying to go through the system more than once or local Kenyans trying to get the services. It’s not as efficient as you’d hope it would or could be given that it is literally a matter of life and death.

 By the way, what I’m saying about these things is merely my opinion or things I’ve heard or observed. It is by no means the gospel truth or the whole story. I’ve only been here for a few days. It’s also not meant to represent the opinions or message of my organization.

We passed by the greenhouse that CNN was reporting on the other day. We started discussing why the staff were chuckling during the report. I guess the reporters were gushing over how wonderful the greenhouses were and how they were helping these Somalis who used to be farmers regain a sense of purpose and provide food at the camp. In actuality, these greenhouses are tiny, provide very little food to any refugees and really only help a very, very small group out of the more than 100,000 people in Hagadera. Plus, the Somalis are not farmers, they are herders and pastoralists. Not that the greenhouses are a bad thing, not at all. Any little measure like this is a benefit. But the staff found the over exuberance of the reporters amusing.

 I took some pictures of some refugee children while outside our women’s center in the outskirts. And by women’s center, I mean an old UN tent. Anyway, everywhere I’ve been in the last few months, it’s fun to take pictures of kids and then let them see themselves on the camera screen. They laugh and point and run and grab their friends to come look and then they want to pose for more pictures. It’s a fun way to connect with them.

 Today was a productive day at our emergency site that we’re setting up. We managed to find a truck and get the latrine covers moved and this afternoon I watched as we installed our water tank and tap. The local workers we had hired to construct a platform for the tank out of sandbags didn’t finish the job yesterday. They said they were tired from fasting so they stopped working. It is very frustrating to try and get things done quickly when no one wants to work. They all want the money of course, but they don’t want to work. And they get really, really upset if you bring someone from outside and don’t hire from their group. Anyway, it took two people about 15 minutes to finish the platform today. There were 30 workers yesterday. They literally could have had it done in less than 3 minutes, but they were too lazy. Anyway, since I had been itching to dig a hole the other day just to get it done, I helped the plumber and his worker dig the hole for the piping. There were a couple of my other logistics staff there helping too. They laughed pretty hard when I picked up the shovel and started flinging sand. I told them I’m used to shoveling snow at home, so I can shovel a little dirt. They were all helping out when they didn’t have to, so why shouldn’t I help too? I may be a Muzungu lady, but I’m not above shoveling sand. Especially if it means I don’t have to spend 3 hours discussing how and when and why the other local workers will or will not shovel it themselves.

 Speaking of sand, it is amazing how quickly you become immune to having sand in your shoes. Sure, I could probably wear socks and my boots, but then I’d be super hot. Instead I have closed toed shoes that have some mesh covering for ventilation and they are normally just half filled with sand all day. It wasn’t pleasant when I tripped and, rather inelegantly, fell on my ass near the canteen (in front of everyone by the way) and got sand in my pants. I could have done without that. But sand in my shoes is bearable.

 What is not bearable are the mosquitoes. For the last few months I’ve been able to avoid being bitten, but now my legs look like I have the pox. I have started dowsing myself like crazy with bug spray, despite my aversion to the chemicals. And the last two nights I couldn’t fall asleep because there was this constant high pitched little mosquito squeal in my ear and I couldn’t figure out if it was coming from inside or outside of the net. It was driving me bonkers. I totally support the full fledged extinction of the mosquito species. There are about ten enormously huge and brown hairy spiders living in my room, but I have decided they are my guardians and I silently will them each night to eat all the mosquitoes they can catch.

 Well, I think that is all I have to say at the moment. Thanks again for reading. Attached are some photos from today.