The Found City

Kenya’s cosmopolitan city of refugees

kakuma — No one seems to be able to explain where the “Fallujah 2008” T-shirts have come from, or what they refer to. An ill-starred Olympic bid? A poorly thought-out tourism campaign? No matter — the shirts are selling well, almost as well as the green ones featuring gangsta rapper 50 Cent. “I don’t know what it means, my brother,” admits Abdi, the congenial twenty-eight-year-old Somali working at the Internet café next to the T-shirt shop. “It is a fashion statement.”

Fashion is an elusive thing at the Kakuma refugee camp, 110 kilometres south of the Sudanese border, in the remote Turkana desert of northwestern Kenya. The matching fluorescent flipflops and sunglasses worn by the biketransport boys are no accident though. From a certain point of view, Kakuma is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places. Here, between two dry riverbeds a kilometre apart, 90,000 people from nine different countries converge. “In Kakuma, I can wear bright and beautiful clothes if I like,” says Zuleika, a Somali refugee who, like many of the camp’s younger residents, has never set foot in her homeland. “This would be impossible in Dadaab [an all-Somali refugee camp in eastern Kenya].”

Kakuma’s original residents arrived in 1991, when a regime change in Ethiopia led thousands of Sudanese refugees living there to flee. They came here, watching as the countries surrounding Kenya were convulsed over the next decade by their own civil conflicts. Soon they were joined by thousands of Somalis, Rwandans, Burundians, Ugandans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Congolese, as well as more of their fellow Sudanese, each nationality further subdivided by religion, language, and tribe. Adding to the mix are members of the semi-nomadic and impoverished Turkana tribe, who are indigenous to the region.

All through the camp, an impressive selection of merchandise and services is on offer at shops patched together with mud, saplings, grain sacks, and soft-drink bottle caps. The Somalis are known as Kakuma’s pre-eminent entrepreneurs — Mogadishu Street is jammed with tea houses broadcasting cnn and Al Jazeera, video houses showing the latest Nigerian flicks and Asian action films, pool halls, and shops selling construction materials and cell phones.

The bustling Internet café where Abdi works boasts seven antediluvian computers and a satellite-phone connection. In the waiting room, Nuer Sudanese with their horizontal facial scars sit alongside Somali grandmothers peering out from slits in their black veils. “Brother, please wait for your turn,” Abdi says to a young Turkana man wearing a traditional skirt and beads. “We are all waiting here.” More than a few long messages, laboriously crunched out on dust-caked keyboards, have been lost to the merciless power outages here. Nonetheless, this is the camp’s international hub, the place where residents get news of far-off relatives, resettlements, and remittances.

For those with extra cash, Franco is the destination of choice. Located in the heart of the Ethiopian district, this shaded hideaway features Ethiopian cuisine accompanied by generous helpings of bling and booty, courtesy of the American hip-hop videos pumping out of two prominent TVs. Against the backdrop of the camp, the videos present a powerful vision of prosperity, one that has strongly influenced the youth who have grown up here. (Residents are not without irony about it though: one Sudanese theatre group put on a play about a pair of young male refugees so covered with hip-hop glitter that when they return to their homes in Sudan, the men in the village mistake them for women and try to marry them.)

Chioma, a twenty-two-year-old Turkana woman and the recent winner of the Miss Kakuma beauty contest, sips a soda at one of Franco’s brightly painted concrete tables. A procession of waiters, drawn from the camp’s vast pool of cheap labour, assists with the restaurant’s somewhat limited menu choices. Chioma, who came here to escape her abusive husband, is describing how members of her tribe think the refugees have it easy. “The Turkana say that the refugees get free food every month, free water, free rent,” she explains. “They themselves get nothing.”

Refugee life, however, appears to be anything but easy. Refugees are restricted by Kenyan law from travelling outside Kakuma and can only work here for a paltry wage known as an “incentive” salary. For many, the prospect of returning to their homelands, which remain chaotic or unwelcoming, is an ever-receding goal. Relations between the refugees and the locals have been rocky, and have occasionally required the intervention of the Kenyan military. At night, a dangerous miasma suffuses the camp. Armed bandits roam, gunshots ring out, and entire communities fortify themselves with kilometres of dried thorn bushes. The sprawling compounds housing ngo workers and UN employees are encircled by razor wire and armed guards.

But for those willing to brave the darkness, the glamour of nightlife is within reach. The Bull’s Eye (motto: your comfort is our concern) is where refugees, Turkana, and aid workers gather on Saturday nights to drink warm beer and dance to Congolese and Swahili hits until the churches open in the morning. Inside, DJ David Mungwete smiles slyly from behind his computer, a machine he hopes will free dance music from the tired cassettes and shaky CD players used elsewhere in the camp. A preacher’s son from eastern Congo, Mungwete has been at Kakuma since 2002, arriving after his family was forced to split up because of fighting in his native town. Being a DJ is a sweet gig for him. “I used to be a doorman here,” he reminisces. “I got free admission for breaking up knife fights between Nuer and Turkana.”

Tonight, Mungwete presides over the coliseum-shaped club, its raised concrete dance floor open to the sky and illuminated by a few scant strings of Christmas lights. Entrance to the club costs a hundred Kenyan shillings, about $1.50, and if it gets too hot, patrons can always escape to the dirt road outside. There, beneath the glittering starscape of the Turkana desert, you can make out a throng of refugees dancing in the darkness to the free beats filtering out toward the camp.

Brahm Rosensweig