The way people tell it, life in the Kakuma refugee camp was once like living in fields of dust. It was hot, they tell me, and ruthlessly spare. No trees, little water, nothing to do but stay inside and wait. The camp, currently home to over 98,000 refugees from all over East Africa, was initially set up in 1992. It is situated in Kakuma town in the vast Turkana region of Northwestern Kenya. “Kakuma,” rather appropriately, is the Swahili word for “nowhere.”
All photos by Lauren Markham
Until a few years ago, the dry season’s dust storms would keep people inside for hours, and the heat restricted movement for a good part of the day. Kakuma’s reputation precedes it. Refugees in Nairobi who’ve never even been to the camp say they wont ever go there. “Too hot!” they say. On the day I arrived, two concerned refugee acquaintances in Nairobi called to make sure I was managing all right in the heat. It can reach 44 degrees Celsius in Kakuma — that’s 111 degrees Fahrenheit. Recently, though, this once-reliable weather from hell has begun to change.
I’d just arrived at Kakuma, having flown over the expansive flatness of the Turkana region and landed lazily on an airstrip of dust. Caroline Opile a public relations officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) was giving a brief tour through the camp in the UN vehicle, air conditioner cranked high. We banged along the dirt roads, carved up from the recent rush of rain, through the surprisingly active town center which was replete with salons, Internet cafes, restaurants, and clothing shops.
Bicycle taxis huddled in small patches of shade, waiting for someone in need of a lift. Men languished in their chairs and behind shop counters, fanning themselves with hankies; women, as is usual here, were hard at work, sweeping debris from the storefronts and mixing supper on charcoal stoves. Children of all sizes scuttled about, though few of them stopped to notice us bumping down the dirt. The swarm of market-goers softly split, as though by instinct, to allow for our passing, only to close back into itself as soon as we were through. When I turned around, our wake was a yellow-brown thicket of dust.
Leaving the hot hustle of the town center, past the mud houses and the orderly line of jerry cans waiting patiently for the water tap to open for the day’s rations, the road dipped into an empty riverbed, our wheels churning easily across the sand. These riverbeds are home to seasonal rivers, or “lagers,” that serve as roadways and divide the camp into its four distinct sections, Opile explained. A refugee from Ethiopia told me later that in the past the river would come to life — though suddenly and with determination — only three, maybe four times a year, when it rained in the high plateaus of neighboring Uganda.
Tropical rain is its own kind of weather entirely. You know it if you’ve seen it: Sudden deluges of thick drops that fill basins and gutters and these lagers in a matter of hours. Then, just as suddenly, it stops. The sun emerges from its brief rest without so much as a stretch or yawn, burning on with its usual bluster, the fresh droplets glimmering on the corrugated roofs, red water slack in the ruts of the road.
In Kakuma too much rain is a problem. The houses are made of mud sculpted around thin wooden frames, or, in best cases, with local bricks — which are really just mud that’s molded into blocks and dried in the afternoon sun. The mud is mixed, of course, with the already trim water rations from the UN bore holes. We passed a group of boys churning the thick mixture and laying it into molds, setting the squares to bake as though cookies on a tray. Opile said that the refugees are provided tin roofs when they first arrive from one of the UN’s partner agencies at the camp. But over time these roofs can spoil and develop holes. When it rains, the roofs leak, and when it rains hard, the brick houses can melt back into their original state of mud.
Until recently, rain like this was rare in Kakuma. Just like the rivers, it came perhaps only a handful of times a year. The entire ecosystem and local populations of Turkana herders had adapted to this kind of weather. The scarce rainfall could sustain life in the Turkana (before the refugees came in dense settlements) for the entire year.
But things here, as seems to be the case everywhere, are shifting. “With climatic change, the weather is unpredictable,” Opile said. “This year, it rained more than ever. It rained so much last month. I’d never seen it like that in the many years I’ve been here.” Opile has been stationed in Kakuma since 2005. She said that she would have never dreamed of needing a sweater in years past. Now, in the evenings, she sometimes does. Later that night, I pulled one of my own over my sun-darkened shoulders. “The climate has changed positively for us,” said Opile as we knocked our way along the camp roads. “Except for the floods,” she added.
Nearly everyone I met was eager to discuss these floods — a new phenomenon in Kakuma with which folks must now reckon. Though happy for the cooler temperatures brought by the increase in regional rains, because of increased floods many refugees disagree that the climate is, in fact, better.
When we think of climate change in Sub Saharan Africa, we tend to think of drought, desertification, famine. Thin children getting thinner, desiccated fields getting even dryer. Yet, as climate scientists explain, warmer air holds more water — which means wilder and wetter storms all around the globe.
As a result of climate change, the Turkana region’s once-predictable weather pattern has gone awry. Though temperatures can still spike to improbable heights, the more frequent and copious rains in both Uganda and Kenya now bring sudden deluges rushing through Kakuma highways: “Water! Water! Water!” In Kakuma, people are learning to run.
The sudden rivers have now tripled or quadrupled in volume, say residents, sloughing off hunks of bank and pulling, with their easy strength, the ground out from under riverside houses. And the water lasts longer. Instead of the daylong flood, the river can pulse along for three or four days, cutting off the various sections of the camp from one another, isolating the more remote regions of the camp from crucial services, like the hospital and camp management offices.
According to numerous estimates provided by residents, hundreds of people have lost their homes during these floods. Three people died in separate attempts to cross from one bank to the other during the last one. After the rains malaria cases spike to over 2,000 cases per week (up from a few hundred), according to the head doctor at the hospital run by the International Rescue Committee. Kakuma is home to a quick-breed mosquito that finds a welcome home in the wet lager banks.
The people of Kakuma refugee camp who for so many years prayed for more rain from their dust-filmed pews in the overheated churches and mosques and temples, now find themselves biting their tongues.
During my visit, though, it was dry. And hot. It was hard to imagine it ever raining in Kakuma, or to picture the dry-sanded lager flush with mountain water. As I walked toward the lagers across an open patch of earth with two young men from the Congo, the wind snapped to life. We had to stop to shield our eyes. “You see!” said one of my companions to the dust circling in the wind. ”When it is dry, it is terrible. When it rains, still terrible.” Nowhere to hide from the weather in a place like Kakuma. My guides had been here a combined 16 years, and spoke of the changes. ”The weather is different,” they said. ”Too, too much rain.”
These young men were taking me to see their friends — another Congolese family who’d been here for only five months before the most recent rains a month earlier had swept away their house along with dozens of others. The newcomer family was drinking tea outside the mud hut they now rented. Pascal, the head of the family with a missing front tooth, had swung his leg over the side of a chair. (He asked I not use his real name because of security reasons) Having fled the conflict in North Kivu, he explained, he and his family crossed through Northern Uganda to find refuge in Kenya. They had heard there was a safe place for them in Kakuma.
”It’s better here,” Pascal told me in French, ”Because it is at least secure.” But when it rains, he said, it comes fast and in huge quantity. Once they saw the water rising against their mud home last month, he recalled, they snatched their things and fled. He admitted that among the flood victims, they were the lucky ones. ”There are those who lost everything,” he said.
The house I met them in that day was a temporary rental from other refugees until they were given a new home. They weren’t sure where they’d be moved to, but they wouldn’t go back toward the river, that was certain. ”On n’a pas l’endroit,” they said. ”We don’t have a place.” Just five months after fleeing, they’d become refugees twice over.
In response to the increased flooding and subsequent displacement, UNHCR recently secured Geneva’s stamp of approval on a construction project to mitigate the impacts of the flooding (there’s not much anyone can do about the rain, itself). This spring, UNHCR contracted the Kenyan government to divert water from the inhabited areas and the UN Compound, which routinely floods and disrupts camp operations. Jeff Savage, a UNHCR Protection Officer in Kakuma, traced the construction on a map. ”These people are really suffering,” he said, pointing to an area near the Kakuma One marketplace.
Later that day, Elias my Ethiopian guide (who also preferred not to give me his real name due to security concerns in his home country), took me down to the ”river”. Kakuma inhabitants refer to the lagers as rivers, as in: ”They live by the river“ or ”We have to cross the river to get there” — even though these low-lying ribbons of sand are, most of the time, dry and empty. It’s like the river is a ghost, constantly threatening to come back from the dry-earthed dead for its unannounced hauntings.
We were standing in the real-life section of map to which Jeff Savage pointed earlier. On the jagged-edged bank, freshly sawed by water, you could see the remains of houses that were destroyed by the floods. The ones left were largely abandoned, their insides gutted empty, the valuable roofs taken off to be sold or affixed atop a new brick home in some other part of Kakuma. In the lager, some 25 feet below all this, children played tag in the flattened dunes, skidding a homemade ball across the sands. The camp’s main road dipped into and out of the lager where women walked with woodpiles balanced lithely on head and the occasional biker rolled by.
Elias measured for me where the riverbank used to stop. Though this lager had been here since before Elias arrived over 20 years ago, in the past few years it has over doubled in size. It is now two football fields across where it used to be one.
On the banks, Turkana men — the Kenyan locals. or ”host community“ as they are called in Kakuma — cut at the roots and trunk of a tree that had been swept down in the recent floods. Elias explained that these trees had been planted in order to curb erosion on the banks. But in this area nearly all of them had toppled. According to camp laws, no one is supposed to cut firewood in Kakuma (to keep vegetation high. When I asked about this, Elias shrugged. ”Those trees are dead,” he said. ”Spoiled. They can’t grow anymore.”
Elias surveyed the lager, turning from South to North. He shook his head. ”We are human,” he said, ”Not animals. Why have they given us this place? This is a desert. This place is a punishment.” He paused. The sun was slanting lower in the sky. ”Kenya has a lot of land. Why are we here?”