Close to two decades before he became the first candidate from the Turkana ethnic community to run for president of the Republic of Kenya, Dr Ekuru Aukot wrote a poignant and profound article for his doctoral thesis in which he asserted, “It’s better to be a refugee than a Turkana in Kakuma.”
He was writing about Kakuma Refugee Camp, and the often-conflicted relationships between the host community, the Turkana, and the refugees.
A lot was expected of the Turkana in terms of ensuring refugees felt at home. The failure of integration, Dr Aukot argued, would be blamed on refugee-host relationships without consideration of the fact that refugees were targeted for assistance without regard to the negative impact on the economy of the hosts.
He was writing in the 1991-1998 period when wars brought thousands of people streaming into Kakuma from Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Eritrea, and Democratic Republic of Congo to live amongst the Turkana as refugees. Their population rose to 83,000 against the 10,000 Turkana in Kakuma.
The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics has consistently ranked the area the Turkana live in as one of the poorest in the country, with people unable to afford basics such as food, education, health and shelter.
The Turkana had been among communities living in arid and semi-arid areas affected by Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 “African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya” that made the case for investing development money in areas having abundant natural resources, good land and rainfall. Turkana land clearly did not meet this criterion.
So just imagine the shock of the Turkana when the refugees arrived and began receiving free services such as food, shelter and healthcare. To compound matters, the refugees began to degrade the environment in their quest for firewood, stripping Turkana land of the tree cover needed to boost rainfall.
The refugees also arrived with different traditions, raising tensions that led to sometimes lethal conflicts.
The refugees in turn faced several dilemmas. They had left home, mainly because of repression and insecurity, sometimes walking hundreds of kilometres to get to Kakuma. Some were wounded. Many who were professors or government ministers back home were now queuing to use pit latrines and get food rations. They had seen their families killed and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
Were the refugees to perceive Kakuma as their own space or as a space owned by the Turkana who had their own values and beliefs and conform to the latter? It is never that easy. Host and refugee communities are always work in progress.
The refugees chafed at the international guidelines that restricted their movement. In such circumstances, where two groups of desperate people meet in such hostile circumstances, Dr Aukot’s conclusion comes as no surprise.
Fate and no doubt his handwork would later place Dr Aukot in a position to change policies and most importantly review Sessional Paper No 10 of 1965 as the CEO of the Committee of Experts, charged with developing a new Constitution in 2010. The new Constitution devolved power from the central government in Nairobi to local governments, improving, among other things, the lives of the Turkana.
Many of the refugees from Kakuma too, rose to great heights. Supermodel Halima Aden of the US, record-breaking sprinter Joseph Deng and footballer Awer Mabil, both of Australia, were all born in Kakuma.
We desperately need a case study in this era where borders and walls are portrayed as solutions to refugees, yet ironically, technology has ensured we live in a borderless world. Within less than 20 years we have gone through an accelerated process of communication evolution that took our forefathers generations.
This means we have to try and understand other cultures even as we worry that our own identity may be threatened.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides.