Kenyan Khronicle First Edition
I made it to Africa safely and without incident. Its hard to believe that I am here. A note about emails from here. I do not have my own email account and I will not get one because there is no internet access here. We send emails using a satellite phone which is very slow and very expensive. It is OK to respond to my emails...I was informed today that there is no limit on personal use of email. However, it is not private... incoming emails are printed out by the secretary and delivered by hand. Please put in the subject heading: “For David Schiesher”. And please make no references to my sordid past!
The flight from Zurich to Nairobi was just as long as the flight from the U.S. to Zurich. That surprised me. Africa is a huge continent. On both flights, I sat next to young African women. The first was from Ghana, and spoke very little English. She seemed scared and a bit overwhelmed by the experience of flying. I learned very little about her as it was difficult to communicate. She was returning home to Ghana after a visit to the U.S. The second was from Kenya, returning home for a holiday from her architect job in Switzerland. She spoke perfect English and at some point it dawned on me that of course she does because Kenya used to be a British colony. I later found out that English is one of the two national languages of Kenya, the other being Swahili.
No one met me at the gate, so I had to navigate customs and purchase my visa before coming into the public part of the airport where a man was waiting for me holding up a piece of notebook paper with my name written on it. He was a driver hired to pick me up and take me to my hotel, and then to the office.
The Holiday Inn in Nairobi was a very pleasant surprise, and I think it will be an even greater surprise on my way home because of my current living conditions. It had two beautiful outdoor pools, beautiful gardens everywhere, great buffets for meals around the pool area, and nice firm beds. It was a wonderful introduction into a foreign culture that helped to ease the differences. Walking through the streets, between the hotel and the office, I noticed that I was the only white man that I could see anywhere, yet I felt much less conspicuous than I did walking the streets of Tirana, Albania. I was an oddity in Tirana, but I seemed invisible in Nairobi. After a day and a half in Nairobi meeting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff, I boarded a 12-seater plane for points North on Thursday morning. It was very cramped, and I was grateful that I didn’t have claustrophobia, as we sat facing each other with barely any leg room. I sat right behind the pilot’s chair, so I had a great view out the front window and of the control panel, which I didn’t look at too much because it made me wonder how the pilots could possibly keep track of all those gauges and lights. We flew straight up through the middle of the Great Rift Valley, where some of the earliest civilizations developed. It was an uneventful hour and a half, until just before we landed, when it felt like he was losing control of the aircraft, but he didn’t, of course, because you’re reading this. He brought it to a smooth landing on a gravel airstrip, and I knew that this was the place, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
I was met by Susan, who is my clerical support person. She is a young Kenyan woman with a husband (who is also a driver with UNHCR, named Paul) and a 3 year old daughter. We are in a very small office together for 7 hours each day, so it is a good thing that we get along well with each other. She has been very helpful. After telling me to be careful about some of the desperately single women, who aggressively pursue men, whether you are married or not, we worked out a system where when a woman enters the office, she will look at me if the woman is a “character” who should be approached with caution. If the woman is “safe”, she will not look at me. So far, it seems to be working just fine.
That afternoon, I asked for a tour of the camp. There are 80,000 people from 10 different ethnic groups living here, peacefully for the most part. It took almost an hour to drive through the camp. We stopped at one of the sections where the Sudanese unaccompanied minors live, so I could meet a few of them. They live in very small mud houses, about 6 by 10 feet, with grass or metal roofs. Of course no windows or screens, just openings for ventilation. 2- 3 minors lives in each hut. These kids have been here for about 7 years, attending school and playing sports. Most seem relatively satisfied with the place. There are about 430 who are 17 and younger who do not have parents or relatives in the camp, and who’s parents cannot be located. I will be interviewing the 140 of them who are 16 years old and younger, for possible resettlement to the U.S. That means I need to see about 5 kids per day for the rest of my stay here, make a recommendation, and write the report. Yes, I will be very busy. Most of the kids speak English, because they have been studying it since arriving in the camp, but I will have a Sudanese interpreter present at each interview to be sure we understand each other without question. They are friendly and eager to talk with me.
The next day, I met two different minors, Valentino and Chol, in the UNHCR compound where they work with Lutheran World Federation (LWF), helping to plan programs and events for the other minors. Most Southern Sudanese are Christian and have Christian names in addition to their family names. These two presented themselves as the minors’ representatives and offered to show me where they live and introduce me to the others. So, that afternoon, I met them outside the compound and we drove to their section. They led me to one of the mud huts where I had to duck to get through he door. Most of them did too, as the Sudanese are very tall people. Most of them are AT LEAST as tall as I am, many are inches taller. And yes, they do play basketball. Rumor has it that Valentino has a deadly outside shot. We attracted a group of about 12 kids who squeezed into the hut and stood around in a tight circle in the dark waiting to see what I had to say. (The scene reminded me immediately of sitting in a tent full of Kosovars in the Islamic Relief camp in Shkoder, Albania, drinking a tiny cup of strong Turkish coffee.) I talked realistically about their chances of coming to America, and about what life would be like there. No streets paved with gold ... no money on trees.... no abundance of basketball scholarships. I felt very much at ease among them. They seemed like bright and intelligent young men, and laughed easily, despite all of the horrors they’d seen and experienced.
Today is my first Sunday here, and I asked if I could accompany Sr. Dorothy to Mass. We walked about 20 minutes to get to the Spirituality Center. She is working as the social services director for LWF and belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, the same order which runs the University of St. Catherine’s in St. Paul. On the way, she was hit and knocked down by a bicyclist, who claimed that he tooted his horn, so she should have moved out of the way. As I was helping her up, he was gathering up Sr. Dorothy’s handbag and had it slung over his handlebars and was ready to take off, before she noticed it. She was angry, and asked for his name and where he lived. He told us his name but refused to tell us where he lived. We took her handbag back and off he went. The group that had assembled dispersed. It happened in the middle of a narrow path through the Ethiopian shopping district. The refugees have set up shops that sell practically everything. It really is amazing that they started with nothing and now, they have created a collection of refugee villages. This also reminded me of the street vendors in Albania, but much less developed.
The singing at the Mass was exceptional. The congregation was divided into groups based on your voice tone. And was directed by two directors. The priest was preceded up to the front of the church by ten dancing girls. Every part of the mass was sung, so it took a good hour and a half. The sermon was uninspirational, crammed with priest language that said nothing to me. Such a rich opportunity he has to make an impact on these people living in difficult situations. At the end of the Mass, the lector asked all visitors to stand and introduce themselves and be welcomed. He, of course, was looking right at me the whole time, and being the only white man in the building, I could not escape notice.
I started jogging Monday morning with a group of 5-6 other staff. We gather at 5:45 am to do a few stretches before setting off toward the camp on sandy, rock-jutted ‘roads’ which are barely illuminated at that hour of the day. Pray that I don’t sprain an ankle please! But I love the exercise and being outside as the sun is rising. The sky was gorgeous this morning in soft pastels with the low mountains in the background and the unmistakable African-looking trees in the foreground. We run for about 20 minutes through the camp as people are just rising and starting to move about. We end up on a concrete basketball court to do some calisthenics for 20 more minutes. We attract a crowd of observers who are looking for a good laugh, and they usually find one amidst the groaning and clumsiness we display. Today, Tuesday, my legs are so sore that I can barely bend at my knees.
The food here is served buffet style. A typical breakfast is rolled up thin pancakes, hard boiled or fried eggs, cereal with milk, and a kind of malt-o-meal porridge which I’ve been afraid to try as of yet. Lunch and dinner are about the same type of meals. Usually fresh cucumbers or tomatoes, either beef or goat meat, (or huge fried fish from Lake Turkana nearby) with rice or potatoes, cooked cabbage, cooked greens, and gelatin for dessert. I usually carry my food outside, where there are thatch-covered tables and chairs arranged around the beautiful waterless swimming pool.
I’ve interviewed 6 minors so far. The last one I saw today makes my purpose for being here worthwhile. He is a 14-year-old boy who has lived in 2 refugee camps and 4 centers for internally displaced persons since he was 2 years old. He has been here at Kakuma for about 2 years. He is separated from his parents, siblings and relatives. His father was mentally ill and killed and looted others in his village. Now there are relatives of his fathers’ victims here who are making his life miserable in revenge. I was the first one he told about this because he is afraid to make matters worse by complaining to his caretaker. The relationships between the 9 ethnic groups in the camp are sensitive and fragile, so he is cautious about creating a commotion. He feels very unsafe here and would love to be resettled in the U.S. so he can continue his education without fear. I will, of course, recommend resettlement for him, and make his case a priority.
I still haven’t slept through the night yet. The combination of heat and time change is making this adjustment difficult. Kakuma is situated just North of the equator. The heat is dry, but has been between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius the whole time I’ve been here. Malaria is common and just about everyone has had it and thinks it’s not such a big deal. Like having the flu. It lasts a couple days to a week, and then its gone. There aren’t really many mosquitoes around, compared to Minnesota in the summer, but I sleep with a mosquito net and take my weekly malaria pill anyways.
I am learning to use a two-way radio handset (walkie-talkie) to communicate with the drivers and other staff because there is no phone system here. My call sign is Hotel 45. I remember playing with these when I was a kid, but this time its for real, and not as fun as I remember it to be.
I hope you are all well. Happy Veteran’s Day!
Your Kenyan correspondent,