Caring for Kakuma

| June 28, 2011 | 0 Comments

Harvard College

Class of 2012

Alex, a rising senior in Quincy House, is a Social Studies concentrator with a focus field in Ethics, Security Studies, and Humanitarianism and a language citation in Spanish. As a Michael Christian Traveling Fellow, he spent the summer of 2010 volunteering as a teacher and documentary photographer at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kakuma, Kenya. After his experience in Kakuma, he founded an NGO that works to provide educational opportunities for refugee children. He returned to Kakuma for follow-up research in January 2011 under the sponsorship of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Cogan Family Research Fund.


Photo Courtesy of Alex Palmer

Every day, I would carry Zablon across the schoolyard to the kitchen, pour water on the infected cut on his foot, and clean it with surface cleaner—the only disinfectant available. Zablon was a Congolese refugee and a student in my class, and while I would clean his cut, he liked to tell me about his life and especially his plan to play soccer for Arsenal one day. After checking in with Zablon, I would make my way across the dusty yard to the preschool classroom, where the teachers wanted me to make sure that another student’s skin infection was not worsening.

I did not go to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya expecting to become a makeshift health worker—but then again, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I traveled to Kakuma intending to work as a volunteer teacher and amateur documentary photographer, but during my time there I learned lessons that resonated far outside the classroom. Time and again, I saw that issues of education, health, culture, governance, and development are critically intertwined for refugee populations. Any attempt to address the health-related issues—from high levels of HIV/AIDS infection to malnutrition and simple infections—that plague places like Kakuma will have to take account of these interwoven threads to find solutions that are both locally feasible and community-driven.

As in many parts of rural Africa, perhaps the most serious health problem confronting Kakuma is the rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Though reliable statistics are not available, a number of factors indicate that the rate of infection among the local population is high: although premarital and extramarital sex occur, condoms are rarely used and false rumors about potential side effects abound; commercial sex workers thrive in both the refugee camp and the surrounding community; and some of the groups residing in the camp, particularly Somalis, swear by false and harmful methods of infection prevention, like having sex with a virgin or drinking camel urine. Given that rates of HIV/AIDS infection are already high throughout Kenya, these local circumstances point to an especially acute problem.

Other less extreme but nonetheless deadly health issues include malnutrition, drought, and inability to successfully treat infection. Ironically, the extreme heat and dryness that protect Kakuma from mosquitoes carrying malaria also expose the entire region to extreme shortages of food and water on an almost annual basis. Food aid continues to pour in from the developed world through the local United Nations sub-office and the World Food Programme compound, thereby removing much of the impetus for long-term local solutions.

Addressing health issues will require an approach that works within local restraints and finds a way to appeal to the individuals of various nationalities that call Kakuma home. Childhood educational programs that focus on hygiene, disease prevention, and sexual health education have shown positive results, though sensitivity to cultural issues is always a necessity. At the same time, local NGOs and international organizations must do a better job of connecting with influential community members, both to ensure better governance inside the camp and to create partners who can help bring national communities around to the idea that they must be the ones to spark change.

For better or worse, Kakuma Refugee Camp will likely be around for a long time to come, and it will have to be local residents, not international aid workers or volunteers, who find the solutions that the community so desperately needs. After all, even when my time in Kakuma had come to an end, Zablon’s infection had not improved. In the end, it is up to the people of Kakuma to care for and heal their community.

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