Category Archives: Kenya

Refugee Boy – A Review

Refugee BoyBy Alpha Abebe

As I stood in line ready to enter the Oxford Playhouse, I overheard the conversation between the staff person collecting tickets and a father and daughter who stood before me in the line. She warned the father that she was advising all guests with children that the play included strong language and difficult situations. Undeterred by the warning, the man smiled politely, lovingly put his hand on the shoulder of his adolescent daughter and proudly proclaimed, “That’s alright, she read the book. And she’s lived in Africa before, she’s seen real refugees”.

Refugee Boy is a theatre production based on the teen novel written by Benjamin Zephaniah and adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. The story follows Alem Kelo, a fourteen-year-old boy of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent who is seeking asylum in England. Before coming to England, Alem and his parents were forced to move between Ethiopia and Eritrea as the border war intensified and identity politics devolved into increasing violence. After managing to find a way to travel to the UK, Alem’s parents decide to leave him to be cared for by the British state as they continued their peacebuilding efforts in East Africa, and with the hopes that they would be reunited some day. After a difficult time in a children’s group home, Alem is eventually placed with a foster family, where much of the story then unfolds.

Anyone familiar with the work of Lemn Sissay will notice his fingerprints through the rhythm and poetics of the characters’ dialogue. I have admittedly not read Benjamin Zephaniah’s original novel, but I imagine much of the grit and humour in the play can be attributed to Lemn’s adaptation. Lemn Sissay is a British poet and author of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent. Much like the play’s protagonist, Lemn grew up in the British foster care system after he was given up by his birth parents. I am certain that Lemn had a compendium of memories to draw from as he helped to tell the story of a young boy coming of age in a state of flux, uncertainty, and adversity.

“Your country don’t want you, nobody wants you. Refugee boy. Say it! Refugee boy!”

“DON’T CALL ME REFUGEE BOY! MY NAME IS ALEM!”

This scene happens early in the play, as Alem tries to fight off a bully at the children’s home he is initially placed in. Ultimately his is pinned down, runs out of options, and is coerced into saying it. I am a refugee boy, he says in defeat. Moments later, in a dream-like vignette, Alem recites: “Ask me who I am again. Ask me where I’m from”. It is this tension between Alem-the-person and Alem-the-refugee that gripped me the most throughout the play. Alem fights vehemently to assert his individuality – refusing to abbreviate his name, preserving the memory of his homeland, and proclaiming his appreciation for Charles Dickens. He is however simultaneously thrust into the legal political bureaucracy that is the refugee adjudication system, where he must fight to be recognized as a refugee in order to earn his safety and freedom.

My mind drifted back to the father and daughter at the entrance to the theatre. “She’s seen real refugees.” In the moment, I was instinctively put off by what I’m sure was meant as an innocuous and reassuring comment by the father. But at the end of the play, I was also struck by the irony of the fact that Alem spent so much effort trying to resist the homogeneity and objectification that so often accompanies the label ‘refugee’, yet it was exactly the ‘refugee experience’ that we came to the theatre to see.

The Horn of Africa is a diverse region whose history has been punctuated by years of protracted conflict and rapid social and political change. While ‘refugee’ serves as a useful analytical and legal term to refer to the millions who have had to flea their homes, Alem reminds us that each of these refugees are people with individual stories, ambitions, challenges, and lives.

The aristocrat who travelled to the US for university then decided to file for asylum status after the monarchy was overthrown. The young man from Eritrea full of hopes and dreams who boards a crowded boat destined for the Mediterranean seas. The young Somali girl sitting in a classroom in the same Kenyan refugee camp where she was born. These are all ‘real refugees’ in the strict sense of the term, but I imagine they’d all have very different stories to tell if we had tickets to see a play based on their lives.

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Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia

Opening up historical wounds in Northern Kenya: were toxic wastes dumped in the Chalbi desert in the name of ‘oil exploration’?

By Hassan H. Kochore

Last weekend’s feature story by KTN, ‘Desert of death’, told the story of cancer patients in Marsabit County, northern Kenya. Young and old, they lay on their deathbeds, having exhausted their meager resources on hospital bills. With few resources and no government support, nurse Asunta Galgitelle cared for patients with the utmost dedication and humility.

The number of cancer victims in Marsabit County has been rising for some years ; KTN and other news reports have highlighted the increasing prevalence of throat cancer in particular. Suspicion has fallen on the oil exploration wells drilled in the 1980s by oil company Amoco Kenya. The KTN report argued some of the wells do not appear to have been properly sealed and people living in the areas around the wells fear the water table has been contaminated.

The people of the Chalbi Desert have for centuries occupied one of the most unforgiving terrains of the globe through resilience and perseverance – it is deeply unjust that they could now be subjected to such a man-made disaster.

Oil Explorers

In a book chapter in 2011 , American anthropologist John Wood described how the Gabra of Marsabit district were hospitable to ‘oil explorers’.  He says, “Contrary to my expectations, the Gabra did not see oil explorers as intruders or invaders.” It seems that at worst the Gabra were indifferent to the explorers: “sure they remembered the equipment, they had watched the activity but it was none of their business.”

For their hospitality, the people of Marsabit were paid with the defilement of their sacred land. Land in Chalbi does not only support human life but is central to spirituality in the region. The whole of the Chalbi Desert and Marsabit County more widely are dotted with ritual sites; movement across the landscape is not only a survival strategy but a spiritual necessity.

Today, the people of the Chalbi desert may no longer be able to trust the land and its resources. The polluted habitat renders the population in a perpetual state of fear, not knowing when the next patient will be diagnosed with the ‘silent  killer’ or when the next herd will fall one by one having drunk the waters from the ‘cursed well’. Herds have died in their hundreds before – at Kargi in January 2008, for example. A monster has invaded the land of the nomads. Things are indeed falling apart.

#weareone

Worse still, their own government may have been complicit. Northern Kenya has long had a fraught history with the governments of Kenya, both colonial and post-colonial. In these lands, the government has long been referred to as ‘nyaap’- ‘the enemy’ in the preponderant Borana dialect of the larger Oromo language. Seeing chiefs and government health officials in the documentary pointing fingers at the government is testimony enough that government here is not trusted even by ‘insiders’.

Massacres have punctuated the history of the North — from violence carried out during the Shifta War to killings at Wagalla, Bagalla, and Turbi. Some of these were orchestrated by the government, were carried out with its complicity, or came about because of its laxity, as revealed by the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission report released earlier this year. While many campaigned to air their painful memories to the TJRC and ensured that the suffering of the past was exposed, there are no signs at present that the recommendations of the report will be considered or even discussed.

Meanwhile, Northerners continue to be neglected more widely when it comes to the provision of basic infrastructure and services like roads and healthcare – most of the cancer patients in the feature had to go to hospitals in more developed ‘down’ country areas like Meru where they deposited all their hard earned cash.

It will be interesting to see how the Kenyan government will respond to this crisis in these times of #weareone and ‘national cohesion and integration’. What measures will it take to curb this epidemic, ‘detox’ the land and try and win back the hearts and minds of the population?

Community support will be central to the success of some of the government’s regional infrastructural projects such as the multi-billion shillings Lamu-Southern-Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET.) Great tracts of the railway, road and pipeline will pass through Northern Kenya. Community ownership of the project is key, and in these lands where the government is not very popular, a lot of ‘winning of hearts and minds’ will be necessary.  The oil exploitation in Northern County of Turkana will involve similar challenges. As a local lawyer said, summing up the feeling on the ground, “You cannot ignore us for 50 years then Turkana becomes the lingua franca after the discovery of oil.”

In summary, in order to redeem its legitimacy in the north, the government needs, as a matter of urgency, to begin fresh investigations into the rise in cancer cases and present a report to the County government of Marsabit, taking responsibility for any complicity it might have had in the disposal of toxic waste in the area. Without genuine efforts towards acknowledging and apologizing for its history in the region, the government will continue to alienate its Northern populations, the ‘integration’ rhetoric notwithstanding.

Hassan H. Kochore is a graduate student in African Studies at the University of Oxford.

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Filed under Development, Health, Kenya

‘We shall return’: elections, anxiety and prophecies in northern Kenya

 By Hassan Hussein Kochore

 Hassan Hussein Kochore writes about a ‘we shall return home’ narrative gaining traction in parts of northern Kenya. People are looking north to a post-Meles Ethiopia while worrying what the 2013 Kenyan elections will bring.

In his seminal work on nationalism, Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson suggested that a feeling of national community is produced by the knowledge that all over the nation people are performing the daily ritual of reading the same newspaper.  This idea is best captured in the name of our own Kenyan newspaper, the Daily Nation.  In Nairobi, one can take for granted the ease with which a newspaper can be obtained from the supermarket, roadside vendors, and hawkers in traffic jams or even by borrowing it from a fellow passenger in a matatu. Many matatus these days actually have a copy of the day’s paper and if you’re lucky enough to sit next to the driver, you can monopolize it. By the time you get to your destination, you’ll have read the whole paper for free!

Then picture a place where a newspaper is hard to come by, a place where you can only ever buy yesterday’s paper, asking a shopkeeper on a Monday morning, “Nipatie Sunday Nation ya leo.” (Give me today’s Sunday Nation). Welcome to Marsabit County in northern Kenya, the nation’s ‘B-side’. Northern Kenya has historically been marginalized, closed off from the rest of Kenya and development actors like the churches. It was only after independence that the Catholic Church, for example, was allowed to build schools in Marsabit. Roads are almost non-existent, with heavy trucks – the most popular means of transport – carving out new roads for themselves every few days in the sandy landscape. It still takes two days riding on the roof of a truck to get to Marsabit from Nairobi. Continue reading

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Filed under Elections, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uncategorized

More than Little Mogadishu

By Neil Carrier and Emma Lochery

Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate has gained fame due to its rapid development into a commercial hub of East Africa sustained by much investment from the Somali diaspora and trade networks stretching as far as China. The Somali influence on the estate has led to it being dubbed ‘Little Mogadishu’, and as a place somehow apart from the rest of Kenya.  In our experience, however, the story of Eastleigh is very much a Kenyan one, and the ‘Little Mogadishu’ label simplifies a very complex story…

Eastleigh 1st Avenue at closing time. Photo courtesy of Neil Carrier

 

Eastleigh is a major commercial hub of East Africa, brimming with around 40 shopping malls selling cheap goods from China, Dubai and elsewhere, that is located only a couple of kilometres away from Nairobi’s Central Business District.  Despite this proximity to the heart of Nairobi, the way many Kenyans speak about Eastleigh, it almost seems as if the short journey from town to the estate on the famous number 9 matatu is taking the passenger much further: from the heart of Kenya into the heart of Somalia.

Eastleigh has been described as if it were an imported city from Somalia, the place to which the big businesspeople relocated when conflict pushed them out of Mogadishu in the 1990s. Indeed, for many Kenyans, shopping trips to Eastleigh offer a taste of Somalia, as Somali language and identity seem to dominate, while Islamic influence is everywhere in dress styles, the prevalence of mosques, and even in the names of such businesses as ‘Madina Mall’.  Rumours of the area being awash with smuggled weapons and al-Shabaab operatives further consolidate the idea that this place of cheap jeans is dangerous and ‘other’, and decidedly not Kenyan.

Such impressions combined with the influx of many Somali refugees over the course of the last two decades, means that the ‘Little Mogadishu’ label rings true for many Kenyan and outside commentators.

Of course, Eastleigh today is the major urban centre for Somalis in Kenya. Many thousands of refugees from Somalia have arrived in this relatively small area (consisting of two main avenues and several streets that connect them) since the early 1990s, most surviving and others thriving thanks to the opportunities provided by this important retail and wholesale centre.   Furthermore, its development and growth are underpinned by Somali connections stretching to the West and Somalis resident there, and the East in the form of networks importing cheap clothes, textiles, electronics and so forth.

However, ‘Little Mogadishu’ is a name rarely heard from anyone who actually goes to Eastleigh on a regular basis or indeed from its residents. The label hides a wealth of other histories, processes and identities that need foregrounding in order to understand the dynamics of this estate and its transformation. Continue reading

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Filed under Business, Eastleigh, Kenya, Somali diaspora

Khat and Al-Shabaab: Views from Eastleigh

Khat traders swarming round a pick-up delivering fresh stock on the outskirts of Eastleigh. Source: Neil Carrier

by Dr. Neil Carrier

In Eastleigh – Nairobi’s bustling commercial zone dominated by Somalis where I have recently been conducting research – activity focuses on the sprawling shopping malls along its 1st Avenue in the daytime, and shifts towards the restaurants and hotels of 2ndAvenue after dusk. Business in the evening also becomes ever more brisk for the hundreds of Meru from Central Kenya selling chewable stems and leaves from kiosks draped in banana leaves.  These banana leaves are the khat sellers’ equivalent of the barber’s pole, alerting customers to the arrival of fresh stock of a stimulant of ever-increasing controversy.  A large proportion of Eastleigh’s population buy khat from these traders, adjourning to either private rooms, or, in the case of men, often to such public areas as Shaah Macaan.  This translates as ‘Sweet Tea’ from Somali, and is a small area located near such Eastleigh landmarks as the 11-storey Grand Royal Hotel.  One can indeed buy sweet tea at Shaah Macaan as well as indulge in shisha, khat and, most importantly, chat.

Shaah Macaan is not the most idyllic of spots.  The view out from the rather scruffy seating area overlooks a muddy road that requires great care to traverse without a fall, while the nearby fleet of buses bound for northeastern Kenya continually puncture any semblance of tranquillity with blasts of their horns.  The atmosphere is hardly healthy either, with dust, sewage and diesel fumes swirling around.  Yet chewers don’t seem to mind, and happily continue their consumption and conversation.  This is one of khat’s appeals: it helps induce comfort and ease in such unprepossessing locations.  Indeed, khat play a similar role in making the mafrish – a place where chewers can buy and consume khat in the UK and elsewhere – warm and welcoming despite their often unprepossessing decor and scant facilities.

However, khat is, as most readers are probably well aware, a highly contentious commodity.  Although chewed wherever there are communities of Somalis, many from these same communities see khat as a source of damage to health, damage to society, and as something immoral and haram.  There is disapproval in Eastleigh, but it is in the UK where sentiment against the commodity is currently most intense. The UK remains one of the few countries in Europe where khat remains legal despite its sizable population of Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian consumers.  Indeed, 56 tonnes are estimated to enter the UK every week, almost all of it farmed by Meru in Kenya’s Nyambene Hills and exported by Somalis, many of them Eastleigh-based. Continue reading

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Filed under Al Shabab, Kenya, Khat, Somali diaspora