Traveling Souls

Life in a refugee camp, where hearts wander as minds deteriorate

| September-October 2008

The Kakuma Refugee Camp, a moderate-sized “city” of tents, shacks, and thatched-roof huts in the desert of northwest Kenya, is inhabited by more than 80,000 refugees (Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Somali, mostly, but also Congolese, Burundian, Rwandan, and Ugandan). Dating to 1992 and administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it is equally a sanctuary and a prison—once residents are admitted, they cannot leave without permission of the Kenyan government. Inside its fences, children age into adulthood. 43-year-old Abebe Feyissa is a 16-year resident of Kakuma.


Within the Ethiopian community of the Kakuma Refugee Camp where I live is a marketplace filled with shops from which you can buy almost anything, and coffeehouses and restaurants showing the latest English Premier League football match.

To the occasional visitor who sees busy Ethiopian businesses, who witnesses refugees enjoying coffee together while they’re watching CNN, Ethiopians in Kakuma might appear to be contented and calm. The truth is that there are only bodies in Kakuma.

All the souls are traveling. They’ve gone for resettlement, completed interrupted college studies, saved as much money as they wanted—in the world of daydreams.

In Kakuma people fight for no reason. A husband embittered by his long refugee life releases his anger on his wife: “Why are you quiet?” “Why is lunch late?” “Who was that man you were with?” A wife whose husband does not have a shop or a resettlement prospect, who has no task other than to assist her in cooking and fetching water, may see reason to desert him for another man. Children are punished for playing with friends or watching TV.