Monday, March 13, 2006

Disco Dancing in the Refugee Camp

I’m staying with JRS: The Jesuit Refugee Services in Kakuma camp on the border between Kenya and Sudan. We are about 100 kms from Lokichoggio, the infamous staging ground for humanitarian activities into South Sudan. It’s not much to look at but it looks just like every border town in every country of the world. There are many bars, some run down looking hotels, a bunch of gas stations, and a lot of shops. Because the area is so dry and inhospitable, there is no farming here – the locals are called Turkanas and they are cattle herders. They are infamous cattle raiders so there are a lot of guns here. Therefore, its mandatory that you travel with an armed escort to get to the refugee camp. In practice this means, you drive around to the local bars when its time for the security escort and pick up the NGOs who are drinking and then find the police and then everyone heads back to the camp.

Everyone lives on the grounds of the camp here – which is unusual from my experience. There are two compounds that I’ve seen. One is for the UN(two layers of barbed wire fences, dogs,and security guards, curfew at 6pm) and one fo the NGOs (a little less secure – a security guard but not much else). There are about 90,000 refugees here – Congolese, Sudanese, Somalians, and some Ethiopians. This camp has been here about 14 years. It’s really more of a city than a camp. In fact, JRS told us that when Kenya Telecom first ran their cell phone network out here, it was a mess because the somalis had already started up a mobile phone network from inside the camp. The somalis are amazing businessmen. They have the best mobile phone network in Africa, I hear, despite having no government – but they will tell you it is BECAUSE they have no government. Kenya is pretty amazing to me as well – well paved roads, street signs, barrier rails – all the markings of a civilization. I hear it will be much different in South sudan when we get there. Because of the civil war, there aren’t even many buildings in the new capitol, Juba. In order to operate there, everyone is working out of tents. I imagine it is like M*A*S*H.

JRS is hosting us because UNHCR snubbed us. There’s a very nice Irish man in charge here named Mark and he and I hit it off right away. He asked me if I was Irish when I arrived. Anyway, the JRS house is quite nice. Four bedrooms with their own bathrooms. Electricity, a sitting room with satellite tv and internet. A small little kitchen with an electric kettle and a fridge. Everyone eats at a pretty dismal little cafeteria here with a television set in it tuned constantly to football. Because I watched all of the European Cup 2 years ago in Zimbabwe, I can now talk football a little. We had our choice of spaghetti with minced meat sauce (basically spaghetti bolognese), ugali (which is like very thick sold grits), kale, and a stewed intestines for dinner. I had spaghetti.

I thought that would be it for the night but it turns out that the NGO compound has their own ‘local’ called Catherine’s place. We went with George and Joseph, two fo the Kenyan staff from JRS and Mark to the pub where we sat under a tree and drank Tusker beer. Some of the guys played pool at a pool table under a lightbulb in a shed. We had a pretty intense conversation about the situation of the Somali Bantus who were resettled in South Carolina who were from this camp, I think, and ended up in Columbia. Then we headed back to the house. But that was not the end of the night! You could hear reggae music playing from somewhere and it turns out that there is a disco here in the camp! So we headed out to the disco, called the Bullseye.

What a sight! They have neon lights, a black light over the dance floor, grasshut covered roof, and booming music! The clientele is almost all male sudanese refugees. They are all very very tall – most about 6’5 and very thin. The predominant style for young Sudanese men is called “yo-yo” which comes from the term “Yo, what up?”. So they all wear basketball jerseys, baggy pants with their boxer shorts hanging out, baseball caps, doo-rags, or bandanas tied aaround their head. They are also called ‘basketballers’. Thomas, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who knows the guys at JRS was hanging out with us and explained it all to us.

The music was standard hip-hop and reggae but suddenly it switched to trashy 80s disco! We had to hit the dance floor then! So Betsy and I went out to dance to Michael Jackson, Prince, Abba, and Ace of Base. It was quite an experience as we were definitely amongst the shortest and whitest people on the floor. My skin was glowing under the blacklight. We got home at 2:30am and the disco was still going strong. Now its Sunday and we were supposed to head out into the camp to talk to refugees but our hosts from JRS are all sleeping off the Tusker beer. And they have locked us in!!! The guy who was going to drive us came over but he doesn’t have a key so we talked to him through the window. So – here we sit, waiting for someone to wake up. Waiting waiting.

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