Friday, June 12, 2009


From the book What Is the What by Dave Eggers.

There is a perception in the West that refugee camps are temporary. When images of the earthquakes in Pakistan are shown, and the survivors seen in their vast cities of shale-colored tents, waiting for food or rescue before the coming of winter, most Westerners believe that these refugees will soon be returned to their homes, that the camps will be dismantled inside of six months, perhaps a year. But I grew up in refugee camps. I lived in Pinyudo for almost three years, Golkur for almost one year, and Kakuma for ten. In Kakuma, a small community of tents grew to a vast patchwork of shanties and buildings constructed from poles and sisal bags and mud, and this is where we lived and worked and went to school from 1992 to 2001. It is not the worst place on the continent of Africa, but it is among them. Still, the refugees there created a life that resembled the lives of other human beings, in that we ate and talked and laughed and grew. Goods were traded, men married women, babies were born, the sick were healed and, just as often, went to Zone Eight and then to the sweet hereafter. We young people went to school, tried to stay awake and concentrate on one meal a day while distracted by the charms of Miss Gladys and girls like Tabitha. We tried to avoid trouble from other refugees—from Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda—and from the indigenous people of northwest Kenya, while always keeping our ears open to any news from home, news about our families, any opportunities to leave Kakuma temporarily or for good.
...Every day in school, students would be absent due to illness. The bones of boys my age were attempting to grow, but there were not enough nutrients in our food. So there was diarrhea, dysentery, and typhoid. Early on in the life of the school, when a student was ill, the school was notified, and the students were encouraged to pray for that boy. When the boy returned to school, he would be applauded, though there were some boys who felt it best to keep their distance from those who had just been sick. When a boy did not recover, our teachers would call us together before classes, and tell us that there was bad news, that this certain boy had died. Some of us would cry, and others would not. Many times, I was not sure if I had known the boy, and so I just waited until the crying boys were done crying. Then the lesson would continue, with those of us who did not know the boy hiding our small satisfaction that this death would mean that school would be dismissed early that day. A dead boy meant a half day, and any day that we could go home to sleep meant that we could rest and be better able to fight off disease ourselves.

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