I got to spend a few days in Kenya during the current school holidays.  I stayed with family friends, Myra and Clive.  They were my parents’ friends back in the good old days when we lived in Kenya, and they have settled there for the foreseeable future.  It was my first time being back in about twelve years, and it was all a bit surreal.  Myra and Clive live in a suburb of Nairobi called Karen, just down the road from our old house.  Karen is kind of muzungu central.  You could almost compare it to Northern Virginia.  It’s got a country club, strip malls, and lots of bored white people.  I fell gratefully into its comfortable arms.  I drank my chai latte at the Java House, took advantage of free wireless internet, browsed in the bookstore, took care of some much needed woman-grooming, and drank a lot of white wine.  Myra and Clive were generous and warm, and three days was enough to relax me completely.


Myra does a lot of fundraising work for a non-profit called the Girl Child Network which seeks to nurture the development of young women in Africa through educational initiatives, workshops, camps, etc.  During my stay in Kenya the Girl Child Network (GCN) had partnered with the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) to organize a visit to an Internally Displaced Person camp.  These are temporary camps that have been set up for all the people displaced from their homes during the violence surrounding the recent Kenyan presidential election.  AMREF and GCN donated money to assemble ‘dignity kits’ to distribute to young women at the camps.  These kits included a kikhoi wrap, sanitary towels, a toothbrush, soap, underwear, and other basic items.  Myra was going with representatives from both groups to visit one of the camps and help distribute the kits, and I was able to tag along with her.


The camp we visited was established in the showground of a town called Nakuru, about two hours outside of Nairobi.  We bounced along a dusty road to a chain-link fence which marked the boundary of the camp.  All along the roadside people had set-up small stalls selling tomatoes and greens and other vegetables.  We found out later that the Red Cross food distribution consists of beans and flour only, so people barter or buy everything else at these stalls.  Once through the fence we drove up a road alongside avenues of tents, stretching as far as the eye could see.  They came in various shades of grey, pitched in neat rows.  On the right there was a single row of tents designated for official use: registration tent, special needs tent, tent distribution tent.  We came to a stop at the crest of a small hill, and sweatily disembarked.  A small crowd had gathered around the bus door to shake our hands and welcome us.  There were some kids, and some shouts of “Muzungu!  How are you,” but overall the people spoke to us in muted tones, matching the colors of their tents and the pale brown dust.  For every person shaking hands with us there was another, keeping a distance, watching us carefully.  I wondered how many buses of well-wishers these people had seen roll through in the last four months. 


A Ministry of Health official assigned to the camp took us on a brief tour.  I soon had several children holding onto each arm, some quite insistently.  “He can’t believe you’re real,” a Kenyan lady with the delegation remarked, as one small boy repeatedly pinched the skin of my forearm.  Representatives from both AMREF and the GCN were snapping pictures.  I felt awkward as I tried to disentangle myself from the kids and keep moving.  We saw inside a tent.  I don’t know what I was expecting, I’ve been inside a tent before, but the barrenness of it still shocked me.  Four canvas walls, some blankets, a bucket or two, and five people.  All the residents of the camp have to build their own small fires and cook outside the tent.  We saw a woman preparing the fuel for her fire.  She took the leftover shards of already burnt charcoal, and mixed it with water and dust to make small balls.  She thought it would take about eight to cook a meal.  Myra asked a young woman where she was from, and if she wanted to find a way back there.  “No, I can’t go back there.  I can maybe start somewhere else, but I can’t go back there.”  She has three kids, and she used to run a successful farm.  Now she lives in a tent, her kids are far away with relatives, and she has only what the NGOs see fit to give her.  It was a common theme among the people we talked to—they were scared to go back to the homes they’d been chased from.


The NGOs and aid organizations had left their marks everywhere: UN, Red Cross, Rotary International, USAID.  We walked through the camp clinic which sees 250-300 people each day.  They have three nurses and four small exam rooms.  There were USAID stickers on every wall.  I asked the Doctor from the Ministry if USAID was providing funding for the medicine.  “They were for about two months, but there was some problem with mismanagement of funds and they pulled out.”  It was the same story with the clinic vehicle—it was initially funded, but then someone, somewhere, pulled the plug and now they don’t have one.  14,000 people live at this camp, and when one of them is sick enough to need a hospital they have no way of getting there. 


After the tour we all piled into a tent where a man was conducting a workshop for HIV-positive camp residents.  As we crowded in the men and women in the workshop began singing a welcome song, and we were shown to the guest of honor seats.  I steeled myself for the traditional ‘introduction and appreciation of visitors,’ which often takes over an hour in the Ugandan setting.  This was a little different though.  A young girl stood up and gave a performance in Swahili.  She seemed to be re-enacting a conversation between a parent and child, possibly warning about HIV.  She was animated and precocious and dressed in a pretty green dress.  Everyone smiled.  Several people who work at the camp spoke.  Each clearly articulated a list of pressing needs.  I’m not talking about requests for a more balanced diet, or furniture, or even a place to cook food that isn’t in the dirt.  They were asking for a single doctor to work at the camp, a single car that could transport emergency cases, basic medicine.  Issues, really, of life and death.  All the women in our delegation had a chance to speak.  Many of them are nurses, or retired nurses.  Most spoke in Swahili, but from those who spoke in English I could pick up common themes: hope, forgiveness, the future.  Monica, a middle-aged nurse in an elegant pink suit and neck-scarf, began to cry as she spoke.  I knew I was going to be asked to speak, but I felt bereft of words in the face of this scene.  What the hell could I say?  I was a glorified tourist, peeking in the tent flaps at people whose lives had been pillaged, whipped away in an afternoon.  I stood up and felt my own voice wavering in my throat, and managed to squeak out a few words of gratitude for being allowed visit the camp. 

As the speeches ended Mercy, the head of the GCN, gave us all about fifteen little metallic badges.  They were in the shape of a person and said “Protect the Children” in Swahili.  She instructed us to find some kids and hand them out.  My heart sank.  Handing out fifteen badges in a camp of 14,000 hungry people seemed like a gesture of magnificent inadequacy.  I pushed through the immediate crush and found a quiet spot outside where a little boy was lying on the ground, his sister sitting calmly beside him.  I knelt down next to her and she shied away, but I held out the badge and she let me gingerly pin it on her shirt.  I looked at the boy who was eerily still, and face down in the dirt.  “Is he ok?” I asked no one in particular.  A passer-by gave him a shake and he sat up, looking dazed, then lay back down.  “He’s sick,” the passer-by informed me.  I hesitated for a moment with my mouth open, but I couldn’t think of anything to do.  I was surrounded by people asking for the badges.  I tried to give them to the youngest kids.  I quickly ran out.  Teenage girls looked at me distastefully and moved on.  Adults wanted the badges, women older than me.  It struck me that this was the biggest loss of all; the loss of the ability to provide for yourself, the loss of independence.  In the camp it didn’t matter if you were intelligent and motivated and responsible because there were no jobs and no money and you couldn’t go home.  So instead you could follow the outsiders who rolled up in their buses and see if they were handing out something that you could use or trade or sell.          


We all got back in the bus and rumbled out through the dusty gate.  We drove a respectable distance before pulling over and tucking into our packed lunches, prepared by the Serena Hotel in Nairobi.  There was more food than we could eat. 


In the post-visit chatter on the bus I wasn’t sure how to sum it all up.  I’m glad I saw it?  It was very interesting?  I felt like a dumb-ass and an intruder the entire time?  I was hungry and hot and humbled.  I was inadequate.  There’s no tidy ending to the story, just a sense of unease, that I think should be shared by many.