It’s always hot. The heat is unprecedented. We sweat all the time, without the privileged benefit of air conditioning or rainfall. You can’t really get comfortable. This is what living in a desert is like – in fact, this qualifies as a desert because there is little to no rainfall all through the year. This particular desert, as of 2014, has 60,000 people living in it, packed together in close quarters.
This is my childhood home, Kakuma; which has the dubious honour of being the largest refugee camp in the world.
Kakuma was established in 1992, with a population of about 8,000 people, when refugees running from their native Somalia were trying to escape the civil war. The numbers have grown exponentially since then. Why, you ask? Because for some reason, war is a constant. And that’s because someone is probably making money from it. In my humble opinion.
As refugee camps go, Kakuma is the duplicated version of a dime a dozen. There are so many like this littered across the continent. So many around the world. I often wonder if we have more in common with the nationalities that boast their roots in camps, than the ones whose passports we share.
Not that there are a lot of passports to go around. A lot of the time, refugees become so because they do not have the documentation needed to prove that they belong to something, to a government somewhere. It’s funny how little pieces of paper – money, IDs, passports – become so important when you don’t have them. But who is thinking of carrying a passport when you’re running away to save your life?
Think about it. If a war broke out right now right now, after months of tension rising where you live, and suddenly a rampaging militia started shooting people in the street. When they come to your door, is the first thing you do to grab your stack of organized identification, put them in a briefcase and sneak out through a secret exit that you begun burrowing as soon as you heard the rumours?
Or are you flinging yourself through the window and running to the hills with no regard for anything but the meat sack you call your body?
Most of us have the same answer.
Whenever I say that I grew up in a refugee camp, the first thing people always look at me with is pity. I’ve stopped wondering why. I get it. Most people’s natural reaction is to be unable to imagine having to do that. Refugee camps don’t get the best rep, if we’re being honest. There are visions of people looking harassed. Hungry. Downtrodden. You know, what the news puts out.
Kwa ground, the truth is somewhere in between what NGOs will tell you about camps, and what the people who live in the camps will tell you. For me? It’s simply the backdrop of my childhood. And what I will always remember, first and foremost, is the heat.
I came to Kakuma when I was quite young. It is all I have ever known, really. The dirt is familiar to me. The planes that fly overhead that we watch for drop in once a month, giving out relief food and stamps to the people who are constantly looking for more, because the food is not enough – those are the norm. The little enterprises, (funded by relatives who have left or who have found you) that have sprung up to provide something lacking for people who lack a home – from WiFi, to barbershops, to micro-lending so that someone can build a brick house, so that they don’t have to worry about being attacked at night because they live in a makeshift structure too easily toppled over; that’s everyday life. That’s survival.
It isn’t a rosy picture, but it is a snapshot of what humanity is really like. Forget even the obvious and painful discrepancies that capitalism hands us and expects us to accept. How is it, that the human soul can lose everything except flesh, and then come to a place like this and continue to create life? To create hope? To have families, and dare to have dreams? It’s a sad place, no doubt, where you cannot be sure that you will ever leave, or resettle. But somehow, it’s also a joyful, resilient one.
As war is a constant, there are always people coming into the camp, from all over. The hum of voices over the camp is a medley of language – sharp staccato French, or Lingala, from the Congolese; the beautifully guttural almost Luo, from my South Sudan, a little bit of Cushitic influence from Ethiopia, and more. We’re literally a melting pot of everywhere.
The children of these people, coming in, were my playmates growing up. There were always children; of course. Those who survived and were trying to forget, and everyone had a story. Everyone had damage.
To forget, to entertain ourselves, to pass the time, we played football.
Kakuma has an organized league that plays every week. When you’re a kid, there’s not much to do in a camp. There’s a lot of time spent waiting and watching. Maybe you’re going to a type of ramshackle school. Maybe you’re helping someone with their business, maybe your parents. Maybe you’re going exploring, or staying out of trouble, or being sent to get the relief food or buy airtime, or fetching water because water shortages are perennial. If you’re not doing that, you’re playing. The games were intense, and intensely fun. And so we would play football in our free time, and every Sunday, wrapped in the ever blazing heat and clothed in whatever was the most appropriate – usually our bare feet and the spirit of competition. We sweated out the week before us on those dusty fields, and got ready for the week that was to come. Every week, without fail.
By the time I got to high school, the football I was playing became somehow more important, because I was actually good at it. It was more than just the fun I was having – now I had something to prove, to these people who help my past over me like some type of barrier that was to stop me from reaching their level. I didn’t need to reach their level, because I surpassed it. And there was nowhere that this was more evident than during the Chapa Dimba na Safaricom tournament.
In Form 2, my school decided to register for the tournament, and it was easy for us – for me – to shine. I mean, I had been doing this for years. For many hours every week, this was all I was doing. They say practice makes perfect, right? Well, I had been practicing. Football is now basically ingrained in my DNA. That’s what my Whatsapp status says, too.
Playing on a field in the middle of Turkana is extremely different from playing in front of thousands of people, and your peers, and your friends. For one, you have shoes on! For another, the turf is something else. And finally – there’s money at stake. Who would have thought that our team would win 1 million shillings? Who knew that I, David Majak, would end up being the MVP of this entire tournament? And don’t get me started on the money for that part.
And don’t get me started on how I ended up now, at 19, playing for Tusker FC. And let’s not even mention how Chapa Dimba opened up my world, to the point that my homeland, South Sudan, asked me – me! – to play for the squad that would represent the country for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifier.
Sometimes, I still go back to Kakuma. When I have a break. To see how people are. To play a little bit of football. This is still, somehow, my home, after all. And you know what – I still don’t have a passport. I should probably work on that, because I know people will call, because people know my name now. They see me playing for my countries, on television. Lots of people have talent, but not everyone gets to show it. Not everyone can. That’s what Chapa Dimba has done for me. Me, who was kicking around balls from when I was 7 years old, fleeing from gunshots and praying I could outlast whoever was coming for me.
Yes, my life has been hard. Sometimes, even unbearable. But fortunately, surviving this life has taught me: I am more than that.