Nothing makes you think about where else you want to live quite like an election.
No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.”
– Warsan Shire
My sister abroad has been texting me, asking if I’m safe, if there’s violence, if what they are seeing on their media is commensurate to the situation on the ground. And my mind is numb. I never know how to answer her. What do I say? I just put up an Instagram picture of how fine I am. I’m not fine. I mean, they have Trump, but we have…well, we have this.
She says I should try and get citizenship somewhere else (where else can I be Kenyan?). She asks if I have packed some stuff, a bag, of important things, just in case something happens. Do I have an escape plan to leave my city, in case my city chooses to leave me? I do. I have a plan. A half-hearted one. Because I can’t believe the news. I can’t believe that this is happening, here, still, 5 decades later.
Half-heartedly, also, for the third time in as many months, I get ready to go to the supermarket to stock up my fridge with things I might need in case I will unable to go to the supermarket in the coming days. I do not know what the coming days will bring, and though my days as a Brownie are long gone, my mother has called to remind me to always be prepared. I don’t know what their plan is. Should I go home? Maybe I should go home (is home home if it can be so easily disintegrated at someone else’s whim?)
I am thinking of horrible questions. What if I do have to run away, to flee, and who am I supposed to leave behind? Are we all supposed to be running together? Where should I stop, if I can stop? What if there are barriers, checking for the IDs that they have been asking for this whole time – like in the movie I could not watch, called First They Killed My Father? Will they kill…my mind cannot finish the thought. I pay for bread.
For the third time in as many months, the supermarket aisles are filled with weary people trying to do what they can to survive, now, in a place where they are forced to act like life can still happen, like next week is no longer a precarious possibility. I wonder if they have deadlines like mine. I wonder if they will have to pick up when their editor calls, saying the profile is unacceptable and they have to do another one because the paper cannot look biased. I wonder if they care about anything after tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I am supposed to be interviewing a refugee. The name given to me is Yussuf, but the name he uses is Abdullahi. I had forgotten that tomorrow is the day of the ruling when I made the appointment. I have to call to ask him if we can do a phone interview, because I am not willing to leave my house. Or at least, after I’ve squelched through the vitriol on Twitter and Facebook, I am not willing to any more. When I get him on the phone, for the interview, his words are calm and measured, unlike the turmoil I have been feeling all day. And so I project my fears onto him.
Abdullahi is 27, he thinks. He is not completely sure because he didn’t grow up knowing how to count, and therefore his age is more of an estimation rather than fact. He was born in Somalia, and his birth was not registered. And from a very young age, he has lived in refugee camps – all through primary school, and all through secondary school. He speaks like he has been asked these questions before, and he has had to tell his story before. He tells me that living in the camps was horrible, because of course he still remembers. ‘Everything is horrible.’ The tone of his voice only changes very slightly. ‘From the water you drink, where you sleep, the medicine you are given, the food…it’s pathetic. You can’t imagine.’ He’s right. I can’t. Abdullahi tells me about the frequent times that they would have one meal a day, at 10 am in the morning, and then go to school, and that was that. Obviously the school was not providing food for the children. And neither was anyone else.
I take a breath trying to visualize me in a situation where all through primary and high school, I get one meal a day, and I’m in a camp that I can’t leave because I am a citizen of nowhere. ‘You can’t leave. There is complete restriction of movement. Can you imagine being born in a village, and staying in the village till you are 30 years old, when someone is telling you about the world beyond the village – and all you know are the four corners of your room?’
So let’s say, for example, that Kenya descends into the civil war that so many people are baying for, and we become the Somalia (the other Somalia?) of Eastern Africa, and we’re moving from country to country, in camps, not knowing how life will be in those camps, not knowing when you’ll be able to go back and having no identification. What do you carry in your runaway bag to identify you with a country that doesn’t, maybe, exist, and does whatever money you think you have even matter against a machete? Carrying a passport. Or dollars. Or remnants of citizenship. Citizenship to who and for whom – people who don’t care where you’re from or where you want to go.
‘I cannot work in Kenya for the jobs that I am qualified for, because they always ask for IDs. I don’t have any Somali identification.’ Nothing to say who you are. What does that mean? ‘Refugee is a label that you are given, and of course it is a limiting factor. It isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a circumstance…that anyone can find themselves in.’ Those are the words that ring in my ears, because it isn’t exactly as if people plan to be cast out of their countries, is it? ‘I fit the definition.’
Forwards are coming in, fast and furious. State of Emergency. Killings. Pangas. Hide. Learn how to say yes in that language, no in the other. Fabricate a tale about where your ID is. Don’t leave the house. Leave the house. Don’t live. Live because your landlord wants rent. ‘Be careful.’ ‘Stay safe.’ How, when we could all end up within the same four walls and you can’t protect yourself against an onslaught because the face of your enemy is the one in your mirror?
‘Sure, the way Kenya is going, with the current political affairs…it’s worrisome. It’s heading to its deathbed. This is how things in the Middle East, the Arab Spring, started. Public riots, election demos. Syria and all that…’ his words are echoing from a reality I am only half cognizant of. ‘…but Kenya is more liberal, and has a higher level of literacy. They are still able to control it.’ It feels like those are words that happen before a genocide.
‘The people who want war don’t know what that means. They have not worn those shoes. A poor government is better than no government. Politicians promise things and glorify those who stand with them but the public is not aware of the consequences.’ He’s talking about the hunger. ‘In Nairobi, most of the problem areas are slums like Mathare and Baba Dogo. You will not hear posh places like Westlands, or Lavington, in the news. They’re not throwing stones. They have been swayed into things they don’t know…where they are headed.’
If we become one of ‘those nations’, and there’s nothing but circumstance preventing it, there are not a lot of open arms waiting to receive us. When Abdullahi left the camp after finishing secondary school, he worked with international organizations and joined Kenyatta University to do Computer and Information Technology, which he graduated from 3 months ago. He is also a recent – 2 weeks ago – graduand of Kenya Institute of Management with a diploma in Management, and works as an interpreter for the UNHCR.
And you are greeted on the other side
go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
Abdullahi’s story is not one that is a regular one. A refugee who gets away and survives – nay, thrives – is not the one that we always hear. For every Abdullahi, there is Aleppo. For every Germany with open arms, there is a Hungary with protesters at the borders and citizens signing petitions of mercilessness. For every country that takes you in, there are 20 waiting to kick you out. The only difference, in fact, between you and a refugee, as Abdullahi says is just that it is a circumstance that anyone can find themselves in.
That’s why I was talking to him actually – because anyone can be a refugee. The campaign I was interviewing him for is called Luquluqu, and it’s meant to build awareness about refugees – the good stories, the bad ones, the ugly ones. Stories of the human condition. There are still people in those camps, still trying to break free from the only four walls – fences – that they know.