Five years in a Kenyan IDP camp

A woman in front of her tent in Shalom Camp.  She was displaced five years ago during the post election violence.
A woman in front of her tent in Shalom Camp. She was displaced five years ago during the post election violence.  Photo by Jason Patinkin

On Christmas afternoon in a Kenyan refugee camp, Allan Njenga Nderito’s cell phone rang.  It was his teenage daughter, celebrating with relatives in a nearby city, but Nderito ignored the call.  He knew she’d ask him why he couldn’t join her and her three siblings, and he couldn’t bear explaining to his children that he didn’t have the money to be with them on Christmas.

Nderito is one of hundreds of thousands of Kenyan IDPs—internally displaced persons—who survive in tented camps with no jobs or homes of their own.  Many, including Nderito, were displaced in December 2007 when ethnic violence broke out after disputed elections, leaving over a thousand dead and entire communities displaced.  In Nderito’s fifty acre Shalom Camp, 750 families wait to be resettled.

In Shalom they’ve been waiting for five years.  In northern Kenya, Somali, Sudanese, and Ethiopian refugees have waited for up to twenty years in some of the world’s largest refugee camps.  Now on Kenya’s coast, there are thousands of freshly displaced people taking refuge from last year’s tribal clashes.  Wherever they’re from, they fled either violence or famine for “temporary” shelters that become permanent.

Nderito, who once owned a timber business, lives alone with his wife, having sent their children to stay with relatives.  He sleeps in a tent of wooden poles and plastic sheeting.  “To raise children here would be their downfall,” he said.  Nderito practices his traditional tribal religion, but Christmas is still a family day, a reminder of what he lost.

Nderito recalls December 27th, 2007, when attackers from a rival tribe descended on his home village near Eldoret with kerosene and bows and arrows.  They burned his house and killed neighbors, dumping bodies in wells.  Nderito and his family fled, bringing nothing more than the clothes they were wearing.

A few tents away from Nderito’s shelter lives another IDP named Omari.  He’s in his thirties and lives with his wife and two children.  On Christmas, he thought about better days.  “Before the clashes, it was very sweet,” he said of past holidays.  “We held family gatherings and slaughtered goats for meat.”  This year, Omari, his wife, and their children ate a Christmas meal of government-issued maize and beans.

Each household in Shalom receives 12 kg of such foods per month, but it doesn’t last long.  Omari makes four or five extra dollars for food each week by selling soap, sugar, and tea—luxuries, he calls them.

Mirka Wamahia is a 42 year old single mother of seven who also lives in Shalom.  She works in nearby farms to earn less than four dollars a week for food.  Before being displaced, she made over 300 dollars a month running a clothing shop.  This year, she saved enough to buy potatoes and wheat flour for Christmas, foods she hadn’t eaten since last December.

A fertile valley surrounds Shalom.  To the east, a river flows to a dam below a green patchwork of farms.  On the other side, cattle graze a broad plain owned by a Portuguese businessman.  But Shalom is too crowded for people to take advantage of the good soil and ample rain.

The ground is muddy in wet weather, and strong winds can knock down weak tents.  The youth complain of idleness, and everyone complains of food shortages and poor health.  There are only 100 pit toilets for the thousands of people.  Electricity was cut after a former chairman stole the money for the bill, so people can’t pump water from the well.  Now, they haul stagnant water from the dam.

After five years of this, residents are bitter.

But they are also afraid to return home.  The coastal clashes confirm the IDPs’ belief that security forces still cannot protect them from renewed violence.  And if they leave the camp, they lose their chance for resettlement.  Says Helen Wanjiku, a mother of two, “We are living here like a prison.”

Some people in the camp say a change in government is their best hope, and are excited to vote in Kenya’s upcoming March elections.  But others, remembering what happened the last time Kenyans went to the polls, are wary.  Nderito will only vote if he is resettled, and there are those who will boycott no matter what.  According to camp chairman David Thiong’o Kariuki, “Many say, ‘To vote made us be in the tent.’”

The government has vowed to resettle all IDPs, and from time to time camp residents are transferred to new land.  Indeed, on Christmas morning, Kariuki, 57, announced that the government would resettle 300 families the next day, with each given two and a quarter acres on a farm about 70 km away.  But Kariuki still awaited confirmation from a government agent about transportation, so doubtful residents began collecting donations to hire trucks just in case.

At sundown, Kariuki waited by the dam with his goats for the agent to call.  He goes there often to avoid facing the family he cannot help.  Of his three children, only one daughter is in school, sponsored by a foreign donor.

Kariuki looked across at the neat rows of crops.  “I was born from a poor farmer.  I don’t have education.  But if I could get land like this, I will do something for my children to go to school for a good life.”

He calculated how much money he would have made in the past five years, and scowled.  “We are just wasting more moments.”

The agent never called, and the families didn’t raise enough money for transportation.  Everyone’s savings had gone to buying potatoes and flour for the holiday meal.  So the people of Shalom Camp settled into their tents for Christmas dinner, and began their sixth year of waiting.

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