Of the experiences from my time in Kenya meeting refugees has been the most significant. I love to share our stories. You have already met Fera and today I want to introduce you to Janet and Evans.
Janet left Rwanda when she was four, she’s now 22. She left with both her parents two brothers and sisters under threat of death. They spent fourteen years at the Kakuma refugee camp before being transferred to Dadaab. To this day she asks her parents when they can leave but there’s still no answer. She has witnessed some ugly incidents that leave her with questions about Christianity. When in a catholic school at around Sixteen she witnessed girls being hidden in trunks (she says they were willing) and being transferred over to the monastery for clandestine meetings with monks. She also knows people who have seen and suffered unspeakable horrors and struggles. She listens carefully when shown the law, and seems eager to repent and put her faith and trust in Jesus (I think she may have done already). There are language barriers so it’s not always easy to tell how she’s getting on, but isn’t that the case for all of us?
Anyhow, she loves to hear about Great Britain. She was fascinated to learn that there are no crocodiles in the rivers and sea and that we could go swimming. She struggled to get her head around the idea that people can survive living with snow. I explained insulated houses, fur coats and how we keep fires for warmth. She was horrified at facing the dangers of crossing the twenty plus miles of ocean to reach France and wondered if people had more than eight or ten children. She was also keen to learn if I thought it was sinful to have too many children. I have the impression that she has sadly received some western influenced teaching against big families. She thought it very funny that it might still be light at nine in the evening and perplexed how that comes about.
Learning that Evans was eighteen, the same age as our second born, was really heart warming. I love to hear what it’s like for someone who has lived through just the same era as my son. Evans doesn’t remember his father, who died when he was four, he has since been brought up by his mum; she is HIV Positive. He has two brothers, a full and a half sister. Evans’s English is passable but we struggle to communicate easily. They left Burundi two years ago and while he has asked why, he’s not sure, though he knows that there were death threats. Life in the camps has been tough. He was chased out of school last year by pupils from another nation and hasn’t returned. He hasn’t had much schooling since his father died and his hope is to find some way of paying for school.
He is now the only wage earner for his family. He gets 4500 KES, about 36 pounds per month, which is used to maintain the home. Imagine for a moment dear reader; he’s eighteen, desperate to learn, and has no way of escaping the drudgery of a kitchen cleaning job, save a miracle. His attitude? He thanks God he is alive, his mother is alive and he has his family. He was ‘really pleased’ to get a Bible and now I need to try and get him a Kiswahili/English dictionary to help him read it. Making friends with Evans comes with a burden for I can’t help but think he harbours a hope that somehow I, a mzungu, has the means to answer his prayers for school funding.
I wrestle with my motives for building these relationships. I hate to raise expectations. They may help me see how profoundly different our lives are, I may appreciate my situation better but aren’t these selfish motives? I don’t know. For my friends the chances of escape seem remote. Their countries are volatile, they don’t know how they may be welcomed and are not prepared to jeopardise the limited security and comforts they enjoy now. There is no going forward. Working as an illegal alien in Kenya or her neighbouring countries is fraught with difficulty, not least of all the risk of sexual exploitation (think of your daughter or niece) and the chances of being settled in a donor country is remote at best. This is why plans do not feature.
Life is a daily grind, but nevertheless they see the days as a gift to be enjoyed. Both display dark humour. They tolerate daily discourtesy from managers and NGOs, in Janet’s case, I have even witnessed, what I shall describe as unpleasant proposals. Resigned determination sums up tough daily lives. The camps are dangerous places to live with violence, intimidation, and sexual exploitation. This morning’s meeting covering main events of the last week included one rape, perpetrator arrested, one killing of a shop owner in a robbery, a violent theft of a car and attempted robbery. When I returned to Bristol in May I was astonished at how orderly and secure the place felt. We can by taking care step out at night with confidence that we will not be victims of crime and if we are, know that there is a system of justice that tends to work. There are no such luxuries in the refugee camps surrounding Dadaab.