City, Camp, Village

Back and forth from Kakuma to Nairobi, the past few weeks have been good to me.

Outside of work, I spent my October in Nairobi exploring new parts of the city and spending quality time with friends. I enjoyed escaping the traffic-filled streets by exploring some of Nairobi’s green space, including Uhuru Park and Karura Forest. (Both of those locations, by the way, were sites of controversial urban development projects planned during Daniel Arap Moi’s presidency, and a history of environmentalist and anti-capital protest led by Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathai). My visit to the main campus of the University of Nairobi made me miss campus at home, and a good friend has been gracious enough to take books out from their library for me. I also had the pleasant surprise of meeting up with one of my professors, who was in Nairobi for the launch of a new global research initiative called OCSDnet.


A rugby match at Impala field, Nairobi


The Institute of African Studies at the University of Nairobi

Uhuru Park, Nairobi

Uhuru Park, Nairobi


Karura Forest, Nairobi

I’m back in Kakuma here and am staying for the month of November. My main objective for this visit is to conduct interviews and focus groups for my research, which have been going swimmingly. I’m researching how education in host communities (the hosts of refugees) has been impacted over the years by the presence of refugees in Turkana West (the sub-county in which Kakuma is located). I’ve been speaking with teachers, Turkana elders, and other community members who have been sharing their thoughts about infrastructure, conflict and security, culture, pastoralism, NGOs, and government. My main source of data is the stories and experiences of my interviewees, the oldest of whom have seen their communities change considerably since the establishment of the refugee camp in 1992. Where necessary, my co-workers have translated Turkana for me. The interviews have taken place in classrooms, under trees, in ekol (a hut), and an Ethiopian restaurant in the camp called Franco’s. This week I’m travelling to Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County, to meet with a government official. Needless to say, I’ve been learning a lot.


A research interview location


Turkana village


Beautiful landscape of Turkana West

After work, I’ve been going on walks into the camp to explore and buy snacks like samosas and fruit. I’ve only been able to explore part of it by foot because the whole place is very large. But I’ve visited schools in all parts of the camp. It’s very cosmopolitan, with people of similar nationality congregating in certain areas. In many ways, the camp is like a small city. In other ways it’s not, as there are regulations that restrict the movement and activities of its residents that wouldn’t happen elsewhere (if you can access them, I’d suggest the works of Rose Jaji, Barbara Harrell-Bond, and Jennifer Hyndman on this topic).

On Saturday, the UN announced that starting Sunday, food rations in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps would be reduced by 50% until the end of January 2015. This is a drastic reduction of an already modest diet. The local economy, which relies on the trade and resale of grains and pulses received as ration, will take a big hit. The purported reason for the cuts is that the international food aid supply is overstretched by the humanitarian crises that have happened this year. I am not convinced by this explanation. Surely, measures should have taken to more moderately manage the flow of food supply in the camps. A 50% reduction all at once is unacceptable. The camp residents themselves were give 24 hours notice. Sorry, that last part was a bummer but I think it’s important to share.

On a completely different note, earlier today I booked a flight to Ethiopia. While I’m away, I’ll visit the museums, markets, and restaurants of Addis Ababa; I’ll see Fasil Ghebbi in Gondar, which has been called ‘Africa’s Camelot’, and explore the famous rock-carved churches in Lalibela. By the time I get back it’ll be Christmas! I’m planning to spend Christmas with my roommate’s family in Kericho, Kenya. I’m sure I’ll especially miss home at that time, but at least I won’t be alone over the holidays. Stay tuned!

The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.


Travel and Trainings

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I’ve posted here, and that my placement is almost halfway done. I’ve been learning a lot (often the hard way) and I feel really lucky that I get to live and work in two different environments. I’ve been back and forth between Nairobi and Kakuma a few times, each offering a different type of experience. When I’m at the Kakuma office, I get to visit schools and learn more about the ins and outs of implementation from our experienced field staff. When I’m in Nairobi, I can observe how decisions are made while managing expectations from both the field and our donor. Both are valuable, but things are a little easier in Nairobi, where there is high speed internet and hot water and grocery stores. Here are some highlights (and lowlights) from the past little while:

In mid-August, we held a conference for girls on KEEP scholarships. The conference included sessions on goal-setting, health, and an evening hike. My favourite part was when the students had small group discussions on their experience with the program, and then made presentations to the larger group. The first few presenters were shy but slowly they became more candid, being silly and making each other laugh as they shared their insight. There was lots of dancing during the lunch hours, and everyone freaked out when I joined in. I don’t think I’ve ever made so many people laugh at once.

A few days later, I saw it rain in Kakuma for the first time. When it rains there, it raaaaaains. It only happens a few times a year, so the ground has little ability to absorb water, meaning that a completely dry stretch of land can become dangerously flooded within a few hours.


That week I helped distribute some materials to the schools in the camp. In the camp, the flooding had damaged people’s homes and businesses. Our vehicle got stuck in Kakuma 3 for two hours, and so a co-worker and I walked around in the mud while the driver fixed the situation. The local kids were delighted to see a barefoot mzungu ankle-deep in mud.

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That week, I attended a teachers’ training on gender responsive pedagogy. It was held in Lokichoggio, a town about 30km from the border with South Sudan. I wasn’t there to be trained, but I enjoyed attending discussions on gender stereotypes, barriers to girls’ education, safe schools, how boys and girls tend to learn differently, and creating gender-responsive lesson plans. The teachers enjoyed the training, but some of the refugee school teachers were concerned that the strategies would be too difficult to implement in their classrooms, many of which are crowded with upwards of 50 students. And some of the teachers have not been formally trained. Several had never seen a lesson plan, let alone one that considers gender dynamics in the classroom. But introducing any discussion about gender in education is a step in the right direction.

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With one of KEEP’s education officers at the training in Lokichoggio


Back in Nairobi, I finally wrote my research proposal for thesis, which is very exciting. Before coming to Kenya, I was almost sure that I would explore something to do with schools in the refugee camp. However, I’ve become more interested in the host community outside the camp. I’m curious about education among the Turkana, a marginalized community in Kenya and whose education services remain minimal despite the presence of NGOs in the region making large investments in refugee education. There are several studies on tensions between refugees and their hosts, especially about resources and land. But there is nothing in the literature about education services in a refugee-host context. The KEEP project is the only NGO initiative in Kakuma delivering support to both refugee and host schools, and I’m wondering how KEEP’s work can inspire thought about an integrated approach for education in such a context.

Hope you didn’t fall asleep there. I celebrated finishing my research proposal with a day trip to Naivasha, a lovely town about 1.5 hours drive away from Nairobi. Actually, I tagged along with co-workers who were going there to preview a potential venue for a conference we are holding in December. While there, we took the opportunity to visit the beautiful Hell’s Gate National Park. It’s called Hell’s Gate because of a geothermal activity underground from nearby volcano Mount Longonot, creating hot springs (“Devil’s shower”) in and around a spectacular gorge (“Devil’s bedroom”) that visitors can walk through. We rode our bikes to the gorge from the park entrance, a 7.5km trek. Along the way we saw dozens of zebra, as well as some gazelle, buffalo, monkeys, baboons, and secretary birds.


When I got back to Hell’s Gate, I went to a concert with my friends at a club in Nairobi. The famous Kenyan group Sauti Sol was performing. I had recently heard some of their music, and I’ve always wanted to attend a Kenyan concert. Here’s one of their recent hits, Sura Yako: I can’t believe that in the same day, I rode my bike up close to beautiful wildlife, and had a night out at a concert in the city.

And then back to Kakuma on October 1st, this time only for 6 days. We held a two-day field-level planning session with all our remedial teachers and community mobilizers. On Saturday, our clubs development consultant coordinated a networking day with teachers and students participating in clubs activities in our schools. I was given the task of facilitating some focus groups and activities. I really enjoy practicing my facilitation skills, and I seize the opportunity to do so whenever I can, especially because my role as monitoring and evaluation assistant keeps me at a computer most of the time. I learned a lot about clubs activities that day and some of the gendered implications of extra-curriculars. We hope that through trainings for teachers and networking days, we’ll start to see both boys and girls become more engaged in sports, the arts, environmental stewardship, and most importantly, FUN.

At a KEEP field-level planning session in Kakuma

At a KEEP field-level planning session in Kakuma

So now I’m back in Nairobi, and things are quiet in the office while many of our staff our in Dadaab. I’ve spent the hanging out with friends, cooking, and catching up on some much-needed alone time. Thanks for reading this long post! Hopefully it won’t be long before you hear from me again.

In conclusion, here is a picture of me kissing a giraffe.


The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

Intro to Kakuma

The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

The last time I posted, I had just arrived at Kakuma refugee camp. It’s been about three weeks since then, two of which I spent in Kakuma, and one in Nairobi to fulfill some duties at our head office.  Now I’ve been back in Kakuma for two days and expect to stay here until mid-September.

Kakuma is a semi-arid region in the northwest of the country. There has been a refugee camp here since 1992, initially established in response to Sudan’s second civil war. The inhabitants today are primarily from Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia, although there are others from the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Since December 2013, there has been an influx in population due to South Sudan’s ongoing civil conflict. The population is about 130,000.

An aerial photo of Kakuma from Wall Street Journal

An aerial photo of Kakuma from Wall Street Journal

The camp feels like a small city – there are roads, shops, and restaurants (I had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant on Eid and it was yummy). The wildlife consists mainly of goats and cats. Due to the dry climate, people rely mainly on food supplies from the World Food Programme (WFP) and a range of informal economic activities. It is divided into 4 main districts and each is subdivided into blocks. The largest district is Kakuma 1 and it begins just outside of the compound I live in. There are four main compounds for development/humanitarian workers. There’s one for the UN, one for the WFP, a third for smaller NGOs, and another for miscellaneous residences. I stay in the third one. Here, there are two offices for our NGO, Windle Trust Kenya (WTK), and others for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), IsraelAid, FilmAId, World Vision, and more.

A few vehicles in our compound.

A few vehicles in our compound.

Next to the camp, there is a small town that is also called Kakuma. I can go there to buy bottled water, snacks, and airtime for my phone. Actually, I could walk there by myself during the day as Kakumais very safe. The 25km radius around the camp is deemed a ‘safe zone’ for development workers, which means I can travel throughout this area without armed security guards.

I like going into the camp or walking to town because it’s the closest I can get to the hustle and bustle of a city. When I walk to town I usually find a few kids following me, and there are many cuties who incessantly yell “HOW AH YOU HOW AH YOU HOW AH YOU” until I acknowledge them. The atmosphere in Nairobi is much more cosmopolitan so my presence usually doesn’t phase anyone (although I do get some weird glances getting on the matatu) but here in Kakuma my white skin is a bit more of a novelty for the kiddies. In town there are also many Turkana, a Nilotic ethnic group who are unique in how they’ve preserved much of their traditional way of life despite Kenya’s industrialization.

It is very hot here. Most of the time I am a sweaty mess. During the day, the temperature gets up to 34 or 35 Celsius. It’s not so bad during the night, when it can get as low as 25. Actually, it’s winter now so we’re experiencing the year’s coolest temperatures, and I can expect to experience 40 degrees and up when I come back later in the year. Luckily, it is not humid like the smoggy disaster Toronto is during the summer. Also, one of our offices has an air conditioner and I successfully got myself a seat in that room. The challenge is trying to get my coworkers to keep the damn door closed, especially when it’s busy and people are constantly coming in and out of our cramped workspace. Because our compound’s electricity runs on a generator, we have scheduled power outages to save energy. Two hours every day Monday-Saturday, and four hours on Sunday morning. Running water is also shut off between 10pm and 6am, but I’m usually showered and in bed by then because the heat tires me out.

Just outside the WTK offices

Just outside the WTK offices

KEEP works in 33 schools in Kakuma. About half are in the refugee camp. The others are in host communities, which are in the surrounding region and enroll both refugees and Kenyan nationals. I haven’t been to a host community school yet (some are a considerable distance away) but I will next week. My first visit to a Kakuma school was during Saturday remedial classes. They were for students in grades 6, 7, and 8. The schools are very plain in construction and contain wooden benches and tables. They are, as my Nairobi roommate says, “concrete schools with nooooo art!”. The remedial classes were very big. One had 105 students and only 1 teacher. When I walked in with a few other staff, everyone stood up until we asked them to sit. When I introduced myself, everyone responded politely with a resounding “GOOD AFTERNOON!” Thinking what it would be like to do a similar visit in a Canadian grade 8 classroom, I picture students slouching, chewing gum, and rolling their eyes. Not that there’s anything wrong with slouching, gum, or eye-rolling, but the students in the remedial classes have a refreshing enthusiasm for learning.

One of the schools in Kakuma 3

One of the schools in Kakuma 3

So WHAT am I doing here? As Monitoring and Evaluation Assistant, I’m providing on-the-ground assistance for KEEP’s data collection/entry/organization needs. We’re dealing with a lot of data. My main project for my first visit was to coordinate a team of data entry clerks to input the performance (grades) and attendance data for the 33 schools we work in. I worked with some wonderful high school students. It was very tedious. The schools aren’t the greatest at keeping complete and organized records. And you can’t always blame the teachers, who keep records with pen and paper and are very busy with classes of 40-60 students. It is also difficult to track when and why students switch schools, stay back a year, or drop out, which are issues we are trying to learn more about. We also collect attendance data for our remedial classes (every Saturday, plus 5 days a week during holidays), scholarship program, and distribution activities (sanitary pads, textbooks, uniforms). Our goal is that we will be able to demonstrate a relationship between improved attendance/performance among girls and the services we provide, whether it be positive or negative, to understand how refugee girls can be best supported to succeed. So yeah, that’s what monitoring is! Unfortunately it makes a lot more sense in theory than in practice, considering contextual factors like regional conflict (like the recent influx of refugees from South Sudan), challenges with IT infrastructure, and various in-school realities.

Hopefully the last paragraph didn’t bore you. There are fun things to do here too, though I admit it’s slim pickins’ for entertainment. Our common room has a TV with many channels, so I can watch the Kenyan news, or BBC or alJazeera. I discovered last night we have the Food Network and TLC. I’ve been enjoying watching a show called Naswa, which is basically Just for Laughs Gags, only Kenyan. And of course, I can catch up with what Marie Cruz or Octavio have been up to on one of the Mexican soaps. There’s also a bar in our compound where I can get 500ml of Tusker beer for 180 bob (around 2 bucks). The bar is called Katherine’s, which perhaps is a sign someone is looking out for me because my best friend is named Katherine. And yes, there are some good parties in Kakuma. For some reason, everyone here refers to one as “a bash.” I went to a bash at the LWF mess hall a while ago. I was too shy to dance, being the only mzungu, and having had only 2 beers, but it was still pretty chill.

There’s one last thing I’ll mention because it’s really exciting. Yesterday I attended a graduation ceremony for all of the WUSC scholarship recipients heading to Canadian universities next month! This year, WUSC is sponsoring 45 students, half of which are from Kakuma. In Canada, I’ve volunteered with the Student Refugee Program for three years and it was incredibly special to see the students before they embark on this new chapter of their lives. The students did a great job of organizing the event and it was inspiring to hear speeches from the class representative, our program director, and a rep from the UNHCR. I felt privileged to hang out with Majak, who is heading to UTSC in the fall and is cousins with one of the students who arrived at UTSC two years ago. I can’t wait to see him again when I get back to Canada in February and help out with our WUSC local committee again.

Me with Majak, who's heading to UTSC in the fall!

Me with Majak, who’s heading to UTSC in the fall!

Some handmade posters at the grad ceremony

Some handmade posters at the grad ceremony

There’s a lot in store for this visit to Kakuma. This week we are hosting a conference for all of the high school girls in our scholarship program and their parents. Then next week, I’m going to a town called Lokichoggio, near the Sudanese border, to attend a teachers’ training on girl friendly classrooms. Then, back to working with data. I’ll also be working on my research proposal for my undergrad thesis. Stay tuned for more on that!

Leisure and Learning in Nairobi

The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

Greetings from Kakuma Refugee Camp!

I arrived here Friday morning by plane, and have been spending some time with the staff, wrapping up a few things I needed to finish from the Nairobi office, and yesterday I went on some remedial class visits in the camp. I’ll wait to write about my experience here in Kakuma until I am back in Nairobi and have a more complete picture. For now, I’ll say that I’m surviving the heat, I’m getting used to the feeling of flies crawling on me, the rationing schedules for water and electricity aren’t so bad, and I can’t wait to get started this week.

I’m here in Kakuma to provide on-the-ground M&E (monitoring and evaluation) support, mainly with data collection and entry, which are immense tasks considering how busy the teachers and education officers are on a daily basis. I’ll be training some youth in Microsoft Excel and coordinating a big data entry exercise. By the time we’re finished, we’ll be able to add last term’s in-school performance figures to our database. I’ll also be running a consultation with KEEP’s community mobilizers and some head teachers to hear their input about challenges related to data collection and school matters in general. Finally, there’s a conference for scholarship girls coming up next month and I’d love to hear from the organizers about how the Nairobi office can better support their plans.

Buuuut this post is meant to update you about the last few weeks in Nairobi. Work-wise, I’ve been doing some data entry (not terribly exciting) and preparing for my trip to Kakuma. A few people have asked what there is to do for fun. I realize museums aren’t exactly everyone’s idea of fun, so I’ve included a different post about the museum.

During my first week in Kenya, some co-workers took me and the outgoing intern, Kevin, to a bar frequented pretty much exclusively by Kenyans. My co-workers said that we would be “going out for a beer after work” which meant something very different to me than it did to everyone else. We arrived at 5:30pm and stayed until almost midnight. When we called for a cab, everyone protested that we were leaving early. I was still a bit jetlagged and otherwise would have stayed. The highlight of going out for drinks with Kenyans is that you might order nyama choma (roasted goat). It’s the go-to snack to have at the bar. Instead of ordering nachos or poutine with your beer, you get a slab of nyama choma to share as a group. The first time I had it at the bar, we had it plain with a some salt on the side, so you could season to your liking. Other times you might have it with ugali (corn flour bread) and/or kachumbari (a mix of diced tomatoes and onions).

There are a few good beers made by East African Breweries that are popular here, two lagers called Tusker and Whitecap. Tusker is more to my liking, and it usually goes for anywhere between 150 and 200 shillings (about $2.00 CAD) for a 500ml bottle, but the more expat-friendly locations will charge more. Heineken and Guiness also pretty popular here. A lot of Kenyans also drink Jameson whiskey. When I’m feeling classy I can go to Beer Bistro near Junction Mall. They have a wide selection of beers (including some Belgian brews I want to try more of) and a really nice interior. It’s obviously more expensive but it’s not so bad during happy hour.


A popular club is Gipsy. It’s in Westlands and I’ve been there a few times. It has three bars. From what I understand, it has a greater mix of Nairobi’s people than other places: varying ages of middle/upper class Kenyans, including Indian Kenyans, and expats. I got into my first car accident in Kenya (probably not the last) during the taxi ride home from my first night at Gipsy. We were driving in a roundabout when a fancy car exited its lane and hit us from behind. Nobody got hurt. It was clearly the other driver’s fault. I sat in the passenger’s seat while the taxi driver argued with the other guy. Like always, their conversation began with a polite exchange of greetings. I didn’t understand everything because they went back and forth between English and Swahili. It was a passionate conversation at some points, as the men held each other by the hands and swore they were honest men. The other driver finally agreed it was his fault and whipped out 7000kshs (about $85) a considerable amount to be carrying around. After a 15-minute discussion, the taxi driver got back in the car and he explained that the man was a prominent government official, and he was driving drunk (I told a few friends this story and they were not surprised at this). No wonder he had no hesitation paying off the taxi driver for damages. Anyway, my driver went to turn his key in the ignition and the car battery had died (oh, of course) while his four-way lights were on. Another cabbie from his company came to jump start us and we were on our way.

I’ve managed to get myself invited to a few house parties in Nairobi with some friends I’ve made from work and elsewhere. I’m incredibly awkward at parties in general, so you can imagine how I appear when I am the only mzungu (foreigner, white guy) at a Kenyan party. Nevertheless, I’m learning/trying to be more outgoing, which is especially necessary when everyone is speaking Swahili and I want someone to talk to me. I’m slowly learning more Swahili as time goes on. Understanding the basic grammatical structures is not difficult, as the complexities with conjugation, gender, etc. with some other languages are not as prevalent. Still, it’s a challenge when the words and sounds have little resemblance to what I’m used to. So far I can introduce myself and greet people in Swahili, count to twenty, and ask a few questions (most importantly, vyo viko wapi? = where is the washroom?). At the office, I’ve been taking my Swahili phrasebook out at lunch time. While everyone is eating, I read out a few phrases I’d like to learn, and after laughing at me, my co-workers correct my pronunciation and provide some alternative (often less formal) ways of saying that phrase.

What else do I do for fun? Well, I’m learning to cook new recipes (partly by necessity, partly out of curiosity). There’s a gym in my building with a treadmill, an elliptical machine, and a bike. My neighbourhood is quiet and a good place to go running. I also learned last week, thanks to my roommate, that there is a bootleg movie store in Westlands. They charge 50kshs ($0.62 CAD) to burn one side of a DVD. For that much, you can usually get a season of a TV show! And it saves me the (sometimes very long time) of downloading. I pray that they are not discovered by the authorities. They have everything. I started watching Veep and I highly recommend it. Hopefully I won’t get too carried away with that luxury. I’m also learning what I like on Kenyan TV. When I’m not watching Aljazeera, BBC or a local news station like Citizen TV, I might watch the Simpsons on Fox Africa or watch one of many Latin American soap operas. Kenyans love Latin American soap operas. They are dubbed in English and it’s hilarious. My favourite so far is a Mexican telenovela called Corazon Indomable.

I think that’s enough for now. Stay tuned!