Thoughts on change, movement

I’m playing catch-up to compensate for 3 months of no updates. A lot has happened in the worlds of work, play, travel, and research. Over the next few days I hope to add a few posts about my recent travels. I’m in Nairobi now, and next Friday I’m going to Kakuma, for the last time. I’ll be helping with a training for teachers in support of clubs and extra-curricular development, and another one for staff on qualitative data collection in preparation for our midline.

I’m enjoying my time here in Kenya, so much that I’ll be staying for two extra months.  In early January my boss asked me what plans I had for when I would arrive home in mid-February. I had none. I can’t start a new semester of school until May, and don’t have any job interviews lined up. She suggested an extension as the obvious answer, though this had never occurred to me as a possibility. After making a few logistical adjustments, I’m set to stay on with KEEP until April 15th.  I’m honoured that I’m considered to be of value to the project, and excited to have more time to travel within Kenya. I’m also pleased to have some extra time to conduct interviews in Kakuma for my research which, until recently, has lacked…direction. I’ll leave that to another post.

So of course I’ve been thinking about what I can do now that I’m staying. I now also have more time to think about leaving. Today would have been my date of departure. I’m glad it isn’t, because I still need to find closure with some relationships and experiences (both good and bad), and figure out how to say goodbye to people who have become a part of my life.

I’m sure I’ll be back in Kenya at some point in my life. If I came back in 10 years, I might not recognize Nairobi, as this city is constantly changing and growing so quickly. Then I think of Kakuma, which changes and remains constant in different ways. What is meant to be a temporary home for people who have escaped the most unthinkable atrocities, yet remains a permanent fixture in the region’s political and economic landscape. A place that’s imagined by some of its inhabitants to be a place of opportunity, and others as an open-air prison.  I wonder what it would be like for me to return to the camp in 10 years. I wonder if I’d find some of the same people stuck in the same situations they’re in now. I don’t mean to create an image of refugees as powerless or without any control over their lives; that’s not the case. What I’m trying to say is, that as I think more and more about leaving, I’m reminded of the privilege I have in my mobility.  To move from place to place, choosing to what extent I want to immerse myself in a place, or not.  And then moving on, taking with me the memories, lessons, and physical things I want to remember, and leaving behind what I don’t want. To not be stuck, but instead be able to create a sense of home in a place until I choose to move on.

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.

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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.

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A rugby match at Impala field, Nairobi

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The Institute of African Studies at the University of Nairobi

Uhuru Park, Nairobi

Uhuru Park, Nairobi

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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.

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A research interview location

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Turkana village

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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.

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 http://blogs.wsj.com/photojournal/2013/09/03/worlds-largest-refugee-camps/

An aerial photo of Kakuma from Wall Street Journal http://blogs.wsj.com/photojournal/2013/09/03/worlds-largest-refugee-camps/

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!

Welcome to my blog

This week I am saying goodbye to family and friends as I prepare to live in Nairobi, Kenya for 8 months. Like many people who choose to leave home for an extended period of time, I’m learning how difficult it can be to summarize what I expect from my experience in a single conversation. I’m fairly introverted, and so I usually wait for people to ask me about my future plans, only to be disappointed at the end of the exchange because I didn’t get to express what I wanted. So it’s a good thing I’m starting a blog. I express myself best in writing, and for the next 8 months, I think I’ll have lots to say.

My name is Marc Lombardo and I am a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto Scarborough. I study International Development and Socio-Cultural Anthropology. I’m thrilled to say that in one week, I will be arriving in Nairobi, Kenya to begin an 8-month internship with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) a Canadian NGO that partners with an organization called Windle Trust Kenya (WTK) to provide education for refugees.

I will have the privilege of working as a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Assistant with the Kenya Equity in Education Project (KEEP), a three-year initiative that WUSC and WTK are implementing under the UK’s Girl’s Education Challenge. (Sorry for the acronym overload…but welcome to the world of international development). While there, I will be supporting efforts to collect, organize, and analyze information on KEEP’s progress and provide project feedback. To get a sense of what all this entails, I’ll list here a few questions that I’ll be asking myself while on the job: How can we use qualitative and quantitative data to represent an organization’s impact on a group of people? What research methods are most appropriate for understanding a person’s lived experiences in relation to a development intervention, and how can these methods be employed ethically? And then, how can we take all this information and relay it to different audiences?

Before leaving Canada, I am doing my best to read about refugee life in East Africa and keep up with current events in Kenya. As I prepare, I realize more how little I understand as a Canadian entering a foreign context. My goal is to be humble and maintain an open mind as best as I can. This certainly will be a rewarding learning experience as I live, work, travel, and meet new people in this beautiful country, and so I’m delighted to be starting this new chapter of my life.

I’ll post an update after I arrive in Nairobi next week. Hopefully my writing style doesn’t prevent you from returning to read another post (I’m best at writing essays, not blogs!).

Until then,

Marc

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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.