by TerraShare

Part II of III

From January 10 through March 5, 2012, my colleague Matt Vincent and I visited five separate refugee camps in Botswana, Kenya, and Rwanda as the first step in developing the Vulnerable Scholars Program. I’ll be sharing our experiences and findings from the hundreds of interviews we conducted with education and government officials, from representatives at UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and NGO partners, from leaders in the refugee and host communities, and from countless young women and girls seeking desperately to achieve an education. This week will focus on our visit to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and next week I will share our findings from three refugee camps in Rwanda: Kiziba, Gihembe, and Nyabiheke.

Click here to view my previous post on the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana

In Kenya, Matt and I were hosted by Windle Trust and met with a variety of agencies in Nairobi (UNHCR, Refugee Education Trust, Refuge Point, Hilde Back Foundation, Starehe School for Girls, Education for all Children, Masomo Mashinani).  We then spent one week at the Kakuma refugee camp, during which we interviewed nearly 50 girls, including visits to their schools and homes.  We also met with numerous teachers and headmasters, and representatives from UNHCR, Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and the Angelina Jolie Primary Boarding School, as well as approximately 30 World University Service of Canada (WUSC) students for a detailed discussion on our academic enrichment and leadership program proposal.  Additionally, we visited a community primary day/boarding school in the nearby Kakuma village and interviewed one of their top graduates who was trapped at home without the financial means to continue her education.

Situated in an arid, equatorial desert, Kakuma is now home to over 100,000 people (57,000 are children) with hundreds of new arrivals daily, making it one of the largest refugee camps in the world. When Matt and I visited the camp in February 2012, the camp population was around 87,000, and has been steadily increasing due to fluctuating conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, as well as in Somalia. In fact, it has been widely reported that UNHCR is considering opening another refugee camp nearby. There is no comparison, for example, to the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana; Kakuma is an outdoor prison built with Blocks and Zones, yet with extensive remote areas between zones where women and girls fear being attacked and raped.  The plight of girls in Kakuma is shocking.  There is a great yearning among the children and youth for education, and even the refugee communities are beginning to appreciate the benefits, yet opportunities for girls are highly constrained, and their abilities utterly devalued.

The reality of the situation looks like this:  Of the 46 students we interviewed in Kakuma, the typical day will begin at 4:00 AM when the girl awakens to start the fire for tea and occasionally a small porridge for her siblings and other family members.  The girl then wakes her younger brothers and sisters, washes and dresses them for school, feeds them, organizes their school materials, cleans up after them and arranges their sleeping quarters, and also tends to her own needs and preparation.  Sometimes the girl will walk her siblings to school to keep them safe, and thus be late herself, or she may be detained by domestic duties and a lengthy trek of anywhere from 30-60 minutes to her school.  The irony is that because the girls are frequently late and miss the first part of class, they are consistently punished upon arrival and forced to perform various chores around the school before returning to class.  It is important to note that the girls we interviewed were the top students in their school, so that despite these hardships they somehow still maintained excellent grades.

The challenges continue:  the girls arrive at school hungry and tired and concentration is difficult until they receive porridge at mid-morning.  Classes are over-crowded to the degree that many average 100 students to one teacher (though there are few behavioral issues as all the children know that the alternative to being in school is so much worse).  Oftentimes students may arrive to a teacher-less classroom if the teacher is sick or otherwise unable to attend.  There are never enough textbooks and if a student does not have the money to purchase a writing notebook, (rations must be sold to afford this expense) she is not allowed to attend class.  During bi-monthly food distribution, the girls must miss school to collect the family’s rations and this can entail one to two days of queuing two times every month and sometimes for up to a full week if the girl is made to transport the rations of others in exchange for additional food, goods or cash for her family.

Upon returning home from school, there is simply no time for homework or studies as chores begin anew for the girl (the brothers will study or play soccer, and are allowed to rest) and include sweeping the outdoor compound, preparing and cooking the family dinner (over a pit fire in 100 degree heat) with firewood the girl has collected and water she has hauled, often over great distances.  The girl will also be responsible for caring for the younger children, frequently performing all her duties with a baby strapped to her back.  She will also be charged with washing dishes, tending to any livestock the family may be fortunate enough to own (usually ducks or chickens), and washing clothes including her siblings’ uniforms for school.  Again, all these tasks are completed in the most challenging circumstances including high winds, dust or rain storms, intense heat, and crowded, congested living quarters in the midst of sad, angry, oftentimes ailing adult family members.

But there are worse challenges still, and these affect every girl and go beyond her education, becoming daily threats to her life.  Physical violence, especially rape, is a risk every girl takes every time she walks to and from school, every single day.  Walking to school in the morning dark is particularly dangerous, as there are long, isolated stretches of bush (wilderness) that must be traversed between most residential zones and the schools.  Girls explained that walking in groups is a better option than walking alone but that even a group of girls would not deter an assailant.  The greater difficulty of walking in groups, however, is that in most cases, due to different schedules and the scattering of dwellings, it is not feasible.  (When we asked why community members  didn’t organize groups to accompany and protect the girls to and from school, the girls exclaimed that such a thing would be impossible.)  Physical assualt is also a daily concern in the journey for water and firewood; there are times when the family will be forced to go without food if the margin of safety for collecting resources becomes too slim.  It is surreal and unconscionable that for these students, rape, beatings, HIV and forced pregnancy are the daily challenges that go hand in hand with receiving an education.

Add to this the desperation of powerless parents struggling to feed their children, and a tradition of forced marriage that ensures a dowry of cash, goods or livestock in exchange for each successive girl child – and the forces aligned against a refugee girl succeeding in school become nearly insurmountable.


These are 2011 educational statistics for the Kakuma Refugee Camp:

14 primary schools; 16,573 students; 6646 girls; 310 teachers/67 certified

2 secondary schools’ 889 students; 128 girls; 44 teachers/28 certified


This is not evidence of a successful educational system, or of calculated post-conflict planning, or of an investment in the future of women. While Windle Trust, JRS, and LWF are all battling these numbers with an array of quality programs, the most hopeful news in all that is wrong in Kakuma is the Angelina Jolie Primary School.  Located in a remote portion of the camp, it is, in and of itself, a safe haven for the 250 girls fortunate enough to attend.  (Girls are chosen based on academic ability and degree of vulnerability.)  Surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire, guarded 24 hours/day, it is an island of security and sanctity in which girls will not be raped or married off or so overwhelmed with domestic duties that they lose the energy to compete and the willpower to endure.

We met at length with the Head Mistress of the school and received a wealth of information and advice from her on the educational and protection related needs of girls in the camp. We also received a tour of the school and were fortunate to be able to meet with twelve very bright 7th and 8th graders, for two 90 minute long interviews. Many of these students were as old as 16, having missed years of school at multiple points in their lives due to war and displacement, so they were also very emotionally mature. The girls’ thoughts, and also the clarity they brought to many of the issues we had been introduced to by girls in day schools in the camp, were quite striking. We listened in disbelief as they explained that, as the Angelina Jolie School only accommodates grades 5-8, after graduation the girls are essentially abandoned without mentors or on-going support back into the general population. There they return to their highly vulnerable status and will vie desperately for placement in one of two secondary day schools that serve the entire camp. While the Jolie Primary students are highly advantaged, academically, the undoing of all they have achieved will ensue from facing the same adversities that assail every other girl in the camp. Their loss will be that of the larger community, as well – the loss of intellectual capital, the loss of leaders – and it will be borne through the generations.

Where there is education there is hope.  It is hopeful to realize that, in the Kakuma refugee camp, hundreds of academically talented girls (many from Jolie Primary) have achieved national exam scores that ensure their eligibility for secondary boarding schools in Kenya. The reality, however, is that unless these students receive scholarships to absorb the cost, they will never have the financial means to attend, and may never again have the chance to raise themselves out of Kakuma.  Their only alternative will be to attend camp-based secondary schools, though because of funding and facility constraints, more girls apply than are accepted.  Even fewer graduate.  With their sights on the diminishing returns of their educational investment, students must also fend off domestic and cultural obligations at a time in their lives when they are most pressured to succumb to tradition.  Faced with the reality of their situation and having outgrown Jolie Primary, most girls seek survival over education.  For refugee girls, finding hope in education is a childhood dream; there is little evidence that it will ever change their lives.

In Refugee Education: A Global Review (2011), Sarah Dryden-Peterson states that, “The quality of education refugee children receive in exile determines their ability to contribute to their home and host societies.”  Education is viewed by many as the key to any durable solution for refugees, whether repatriation, local integration, or resettlement.  Especially in protracted situations like Kakuma, a broad focus on secondary, vocational, and tertiary education is critical to preparing populations for an exit from the camp environment.  Individual and socioeconomic returns on secondary and post-secondary education are well documented, with the greatest impact registered in fragile and developing states.

Recognizing the grave implications of the shortages of enrolled young women and girls in secondary school, Windle Trust Kenya recently launched weekend and holiday “catch-up” classes exclusively for  female students in primary school. By providing additional training and resources to students preparing for the Kenyan national exam, which determines their eligibility for secondary school and which school to report to, Windle Trust aims to steadily increase secondary school enrollment of young women and girls. Initial reports show great promise, though additional programs will need to be implemented to ensure students remain supported, and thus enrolled, throughout their secondary school tenure – a particularly challenging time for young women and girls. TerraShare remains committed to working alongside UNHCR, Windle Trust, and other education-based organizations to develop strategies that will improve education for the young women and girls in the Kakuma refugee camp.

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Life in the Kakuma Refugee Camp