Six things I learned from my time at Kakuma refugee camp with iamtheCODE

I spent five days in Kakuma refugee camp on an iamtheCODE.org mission.  The organisation has partnered with UNHCR for the last three years and often invite people for impact journeys.  I was invited to celebrate International Women’s Day with over 100 refugee girls from different nationalities. I learned and listened to these amazing girls and young women. 

I got a slice of insight into life there and the following is by no means a comprehensive look at Kakuma but more a taste of what I encountered in my journey.

Wellbeing club held outside

Here are six things I experienced:

1 Girls empowered with digital and life skills.

I spent the majority of the time learning and listening to the girls from four different schools who are learning to code with iamtheCODE.org (IATC). They do so as part of the well-being clubs that IATC has set up. This struck me as a clever combination of digital skill-building with awareness of mental and physical health. They arrive bringing sometimes unimaginable horror and are at a difficult stage of life (13-14 years old) when their bodies change and they face all the normal challenges of puberty alongside issues like FGM, child marriage and separation from or loss of family.  

They learn to give computers instructions, to problem-solve, and the language of coding.  In other sessions they meditate, talk about nutrition, and listen to each other’s issues. I worked with them on public speaking as a part of this club.  Other members of the mission taught them about cybersecurity, branding and marketing #MadeInKakuma and leadership. They asked insightful questions, picked up the ideas quickly and had fun with them.

2 Female empowerment is global and heartening.

Among those I met who embody the global feminist idea: 

  • Articulate refugee girls of I am the Code who can name every Sustainable Development Goal and talk intelligently about climate change and why planting and protecting trees in their school and community is important.
  • Turkana women running a retail store with necklaces and earrings made by both refugees and locals that caught the eye of a Notting Hill boutique after I posted a picture in my Instagram story.  
  • Betty, the South Sudanese woman who works in Kalobeyei with orphans, helping refugees build houses. 
  • WFP women helping marginalized communities (HIV positive mothers) grow hydroponic vegetables.
  • Mariéme Jamme, the CEO and founder of I am the Code who has made multiple trips to Kakuma and has started well-being clubs for the girls to help them program their minds and bodies as they program their computers.   

3 Development x Humanitarian action. UNHCR is a humanitarian agency but is coordinating a development operation. Ignazio Matteini, head of the UNHCR’s Kakuma sub-office described to me the challenges he faces every day – they include security, poverty, health, nutrition, employment, education for the 200,000 refugees – some of whom have lived there for 30 years. 

4 Integration of the host community and the refugees.  The host community numbers 65,000+ Turkana people.  If one combined the refugee population with the locals Kakuma would be in the top 10 most populated municipalities in Kenya.  It’s critical to avoid miscommunication, jealousy and ‘asylum fatigue’ and promote cooperation when possible. The girls’ schools bring refugees and Kenyans together.  Local entrepreneurs have shops within the camp. WFP officials described to me their work with ‘water pans’ which collect rain water for the Turkana (locals) to give their livestock and the refugees and Turkana to grow crops. 

Women in Kakuma celebrating International Women’s Day

5 Social Cohesion. The refugee girls I was working with are from a blend of countries:  Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, DRC, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda.  Although the girls came from fractured societies, I witnessed them working well together.  I spoke with the Headteacher about how they live, eat, sleep and study together. In all, the camp is host to 17 different nationalities – more arriving every day. 

6 A passport is a privilege. After 4 days when my eyes were wide open I felt I couldn’t build more neural pathways to process what I was seeing and I was happy to come home. However torrential rain turned Kakuma’s dirt runway into mud, keeping us in Northern Kenya for an extra day. Frustrating, but a day later I was off. Not so much for the many of those who live there. (As an aside, my western privilege is real. I am ashamed to say I missed hot showers and chocolate. I came home feeling lucky.)

Pic credit: All images iamtheCODE.org