In May 2017, Louis Bien and Kainaz Amaria went to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to document the start of the Kakuma Premier League soccer season for a piece called “Escaping Kakuma: Soccer and the pursuit of meaning inside the world’s third-largest refugee camp.” There were still many more stories to tell within the world’s third-largest refugee camp, however, a place where sports have greater meaning as a way to combat idleness within an oft-forgotten population. This is a story about the women of Kakuma.
The markets of Kakuma can make you forget where you are. The refugee camp is the third largest in the world, but it has been around for so long that it has lost any pretense it is supposed to be temporary. You can buy a cell phone or a Coca-Cola out of a thatch-and-tin shack off the road. You could get a macchiato and sip it in a plastic chair on a dirt floor by a rubber-clothed table. The markets are one of the few places where, if you live in Kakuma, it’s easy to take your mind off the reasons you’re there in the first place — the death, oppression, and longing that come to define you.
And in the market roads, women are often outnumbered by men, goats, and dogs. The refugees that reside there come from nations with prominently conservative cultures — primarily South Sudan and Somalia — where women are expected to stay in their homes and handle traditional household duties, like cooking, cleaning, and child-raising. The women you do see in the market are often carrying heavy loads of firewood. Every duty related to maintaining a homestead almost exclusively fall on women, while men — people who in a better world would be working — talk away their days.
Women are not prominently seen at Kakuma’s “hotels,” which are actually combination cafes, restaurants, and social gathering spaces. You won’t see them at the video halls where men meet at night to watch Premier League soccer. And you are not likely to see them playing sports. According to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), there are 592 registered sports teams in Kakuma, and just 73 are women’s.
Unless you seek them out, refugee women are largely invisible in Kakuma — and not just there, but in other refugee camps, as well in their countries of origin, even when those nations are in periods of relative peace. To be a refugee man is to feel ignored by the world. To be a refugee woman, then, is to be erased from it.
There’s nothing “good” about living in a refugee camp. What places like Kakuma offer must be couched in “better than” statements. Living in Kakuma is better than living in South Sudan, a nation erupting with famine in the midst of a civil war. There is food in Kakuma, though it is given out just twice a month in shrinking rations, and there is security, though the Kenyan police have been accused by refugees of rife corruption and unnecessary violence.
Kakuma may be a progressive place for refugee women relative to their countries of origin. The UNHCR, the camp’s governing body, stresses gender equality and enables other NGOs to implement programs that develop women professionally and spiritually. The LWF oversees Kakuma’s refugee services and recreation, including women’s sports, for example. The LWF has created a version of the Premier League for the men of Kakuma, which just concluded its second season, and is set to debut a women’s version this year.
Those programs are too few and underfunded, however. Space is a problem in a place like Kakuma, where stick and aluminum walls are usually all that separates one home from another. There’s no privacy, and almost no space for women to feel safe at all times and free to address the ways that life in Kakuma is fraught for them. Female genital mutilation is still a common and ghastly practice. Rape epidemics take place with alarming frequency.
Angelina Jolie Primary School stands apart from Kakuma’s hatchet-shaped cartography. It was opened in 2005 — funded by the actress and special envoy to the UNHCR — as a boarding school for bright or at-risk girls. There, they can be nurtured in a safer environment, away from the problems within Kakuma’s traditional borders. The girls are given a more focused education — the classrooms are much smaller than in the coed schools that pack upwards of a 100 students in one room — and they perform, on average, much better than the rest of Kakuma on Kenya’s standardized testing for secondary schools.
Angelina Jolie also gives girls access to athletics they might not otherwise have had. The school has performed well in inter-school competition against Turkana County teams. Gop Dhieu, 16, and Nyayiel Nnading, 17, are two of the school’s best athletes. Gop is an accomplished 800-meter runner and long jumper, as well as soccer midfielder. Nyayiel is a swimmer, volleyball player, and defender. If they hadn’t been accepted to Angelina Jolie, they may not have competed.
“Some of them they like playing football, but it's hard for them to get that opportunity simply because they are in the community,” Gop says. “They don't get time to go to the field. But for us, the field, is just here in the school, we go and play any time we feel like.”
One of the problems with being in a “better than” place is the way it makes striving for more feel almost ungracious, especially for those who ran there. While Gop was born in Kakuma, Nyayiel came to the camp just six years ago from another refugee settlement in Ethiopia. Her father was a South Sudanese politician. When his family’s lives were threatened by an opposition party, they fled south.
“The only thing that helped us was that it was the only choice we had,” Nyayiel says. “So it was easy for us to just accept and just move on with life, because we came to a safer place and we have food.”
It’s hard to think about how one can thrive in a place like Kakuma, she explains, when safety and survival are such consuming concerns.
“It all starts with you,” Nyayiel says. “You have to accept whichever place you are, so that anything that someone accepts becomes easier for her.”
It shouldn’t need to be stated, but: The people of Kakuma have the same human potential as anyone in the world. That was the message of the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Five members of the 10-person team were selected from Kakuma to compete in track events. Two of them were women: Rose Lokonyen and Anjelina Lohalith.
They remain in a training program outside Nairobi with other refugee athletes, many more than the five from Kakuma who competed in Rio, including several athletes from Dadaab, a larger refugee camp in Kenya. Both Lokonyen and Lohalith competed at the 2017 World Championships in London this past August. With opportunity, they’ve not only been able to develop as athletes, but become ambassadors for other young, refugee women athletes.
“There's no education here,” Lokonyen says. She was the flag bearer for the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio. “So at least sometimes, when they have time, I can mobilize them and talk about the importance of education, or the importance of their sport. At least, girls who are just roaming around or being idle, at least the sport keeps you busy and you can forget about things that you have in your mind.”
Idleness can be a paralyzing feeling for refugees. With a lot of time and nothing to do, the mind tends to dwell on circumstances or bad memories, and in that way the possibility of all that free time is squashed. For the women of Kakuma, the more they are led to do, the more they are emboldened to forge their own identities.
“In camp, sometimes, the life is so hard, because a lot of them they lose their parents, some they are orphans, some they live alone,” Lokonyen says. “So you find yourself, the life is not too good. At least you are allowed to make your own decisions. You can say, 'Oh, let me just do these things.' At least now if you engage in sports, we help you.”
The Angelina Jolie Primary School stresses possibility. Nyayiel says she’d like to be a pilot. Gop says she’d like to be a lawyer who advocates for women. They’re lucky to be among the few in Kakuma who live in an environment where their potential is acknowledged. There’s no one to tell them what their roles should be, and they’re too busy to listen anyway.
“I just decide to play football,” Nyayiel says. “I just like playing it the way I see it on TV.
“It makes me very light.”
Gop wants to run like Cristiano Ronaldo. She became an Arsenal fan, she says, because of the confidence they have — “They don’t give up.” Nyayiel, a Chelsea fan, wants to score like Didier Drogba. “Even when it is practice, what is on my mind is, 'I have to score,’” she says. “I dream of scoring goals.”
They’re both on the field as Angelina Jolie students scrimmage in baggy, solid red and yellow uniforms. Like all of the practice surfaces in Kakuma, they play on dirt, where the ball bounces high and often with a mind of its own. The sun and heat are constant and unyielding. Those circumstances mean that, if someone is really committed to the sport, it’s that much harder to improve with the same level of effort and commitment one might need anywhere else in the world.
They play with one of the best views in the area, however. The Angelina Jolie compound is situated almost in the shadow of Kalemchuch Hill, which people in Kakuma climb and find seclusion in a place where it’s difficult to be alone. It’s nicknamed “Love Hill”. From the top, the refugee settlement almost looks orderly. Tin roofs shine back at you, white and uniform; almost toy-like.
From below the Hill, you can only see the edge of the settlement. There is nothing as significant in your sightline as the Hill, and beyond that more hills, and in front of you what looks like limitless room to run.