Filmmaker Training

A Story from Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya


About eight years ago I traveled to a refugee camp for the first time. This was Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, by then home to about 100,000 refugees, majority of them from South Sudan, with a significant number from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Great Lakes region. By then, my perception of the refugee camp had been informed by images that I had mostly consumed from the media. I saw the emaciated malnourished children and depressed adults as were filtered through my television screens. I saw people without hope, stripped off any vestiges of humanity, waiting to be either helped or to die. So as I made my flight from Nairobi to Kakuma refugee camp, that is what I expected to find.


Among the first refugees I encountered was a Congolese man called Michael. And as is wont with most Congolese men, he took great pride in how he dressed. His shirt was elegantly ironed out and neatly tucked into his trouser. His black shoes, though they were starting to get covered by a layer of Kakuma dust, was apparent that they had been well polished earlier in the morning. I sensed a whiff of cologne around him and noticed that he had a clean cut. All that was missing from him was a tie and he might as well have been working in a corporate office in Nairobi city. His face was lit with a welcoming smile, and with optimism and hope, confidence and expectation. On the contrast, I had faded jeans on, a simple t-shirt and shoes that looked that they had seen better days. My face was lit with hesitation, and betrayed someone who was not too sure what to expect. From that point, it was obvious that I was beginning my re-education.


Yes, it is true that there is disease, hunger and malnutrition in refugee camps, just as there is in other parts of rural Africa, or in slums around the big cities of the world. Yes, it is true that I met eyes that betrayed despair, eyes that I have seen in lots of other places as well. As I worked and developed friendships with refugees over the years, I slowly learned that there were absolutely no differences between refugees and ‘others’ in terms of their aspirations, dreams and ambitions. I met a lot of young men and women like Michael, those that dreamed of becoming doctors and teachers and models, some who played football and basketball every evening and dreamed of being sport stars. I met poets and actors and music composers. I met men and women who ran small businesses, provided services to their communities and wanted to soak in all the knowledge they could muster. The only differences is that unlike you and I who face our struggles in either our natural environments, or environments that we choose to, these are people who have been forced to flee their homes and pursue their aspirations in foreign places. But one thing they all wanted was to leave the refugee camps and go back home. And the best way people like me can help them is to sustain that hope that they will get back home some day – and make sure we never force someone else to flee their home.

Charles Otieno Hongo is Technical Adviser at FilmAid, Kenya.

FilmAid’s screening series and filmmaker training project targets refugees and their host communities in refugee camps and urban areas across Kenya, with the aim of easing ethnic, racial and cultural tension and conflict by creating opportunities for young refugees and non-refugees to tell their stories.

FilmAid is one of the winners of the 2013 Intercultural Innovation Award. 

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