Case Study: Food Assistance and Dignity in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
This ethnographic research, carried out by Principal Investigator Rahul Oka, Anthropologist from Notre Dame University, was intended to assist UNHCR and partners understand the source of this expressed dissatisfaction and related challenges in the delivery and utilization of food assistance in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya.
Over the past few years, ‘dignity’ has emerged as a focal point for development and relief efforts across the world. However, the definition and parameters of ‘dignity’ as a process, goal, attitude, behavior, remains highly ambiguous. This case study shows how ethnographic research can help to define and operationalize ‘dignity’ for the benefit of all stakeholder populations at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya (Fig. 1). With a population of almost 200,000 refugees from more than 10 nations and 20 ethno-linguistic groups, the camp and the surrounding town have co-evolved into an urban settlement in the middle of a harsh, hot, and arid landscape. The refugees are provided with basic food, lodging, and health by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Government of Kenya (GOK), and various NGOs and civic bodies that operate under the UNHCR umbrella.
While acknowledging the severe logistical constraints and donor fatigue that affect the various relief organizations active in Kakuma, the refugees of Kakuma reported major dissatisfaction with the food and other services being provided. While this dissatisfaction had been observed by many surveys conducted by the World Food Programme and other organizations, there was a huge gap in understanding the ways in which refugees understood and internalized their dissatisfactions and the relief shortcomings, and in exploring ways by which refugees transformed from being passive recipients of relief largesse to being active participants in their own lives (Fig. 2).
In our ethnographic research conducted at Kakuma from 2008 – 2013, we turned our ‘ethnographic gaze’ not only on the refugees but also on the Turkana host community and the relief organizations, to better understand how attitudes, beliefs, actions, and agendas of the various stakeholders intersected and interfaced with each other. The dissatisfaction expressed by the refugees extended to every part of their life at Kakuma, but interestingly was extremely focused on the food package. While nutritionally adequate (~2000 calories/day), the food aid basket consisting of maize grain, oil, sorghum, and beans was not considered as desirable foods by the refugees. Most official responses by relief agencies saw the refugee rejection as ungrateful and inappropriate as it seemed to sully the hard work by the relief agencies in bringing the food over.
Here is where the ethnographic research came in to underscore the complexities of the process and also, to outline an incipient process in which refugees agentively used the relief basket to intersect with the commercial economy, and to gain some sense of normalcy and dignity.
Data collection methods used included lengthy participant observation and intensive repeated interviews.
The following key insights were uncovered as a result of this process:
- Dissatisfaction over food basket went well beyond quality and was linked to cultural traditions and identity.
- Refugees actively transformed food aid into a vehicle to create normalcy, sustain traditions and regain dignity.
- Food assistance (as delivered at the time by UNHCR and partners) represented one of many factors in the life of a typical refugee living in a protracted refugee settlement which undermine the dignity of life.
Each insight is described in more detail below.
1. Dissatisfaction over food basket went well beyond quality and was linked to cultural traditions and identity.
The refugee complaints over the food was not just that it was low quality (some of it was, having been sent from relief zone to relief zone over the past 10 years), but that:
- The food could not be eaten unless processed. The processing required water (beans), fuel (wood), or technology (grinding maize) that are scarce and require payment
- The food was culturally inappropriate. Somalis could not and did not eat sorghum and it made their children ill. One man said that sorghum, for example was “not part of [the Somali] diet and it gives [the children] stomach aches. The leaders have spoken to the [relief agencies] again and again. But they don’t care.”
- The food types represented the low position of African refugees in the UNHCR and WFP hierarchy. As one man said “Though we are refugees, we know that there is a difference between African refugees and other refugees. We are just Africans so of course we will eat sorghum, beans, and maize; that’s what they think. But we Somali eat basta [pasta], we were under Italian rule. We know that the Bosnian refugees were given pasta while we have to eat sorghum. So why can’t they treat us like humans and give us food that makes us feel as normal humans, not some rubbish that is forced upon us? [Interview, June 2008]
2. Refugees actively transformed food aid into a vehicle to create normalcy, sustain traditions and regain dignity
- The refugees used the relief food they were given and sold some, most, or all of it into the black market (Fig. 3). The money received would then be used to buy food that was culturally appropriate, desired, of a higher quality, and something that could be enjoyed. The participants said that when they go to the market with money they have earned or credit that they have negotiated through structured relationships, and they buy foods that taste good, that remind them of the lives they left behind, of better times ahead, they felt normal. When they felt normal, they felt that they had regained some dignity in their lives. Of note was the constant use of the KiSwahili words ‘heshima’ (meaning dignity) and kawaidha (normal) or the Somali words ‘sharfa’ (meaning dignity) and ‘caadi’ (meaning normal).
3. Food assistance (as delivered at the time by UNHCR and partners) represented one of many factors in the life of a typical refugee living in a protracted refugee settlement which undermine the dignity of life
- Seen in the larger context of relationships, the ethnographic analysis showed that refugees live in a permanent state of transition, trying to make homes in inhospitable climates, reconstructing shattered pasts, and looking to uncertain futures. Every bureaucratic hurdle they face comprises of long lines with decisions subject to official scrutiny and often indifference and even abuse. They can remember the times when they were doctors, lawyers, farmers, pastoralists, traders, craftspeople, now relegated to waiting for food, for health, for water, and for settlement.
- The participant observation and the intensive repeated interviews enabled us to understand the fact that normalcy and dignity are usually the victims of the ‘refugee wait.’ In this larger process, the refugee community channels its anger at the food basket, converts it as agents into cash or credit, and buys desired foods to be given to children, to friends, and family. This returns some normalcy and creates dignity.
This research proved invaluable to the UNHCR that was seeking an alternative to the never-ending need to provide relief food to refugees in protracted encampment situations such as Kakuma. This ethnographic research suggested that refugees had created a huge commercial economy with 13 locally owned and operated banks, and more than 2,300 shops, restaurants, etc (Fig. 4). It showed that the refugees could be partners in managing refugee settlements, rather than passive recipients, in ways that would 1) make the refugees and host community full agents and stakeholders in their own lives, 2) ease the burden of providing protracted relief from the relief agencies, and 3) potentially generate a self-sustaining settlement where refugee and host community skills talent and labor would make Kakuma a desirable settlement.
For the UNHCR, the ethnography showed how refugees themselves perceive and operationalize dignity, and demonstrated a feasible alternative to the indignity of encampment or warehousing. Agentive consumption and engagement with the commercial market to buy what you want, to feast life or death in culturally appropriate and desirable ways, were pathways to dignity. Understanding this complex pathway would be beyond the mapping or observable ability of mainstream surveys.