Category: Lifestyle

Life and opportunity in the world’s biggest refugee camp

An overview of part of the eastern sector of the IFO-2 camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, north of Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)
An overview of part of the eastern sector of the IFO-2 camp in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, north of Nairobi. (Pic: AFP)

Soon after dawn Bashir Bilal sat outside on his usual plastic jerry can surrounded by young girls and boys chanting Quranic verses.

Each child clutched a worn plank of wood instead of an exercise book, writing on it in Arabic script with ink made from charcoal and water.

In Somalia the Islamic madrassa is often the only education on offer, but here in the Dadaab refugee camps it is just the start. Later in the day the children are able to attend, for free, primary and even secondary school while scholarships are available for college education.

Uprooted and dispossessed, life as a refugee is tough. But for the Somalis who have for years, or even decades, called Dadaab home there are opportunities too.

Bilal (47) used to live in Afgoye, a breadbasket town 30 kilometres northwest of the capital Mogadishu. When he came to Dadaab five years ago he found better schooling options than at home where fees were high and children would often spend their days helping out on the family farm.

“Children here in Dadaab have the privilege of better education,” said Bilal. “They will bring change in Somalia when they go back.”

Just when they will go back is contentious. Kenya’s government has hosted refugees from Somalia since 1991 when civil war tore the country apart. Since then Dadaab has grown into the world’s largest refugee settlement, with over 350 000 residents.

Camps seen as a security threat
Kenya now wants the camps shut down claiming they are a security threat used by members of al-Shabab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda branch, for recruitment, training and downtime.

Albert Kimathi, the area’s top government official who, as deputy county commissioner is responsible for security, called Dadaab “the breeding ground, the training ground” for al-Shabab. “They use the camps as safe havens,” he said.

“I’m not branding anyone a terrorist, but quite a number of these terrorists come from Somalia. These people are one and the same,” said Kimathi.

Hopes and dreams

People living in the camps find such allegations perplexing.

Yakub Abdi left the southern city of Kismayo in 2011 after al-Shabab gunmen accused his father of being a spy, and then executed both his parents. He hates and fears the militants and so volunteered to chair a neighbourhood watch group in one of Dadaab’s five camps.

“This is not the place they are recruiting,” said the 29-year old father of two. His 260 fellow volunteers in the Community Peace and Protection Team keep tabs on new arrivals to their camp, reporting anyone suspicious to police.

“Shabab are not here,” said Abdi, but he warned that the invisible, largely unprotected border just 80 kilometres to the east, meant they were not far away either.

Despite living in temporary shelters and barely subsisting on food handouts, Dadaab is not a place of universal misery and hopelessness.

“People think there’s no life in the camps, but there is life,” said Liban Mohamed, a 28-year old filmmaker from Kismayo, in southern Somalia. “There are problems here but there are also hopes and dreams.”

Mohamed’s dream is to be resettled in the US where his mother and siblings already live, and to continue making films. For others the dream is closer to home, and nearer to being realised.

Mohamed Osman is a trained medical officer who for the last 15 years has provided free consultations, affordable drugs and in-patient treatment at his private pharmacy. He left Somalia in 1992 seeking safety and prosperity and in Dadaab, his family and business have thrived.

“Children in Somalia have no hope,” said the 42-year old father of 12 children from two wives. “My children are learning here.” He has no desire to return to Somalia because “there is still fighting there”.

A short way from Osman’s pharmacy, along flooded and uneven dirt roads, the daily delivery of khat, a herb with a mildly narcotic effect when chewed, was unloaded.

A broker who runs four pick-ups piled high with 50-kilogramme sacks of khat into Dadaab every day said he sells out his entire stock without fail, making more than 30 000 shillings (280 euros) on each truck.

Traders deliver khat to the market at IFO main camp of the Dadaab refugee camp. (Pic: AFP)
Traders deliver khat to the market at IFO main camp of the Dadaab refugee camp. (Pic: AFP)

In a frenzy of activity the retailers, including 43-year old Fatima Ahmed, split the sacks open on the ground sorting the vivid green shrub into kilo bunches. Prices are seasonal and low during the current rainy period, but still, Ahmed said, she buys at 100 shillings (1 euro) and sells at 150 shillings (1.40 euro) making a modest daily income. “It’s a good business,” Ahmed said.

Sellers’ profits are ploughed back into Dadaab’s thriving economy which, according to a 2010 study, is worth around $25 million (22m euros) a year. The research, commissioned by Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs, found that Dadaab also earned the nearby non-refugee, or host, community $14m (13m euros) a year in trade and contracts.

Mini Dubai

Each camp has its own market but Hagadera is the most established. A Kenyan official described it as “a mini Dubai”.

A Somali refugee shops for fresh produce at a market within the Hagadera camp of Dadaab. (Pic: AFP)
A Somali refugee shops for fresh produce at a market within the Hagadera camp of Dadaab. (Pic: AFP)

There are hotels and restaurants selling grilled camel meat, chilli hot samosas and spiced tea with camel milk, general stores with shelves of pasta, rice, milk powder and sugar – much of it smuggled in from Somalia and sold at a steep discount – electronics shops with the latest smartphones, narrow alleys stuffed with stalls selling new and secondhand clothes, fabrics and shoes and shady passages lined with tarpaulins piled with mangos, avocadoes, potatoes and onions.

Ali Saha, a 23-year old university graduate who runs a cyber café, said he wants to return to Somalia, just not yet.

“Education is a privilege and from that angle being a refugee is not that bad,” he said. “I should return so I can help my community in Somalia but I need to go back when my country is stable.”

Lifaqane music festival: Harmony out of chaos

Hip Hop Pantsula. (Pic: Supplied)
South African rap icon Hip Hop Pantsula. (Pic: Supplied)

The logo wrapped around the stage pillars at the Lifaqane-Mfecane Music Festival – the inaugural traditional music event in Maseru, Lesotho, hosted against a mountainous backdrop at the Thaba Basiou Cultural Village on May 2 – read “1815 was chaos, 2015 is collective.”

The logo compares a “collective” 2015 to the “chaos” of 1815, the year that marked the start of almost three decades of turmoil and wars between Southern African ethnic groups. This period in history is known as the Mfecane in isiZulu, Lifeqane in Sesotho or the “Wars of Calamity” by the English, which effectively led to the creation of the Lesotho kingdom.

And yes, following last year’s political upheaval in the country, which saw an alleged botched coup and the subsequent suspension of Parliament, a sense of ­political calmness prevailed at the February general elections, according to the Southern African Development Community Electoral Observation Mission. The elections were called following the unrest and resulted in the current coalition government.

But implying that 2015, by way of the music festival, is a “collective” would be fairly presumptuous of Ancestral Collective, the nonprofit organisation that presented the spectacle. With a late start to the music event and some no shows, a sense of chaos pervaded the poorly attended event.

Hit and miss
Due to the late start, South African musician Thandiswa Mazwai’s pre-headliner performance was cut to 30 minutes. But in that limited time, the award-winning singer gave a rousing show and sang extended renditions of hits such as “Ingoma” to an enamoured audience wrapped in blankets and thick coats to ward off the autumn night’s chill.

As the dwindling crowd patiently waited for the final act, South African rap icon Hip Hop Pantsula, an unfamiliar face – not the festival emcee – took to the stage to snappishly announce the closure of the concert in Sesotho. With a few boos and cries of disappointment from the crowd, the first Lifaqane-Mfecane Music Festival unexpectedly shut down just after midnight.

“Police closed it down after midnight,” read the WhatsApp response from the organisers to my questions on reasons the show was cut short. If this message was broadcasted clearly to those who paid from R150 for a ticket, there would have been less anger and confusion at the event.

But with firsts, obstacles are likely to surface; making it easy to forgive the glitches that arose at Saturday’s showcase. The atmosphere at the cultural village was upbeat and performances from the musicians who did play were captivating.

Highlighting traditional music from Lesotho and South Africa, artists like maskandi heroes Phuzekhemisi and Ntombe Thongo and Lesotho-born vocalist Tsepo Tshola had audiences on a high. While local saxophonist and singer Bhudaza led his band and the crowd on a soulful jazz and gospel journey through the evening.

Heritage remembered
Lifaqane-Mfecane Music Festival is funded by Ancestral Collective. It is a new organisation “developed and structured to create platforms to create and send a strong message to our people, in particular Africans, to remember and know their history, know who they really are, be proud of and celebrate their cultures, customs and traditions”, writes the organisation’s Lekhooe Isaac Khothatso Moletsane who, according to him, is “direct descendant of the great Makgothi Moletsane”.

Makgothi Moletsane was a revered ally of the 19th century BaSotho king, Moshoeshoe I, who is buried in the area where the festival took place, Thaba Basiou, which was also his headquarters during part of his reign.

“The main focus of the show is Sesotho traditional music, with 74% of the artists being Basotho,” reads the Ancestral Collective website’s write-up on the event, as it names musicians such as Mantsa, Puseletso Seema and Rabotso le Semanyane. Using local and international music acts, the festival’s aim seems clear: to “pay tribute to a forgotten but very important time in our history, to pay homage to those who fought and died trying to protect our people and our land, and to get people to think about, research, and learn about this time in our history. Once we truly know who we are and where we come from, then we will know where we are going”.

Africa is one
And at a time where widespread ethnic violence or xenophobia recently erupted in the country surrounding Lesotho, it is this last sentence by the organisation that South Africans could take away and utilise it as a way of respecting foreign nationals as fellow Africans and nothing less.

In an interview with Hip Hop Pantsula ahead of his performance at the festival, he spoke at length about this topic to the Mail & Guardian.

“Part of the reasons why these attacks are happening is that we don’t know any better. We don’t know the true history of the origins of many of our ethnic groups here at home; and half of our families are made up of foreigners who adopted local surnames to acculturate.”

And with the festival’s intention to raise awareness around historical events of Lesotho and South Africa, it is a platform for greatness. With a rigorous marketing strategy in future and smooth-running programme on the day, the show might live beyond its pilot status.

Stefanie Jason is a senior content producer for the Mail & Guardian Friday.

Togo’s taxi drivers left behind by growing economy

(Pic: Flickr / Claudio Riccio)
(Pic: Flickr / Claudio Riccio)

Swarming the streets of Togo’s capital Lome, thousands of motorcycle taxi drivers are just some of those left behind by the recent economic growth spurt in the crushingly poor nation.

Some have college degrees and work multiple jobs but still take home as little as $1.60 a day transporting passengers in the west African country that is gearing up for presidential elections on Saturday.

“There is no work,” said 31-year-old Gabriel, a driver who holds a high school diploma. “Everyone is a motorcycle taxi driver. There are thousands of them – too many.”

While Togo now hits six percent economic growth per year, more than half the country of roughly seven million survives on less than $1 per day as the nation claws its way back from 14 years of international sanctions.

“Young people are being suffocated by unemployment in Togo,” said Maurice Toupane, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Senegal’s capital Dakar.

“Many young people are leaving the country for Nigeria and the holders of university degrees find themselves driving motorcycle taxis.”

The drivers – known locally as Zemidjan or zem – do not own their bikes, instead they  have to slowly pay back the cost.

It is no easy feat to come up with the money on what the drivers make. They might earn about 7.50 euros per day, but three euros goes on paying for the bike and three more on fuel.

On the really lean days they can dip into the community fund called a “tontine” that aims to help people take home 1.50 euros to their family every night.

For many drivers, the motorcycle taxi is their second job. Among the 15 or so drivers waiting for customers in Lome one day recently was a woodworker, a tailor and a cobbler, who was putting a new sole on a shoe.

The thaw in Togo’s economy began with the country’s current leader, President Faure Gnassingbe, who is running for a third five-year term.

He took over in 2005 after the death of his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had ruled with an iron fist for 38 years.

During Eyadema’s reign the European Union suspended aid in 1993 in response to a “democratic deficit”.

The gross national product, life expectancy and the number of children at school all dropped during that period and state businesses were left abandoned.

In that era “the country was bled dry by 14 years of international sanctions,” said Kako Nubukpo, Togo’s minister of long term strategy.

The money began to flow again in 2007 when the EU decided Gnassingbe possessed “good will”, after reforms leading to press freedom, multi-party politics and abolition of the death penalty.

Gnassingbe has taken a proactive approach by cleaning up public finances, embarking on large infrastructure projects and offering free primary school, all things that he has reminded people of during the election campaign.

Additionally, the GDP has doubled in 10 years and public debt has remained relatively low.

But the improvement in the economy cannot hide unemployment that is close to 29 percent, with a majority of young people out of work, said Nubukpo.

And those gains that have been made – driven by commodity prices – are mostly benefiting the wealthy, according to the United Nations.

Two-thirds of Togolese, meanwhile, still make their livings as subsistence farmers.

The majority of the motorcycle taxi drivers are in their 20s, reflecting the demographics of a country where three quarters of the population is under 35. The nation doubles in size every 25 years.

“It’s a sprint between the speed at which our society modernises and its capacity to include young people,” Nubukpo said. “We must give some hope to young people otherwise we run the risk of a social explosion.”

Lunch hour at a Lesotho textile factory: A snapshot

People shop at a market in Maseru on August 31 2014. (Pic: AFP)
People shop at a market in Maseru on August 31 2014. (Pic: AFP)

I am standing outside the gates of a textile factory in the Industrial Area of Maseru West. The midday sun is blaring, and the air is heavy with waiting. In ten or so minutes, at precisely 11.45am, the factory workers inside the gates will get their one-hour lunch break. Outside the gates, preparations are underway. On the concrete ground, in between puddles of dirty water, several street vendors are setting up. A woman has laid out a blanket and is arranging piles of peaches onto it. A man is heaping stacks of processed meat onto a small cooker. Somebody has botched an attempt to light a fire inside a cardboard box. The flames consume the cardboard, sending thick smoke rising into the air. Next to a wall lined with barbed wire, groups of women are seated on the only patch of grass in sight. Some have brought umbrellas to shield themselves from the harsh sun. They too are waiting, hoping to find work inside the gates.

Lesotho’s apparel and textile industry is one of the largest in Africa. This particular factory employs approximately 4 000 people, the majority of whom are women. In a country with an overall unemployment rate of 26%, the industry employs close to 40 000 people in 40 factories, providing more than 80% of Lesotho’s manufacturing employment. The majority of the garments produced in the country are for major US brands such as Gap Inc., Levi Strauss and Wal-Mart.

Since 2008, Lesotho’s government and apparel manufacturers have worked hard to market Lesotho as a ‘responsible sourcing destination’ for ‘ethical consumers’. In a nutshell, this means that textile factories in the country have to adhere to Lesotho’s labour legislation, which enshrines the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) core conventions. These include no child or forced labour, payment of minimum wages, regulated maximum working hours and ensuring that basic requirements for health and safety are met. The major brands that source their products from Lesotho also monitor factories to ensure that working conditions meet their codes of conduct.

I am standing with ‘Mareitumetse Mokhoro, who works for the Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers’ Union (Lecawu), a trade union that advocates for better wages and working conditions for factory workers in Lesotho. In cases of mistreatment, Lecawu offers legal assistance by representing workers in court. Mokhoro is also waiting. Lunchtime is the only time she can meet with workers.

‘Oppressed and underpaid’
“Factory workers in Lesotho are oppressed and underpaid,” Mokhoro tells me. “They receive the minimum wage, but this isn’t enough. They are often insulted or treated badly. Most of the cases that we deal with are unfair dismissals or underpayments.”

The workers in this factory receive a monthly salary of R1 212, for nine hours of work a day, five days a week. This amounts to less than R7 an hour. I find it hard to imagine how anyone survives on such a salary, especially people who have a family to support.

'Mareitumetse Mokhoro addresses workers outside a textile factory in Maseru. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)
‘Mareitumetse Mokhoro addresses workers outside a textile factory in Maseru. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

“Half a loaf is better than no loaf,” says Mokhoro wryly. “You know, women in Lesotho are very strong. Most factory workers do not have husbands, and they earn very little money. But still, they are able to build houses and send their children to school. Even if they are poor, they don’t give up.”

Before becoming a full-time employee of Lecawu, Mokhoro spent eight years working in a textile factory.

“As a factory worker, I was treated badly by my employers because I spoke out about the problems that workers face,” she explains. “So I decided to fight outside of the company, so that management has no control over me. Now I have a voice. I can openly say: workers are mistreated.”

“Some employers are willing to work with Lecawu, but others are hostile, and they don’t allow us to come into the factories and solve problems. We always refer cases to the courts, but these cases take a long time to be resolved. That discourages the workers.”

At 11.45, a bell rings from inside the factory and the gates open. The workers stream out, walking fast. The quiet, waiting atmosphere has instantaneously transformed into a hurrying, crowded bustle of noise and activity. Mokhoro is standing a few metres from the gates, shouting out to the workers, appealing to them to listen to what she has to say. For a good 20 minutes she receives very little response. The vendors who have been setting up are inundated. I watch as the workers walk back towards the gates, some of them clutching plastic bags of greasy chips, fat cakes and cheap, processed meat sausages. Some have brought lunch boxes with them and are hungrily tucking in. Gradually, 50 or so workers gather in a circle around Mokhoro.

I look at the weary expressions on their faces as they listen to her. Mokhoro punches her fist into the air regularly and shouts out several call-and-response slogans that are answered by a few of the onlookers. Many of them simply stand still and silent.

“What kinds of troubles do you face as workers?” she asks the group.

“We don’t earn enough money.”

“We’re hungry.”

“We have to rent small rooms.”

“We have to walk. We don’t have the money for transport.”

“Sometimes we are mistreated if we don’t understand instructions.”

“I eat only papa and cabbage!” says one woman standing close to me, pushing her plastic lunch box forward to display its contents.

For 30 minutes, Mokhoro speaks to the workers, listening to their complaints and concerns, and encouraging them to convince others to join Lecawu. With 3 800 members in 21 factories, the union has a strong presence, but in many factories it does not yet have enough members to legally bargain and negotiate with employers.

At 12.45, the bell sounds again, and the gates to the factory begin to close. The factory workers move swiftly, rushing inside, clearly frightened of the possible repercussions of being late. The ground is now littered with small plastic bags. A few of the vendors are packing up to leave. The women seated on the grass remain where they are, waiting.

Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho.

Kenya’s transgender warrior: From suicide bid to celebrity

Audrey Mbugua. (Pic: Reuters)
Audrey Mbugua. (Pic: Reuters)

Audrey Mbugua will not say whether it was a razor blade, pills or carbon monoxide that she used to try to kill herself.

Born a male in Kenya and given the name Andrew, she felt trapped in the wrong body and started dressing in women’s clothes while at university, attracting ridicule and rejection. After graduation, Mbugua was jobless, penniless and alone.

“I thought the best way was to end it all,” she recalled six years later, sitting in her leafy garden in Kiambu, 20km from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

“I didn’t have any hope. I didn’t have friends I could talk to. My family had deserted me,” said the slim 31-year-old, who wears glasses and her hair long.

Experts say up to 1 percent of the world’s population are transgender – men and women who feel they have been born with the wrong body and the wrong gender.

When Mbugua sought help to deal with her inner turmoil from a healthworker, the woman took Mbugua’s hands and prayed for her to be freed from the devil’s clutches.

“She pulls open her drawer, takes out a Bible and starts to preach to me,” Mbugua laughed. “I don’t think she knew what I was going through, so to cover up, she said it’s the work of Satan.”

Transgender people are some of the most invisible in Africa where rigid gender stereotyping continues to stifle freedoms. Many are forced to hide their identity and live on the margins of their communities or risk being vilified as immoral and unchristian by the conservative majority.

Mbugua is a rare exception.

Since a test case in 2013 to compel Kenya’s examinations council to change the name on her school leaving certificate from Andrew to Audrey, Mbugua has become an unlikely celebrity, using interviews to promote transgender rights.

After Mbugua’s 2008 suicide attempt, doctors diagnosed her with gender identity disorder and arranged for surgery to change her sex.

But Kenya’s minister of medical services cancelled the operation at the last minute without explanation – an example of the confusion that has marred her quest to fully become a woman.

Facing one hurdle after another, Mbugua decided she had to take up the mantle of campaigning for transgender rights to combat the ignorance and stigma blighting her life.

“It has to be done so that people are able to live lives that are full of dignity, where people are not hindered from being who they are,” Mbugua said.

Transgender people across Africa are publicly humiliated, stripped, harassed by the police and thrown out of their homes. Alcoholism and suicide are often the only way out.

“A transgender person should be a prostitute, they should be used for sodomy – that is the general narrative,” Mbugua said.

Despite a degree in biotechnology, Mbugua has been unable to find work. She has had a dozen job interviews, but the interviewers made “nasty comments” and threatened to take her academic certificates to the police, accusing her of fraud.

Mbugua changed her name through deed poll in 2012, using this to replace Andrew with Audrey on her passport.

But she has been unable to change the name on her identity card, birth certificate or academic papers. An application to change her identity card has been pending since 2012.

Her 2013 case against Kenya’s examinations council unleashed a media frenzy with her story dominating front pages. Television interviewers asked her about her sex life, she was mocked online and young men in her village threatened to attack her.

“You feel like throwing yourself in front of the bus but you have to find a way of living with it,” she said. “I wanted to take as many hits as possible and show the world that you can hit a transsexual and she stands up.”

“I didn’t want people to think of people like me as cowards, as people who hide, who are ashamed of themselves,” she added.

In a landmark ruling in October, the court ordered the examinations council to change the name on Mbugua’s certificate. But the council appealed the ruling and the case is awaiting a date in the High Court.

Fundamental change?
South Africa and Botswana are the only African countries with laws explicitly allowing official documents to be changed to reflect a person’s desired identity, although medical evidence of transition is usually required.

Kenyan authorities say medical proof of transition – a sex change – is required to change the gender mark on Mbugua’s passport and identity card. But sex change surgery is virtually impossible to get in Kenya because the procedure is so unusual.

The few Kenyans Mbugua knows who have had surgery did it overseas.

In February, the High Court ruled against ordering the government to set medical guidelines for treatment of gender identity disorder, which must be in place before Mbugua can undergo surgery.

“Gender change operation is part of my treatment,” she said. “It’s the last piece of my treatment as recommended by doctors who saw me. It’s my right.”

Mbugua has become Kenya’s most famous transgender woman. Strangers stop her in the street and tell her she is brave and beautiful. She receives emails from doctors asking her to help transgender patients change their names on official documents.

She juggles her advocacy work with studying for a Masters degree, spending hours at her computer, blue and black nail polishes neatly lined up next to the screen.

She believes Kenyans are now more understanding of what it is to be transgender, accepting it as a medical condition that has nothing to do with homosexuality, which remains a taboo in much of Africa.

“Nowadays, I normally have a good night’s sleep because no one calls me that they have been arrested by city council or police on some trumped-up charges of cross-dressing or prostitution,” she said. “We have seen fundamental changes.”