I was sitting on my bed. It rained that morning and it was very cold. I didn’t leave my bed immediately because there was nothing I had to do at that particular moment. A sound came from inside our kitchen and I knew my mom had woken up and was preparing breakfast. I was so happy because I felt relaxed and that I could finally rest. I wouldn’t bother to go and prepare breakfast. If you should know, my mum and I are the only people who wake up early and prepare breakfast because my sisters and brothers are very lazy in the morning. If you wait for any of them to prepare breakfast, that means you’re ready to eat at 10:00 or 11:00.
After a few minutes, I smelt a pleasant aroma and immediately my stomach started to make noise. Since I knew the food was not yet ready, I concentrated on other things and kept my mind off food.
I looked at my face in the mirror that was beside my bed and I couldn’t imagine how I had grown into such a beautiful woman. When we arrived at the camp in 2005, I was very young and naive but now here I was, grown up and a mother too. I laughed at myself and waved it off.
But what happened to me over all those years? How did I make it this far? I asked myself these questions until the idea came to me: what if I write a story about my journey from when I graduated and how I was able to move from the camp to another country? I wanted to share my stories and my life with someone else rather than my family and the people around me. I needed to be heard, to be listened to. But how could I achieve this?
It was a black book with 200 pages. On its front page were boldly written words, “Exercise Book.” Its pages were white in color and had gray straight lines. I picked it up from the table near my bed and a blue pen lying near it. I had already written in the book and thus I opened pages until I reached a blank one. I held the notebook and pen in my hands, staring at the blank page, but I didn’t take a step to write. I placed the pen inside the book, closed the book, and placed it back on top of the table.
I didn’t write anything that day because everyone had woken up and the table was set. I was called and I had to go and join the rest. I ate my breakfast in silence because I was now wondering about my notebook. What was I to write? How was I to write? Who will read my story?
I spent two days asking myself whether I should write or not. Eventually I decided to give it a try and I encouraged myself that everything would work out well and yes, my story will be read by others. That is when I took my pen and began to write.
That very night when I was holding my book and pen ready to write, the wind was blowing so heavy you could hear the sound of trees. The noise of the wind was everywhere and I wasn’t able to sleep. Our kitchen was made out of old iron sheets that were not nailed well, and when the wind blew like that, it sounded like cows were running. Our neighbor also had a roof that was not well fixed, and the same problem happened with the heavy wind. For people like me who are unable to sleep, the wind was irritating and I was very annoyed.
The next morning, I met a woman who would change my life. I was employed by a film organization where I worked as a facilitator. We would go to the community and screen films made by refugees through FilmAid International, an NGO using entertainment and mass communication to target topics such as hygiene with sanitation, and peace and reconciliation. These screenings were always conducted in the evenings since that is when all the children and parents were at home. During these evenings, it was always calm since by then the wind storm would have settled. It is always too windy from January until August and sometimes it doesn’t rain the whole year. We screened these films at the football field where the ground consists of dust, and when people began to move around, the dust would rise and cause problems. People always came in large numbers because during those days people didn’t own TVs. Sometimes people walked to other communities where the screenings took place, searching for entertainment.
During that night’s screening, I met with a South Sudanese woman who expressed interest in my work and asked for my number. I gave it to her and she called. She told me there were so many opportunities in her country and that I could earn a lot of money. I saw this as God-sent. She told me that she would arrange all the transport. She told me that I would not need any documents to cross over. She knew someone at the border.
Due to too much excitement, I was unable to ask what kind of job I would be doing, or which organization I was going to work with. All I could think about was that I was going to earn a lot of money. She had said that she would be leaving for South Sudan at the end of the month.
It was on a Monday morning when I went to my boss’s office to inform him about my upcoming journey. I needed him to know everything before I could leave at the end of the month. I knocked on his door and entered. He was doing his office work and he asked me to sit. I sat and he told me to wait for 5 minutes for him to finish what he was doing. I looked at him and wondered how God created him so different from other Kenyan bosses that I had ever worked with. The relationship he had with his staff was like a family. He loved refugees and treated us equally with Kenyan staff. He was so welcoming and very patient with his employees. When one person got sick, he always called wanting to know how the person was feeling. He would go to the extent of visiting his employees at the hospital, or even sometimes at home.
It was not the first time for me to enter his office but it had been a long time. The furniture had changed. The seats were different, the paint was renewed, some flowers were set in place. The room smelled good, and the air conditioner released very good cool air. I admired the surroundings and imagined myself in that seat in the office.
I was lost in my thoughts when he called my name. He asked me what I wanted to talk to him about. I sat up straight and told him that at the end of the month I would be leaving my work because I had found a new job in South Sudan. He was so happy for me and asked if I was going to be fine in a new country and if the person who was taking me was to be trusted. I said yes. He advised me to work hard and save money for my family because he knew the difficulties that my family was facing. He wished me well.
My work continued as normal but inside my heart, I was already fantasizing how I would send my brothers and sisters to school. Don’t get me wrong, there are schools in the camp, but these schools lack the resources needed for a child to learn successfully. The textbooks are not enough, there are more than 200 students to every teacher, and a class almost never finishes the syllabus. So, parents who can afford school fees send their children to private schools in the other cities of Kenya. I was already counting myself as one of the lucky ones to send my brothers and sisters to private schools. I also saw myself constructing enough rooms for my entire family. I didn’t mention this yet: I come from a family that had 12 people in 2005 when we arrived in Kenya, but you can’t imagine, we are now 17. How that number increased, that will be another story.
When we arrived in Kakuma refugee Camp, we had three rooms. My mum divided one room for all the females, one room for all the males and another room acted as a sitting place. We used to cook outside. People like us who had no kitchen and cooked outside faced a lot of challenges because the camp is in a semi-desert area and its sandy wind blows every day. These winds soil the food, and the food can take a long time to get ready because the wind blows the fire away. I had put all those hardships into consideration knowing that soon, everything would change. We could build a bigger room to fit all of us. We could own beds to sleep on. We could prepare a balanced diet for everyone.
The month ended, and I got my incentive salary which I used as my transport. But the woman taking me promised to pay for me from the border to the capital of her country. The time came for me to depart. My mum and the entire family were crying but I knew that I was going to finally change my family’s predicament once I made a lot of money. My mum even tried to stop me and said I shouldn’t go, but I knew I had to do this. We hugged each other and I left.
My heart was so heavy when I sat in the car waiting for other passengers to arrive. I wanted to cry but I held my tears because I didn’t want anyone to know about it. When I was at home and my family was shedding tears, I didn’t feel anything at all. Was it so extreme that at that particular moment, I felt nothing? Why was I feeling it now, here?
We boarded a small car in Kakuma town that took us to a town called Lokichogio. From there, we boarded another car to a town at the border of South Sudan called Nadapal. When we reached the border, we crossed the checkpoints on foot. I stood by Auntie’s side. I called her Auntie because that was one way of showing respect to our elders. She was so nice and good to me. She was a very quiet lady, tall with dark, shining beautiful skin. I liked her the first time that she approached me. I could say this had been trust at first sight.
Everyone went through the checkpoint and the police officers asked for traveling papers or passports. Our turn came up and Auntie asked me not to mention anything. By the way, I am short and very small in size so if someone sees me, they could think that I am under age. She presented her papers and spoke in Arabic when they asked for my papers. I didn’t understand what they talked about so I didn’t care much. They allowed us to go through. I was feeling so happy when I saw that we were allowed in, and at the same time I was scared of not knowing what the situation would be.
As soon as we arrived in South Sudan, I was joyful, smiling every now and then, seeing lights all over the streets. I thought we had reached our destination but we boarded another car. For the first part of the journey after the border crossing, I did not sleep. I watched the buildings near the roads. They were beautiful constructions, mostly concrete and well painted with different colors. Then we reached an area where there was no light, no houses. It was bushy and dark. That is the moment when I decided to fall asleep.
I woke up from sleep and I asked Auntie if we had reached. She told me we would be there in just a few hours. I went back to my sleep. I was awakened by sounds coming from people nearby and that is when I realized that we had arrived. We got out of the car and boarded a motorcycle that drove for 15 minutes. I carried only a few clothes in a small black school bag that was supposed to be for my sister. But Auntie carried a lot of things. She had a very big bag but I didn’t know what was in it. She had a sack of food with her and also a 10-liter gallon of cooking oil. She told me some of her friends and family collected food and gave her the oil as a gift.
I heard Auntie telling the cyclist to stop. We got off in front of a very big black gate. She paid the cyclist man and he left. She told me we had arrived. She knocked at the gate and someone opened it. We entered the house.
The house was very big and it had so much furniture. It was well decorated with big animal pictures like lions and giraffes in the forest on the wall. The room had a very nice aroma and the atmosphere was welcoming. I couldn’t believe my eyes because I had always dreamt of one day being in a permanent house rather than the ones we had in the camp, the iron sheet and timber only. It was amazing seeing all these good things in front of me. In that moment, I forgot all the trouble, poverty and hard times that I had gone through with my family.
Auntie knocked me on my shoulder because someone was talking to me and I wasn’t paying attention. When I came to my senses, I realized there were many people in the room, including other girls. They laughed at me and the conversation and introductions continued.
After a few minutes of talking and eating our dinner, the girls were asked to show me the bedroom. The food that we had for dinner was not different from what I had seen from the South Sudanese homes in the camp but some were new, like a bread that they called ‘’Ashi.” They had different soups and fruits. It was prepared like a feast.
But before I could go to the room, Auntie said she wanted to talk to me. The rest of the girls went and it was only me, her, and the owner of the house, a woman. Auntie said that she needed to go but before she did, she wanted to hand me over to the person whom I would be staying with and who would be in charge of looking for my employment. I smiled and said it was ok with me. She said goodbye and I was asked to go to the bedroom. While I went towards the bedroom, I turned and looked in her direction and saw them discussing. For a moment, I felt so bad and scared since I wouldn’t be able to meet her again. I was now going to stay with new and different people that I didn’t know. I turned and went to the bedroom. I didn’t know when she left.
Inside the bedroom, it was like I was watching a movie or visiting a dream land. I pinched myself to see if I was still alive or had died and was in heaven. Because in church they say that “when people die and go to heaven, it’s very beautiful, people walk in gold, eat honey and milk.” The bed was well prepared with flowery bed sheets and two pillows. The window had curtains, the floor was tiled, the light was so bright that you could see everything. There was a very nice table placed at the corner near the bed with a flower vase on top. The wall was painted in white and blue. The fan was standing behind the door facing the bed. All of these details made me think that maybe I had gone to heaven. But life is not as it looks from the outside; things are different on the ground.
I had settled for some three days at this particular house, along with the other girls who had arrived there earlier than I. We rarely saw the owner of the house, the woman that I was handed over to. Since I had arrived, I had never met with her husband (the man of the house). It was only the maids that I saw and interacted with when I needed something. In those three days that we were all staying at home, we did household chores, like helping in the kitchen to cut vegetables and arranging the tables. I also got to know the girls better in those few days. I got to eat new foods. There was a soup called “ kumunia’’ made out of a cow’s large intestine. There was another soup made out of cow meat along with some green vegetables called ‘’okra’’ and that was my favorite because we could eat it with ‘’kisira’’. The whole experience so far was good and I loved it.
One night after dinner, we were called by the owner of the house. She began by greeting us and asking each of us how we were feeling and if we were fine. She continued talking to us and that is when she told us that our work would begin tomorrow. I was so excited knowing that now I was going to fulfill my dreams. One of the girls asked which type of jobs we were going to do? The owner replied that for the start it would be in the bar. I sat up straight. I thought maybe I did not hear properly. I raised my hand and asked again, are we all going to work in the same place? She said yes. I felt a very sharp pain in my heart.
I had a diploma. I could be employed and earn good money. I did not ask before I came here about the type of job that I would do since the woman who brought me said there was a job and I didn’t ask. It was now too late to blame anyone or to regret.
Our first day went well. The bar looked nice. It was clean, with red chairs and white tables arranged in a circle. The place was large and full of people. It was a bar and restaurant at the same time and very busy. I noticed that girls were the only ones who were serving. They served a variety of different foods, including murere, ugali, meat, cabbage and bread. When it was around 11:00 pm, the car came for us and we left.
Working as a bar attendant wasn’t something that I had dreamt of but there I was.. All the people who worked at this bar were South Sudanese and I was the only foreigner. At first I couldn’t believe it since I considered it to be indecent work and I was not good at it. The first time I opened a bottle of beer, I spilled it on the customer and everyone in the room looked at me in amusement. Looking at their faces, I knew they were asking themselves, where did they pick this one up? Immediately my supervisor came and apologized on my behalf and asked me to apologize since I just stood like a tree not knowing what to do. I apologized and went out immediately because I wanted to cry. When I reached outside I cried. I didn’t know why I cried but I found myself crying. I think this is just who I am because up to date, I still cry even without reason.
The next day I was trained on how to open a bottle of either soda or beer, how to carry around a tray when serving, and the type of glass that should be served with each type of drink. For a period of one week it was all about orientation.
After working for two weeks, I kind of started loving the job. I remember when I served a customer and he gave me my first tip. I was so surprised that someone gave me money and said that it is yours for the good work. I didn’t believe it either but yes, I took it. I was a very sharp person in serving and also in making sure that the customers would not go with the money. My supervisor loved my work and he started to give me extra cash on a daily basis.
After a period of six months, I was familiar with the place and was able to secure a job as a patient attendant in one of the private areas neighboring where we lived. Though I had become a good worker at the bar, it was not my passion. Being a patient attendant was not my passion, either, but I needed to start working my way back to my family.
During the week when I started working my new job, I purchased a mobile phone and I had access to a sim card. I had saved my numbers on a piece of paper that I carried wherever I went. After work in the evening, I dialed my mother’s number.
‘’Hello, mam”. There was silence on the other side of the phone. I repeated again, ‘’Hello, mam’’, and I heard her reply ‘’Hello’’ with so much excitement. I could hear her giggling and she was calling out to my sisters and brothers that I was on the phone. I could feel the commotion that was around them since everyone was talking, everyone just wanted to say something to me. I heard from the background someone asking ‘’how are you’’, others were asking ‘’when are you going to return’’ and others were like ‘’what will you bring for me’’. There was noise everywhere and I could just imagine the emotions and feelings for everyone.
At that moment I was quiet. I didn’t respond to any of them. I was crying and at the same time laughing at every comment that I heard. Finally she asked my brothers and sisters to leave her alone so that she could talk to me first then maybe later they could also talk. I heard her voice calling me: “Faridah’’. I responded “Abe,’’ meaning yes. She paused and continued. “How are you doing and how is work?” I didn’t respond immediately because I was feeling so much pain in my heart. I wasn’t able to respond to anything.
I gathered myself together and I breathed in heavily. I got the courage to respond. I told her what I had gone through. We talked for so long until my phone was out of money. The phone disconnected and I was left with it on my ear for some time before I could finally put it down. Every word that each and every one of them said was coming back like a book that I had read. I started laughing alone but I also felt so lonely and missing my family. I wiped away the tears that had flown down my cheeks and I said to myself, ‘’all is well’’. My mum is the kind of a person who allows us to experience the world. She doesn’t deny us anything and she tells us we learn through experiences and that’s the reason she allows us to go places.
This feeling of knowing that I was given the opportunity to explore the world and that my mum trusted me and yet I had not achieved what I had anticipated to achieve was eating me up. I felt so bad that I was about to go back home yet I had not achieved anything for my family that I had planned for. I stood up and looked at myself in the mirror and I gave myself hope that all in all, I had done what I thought was the right thing. I clapped for myself for reaching this far.
5 September, 2023