World Refugee Day: Learning, Healing and Shining together in Kenya

Together with other countries worldwide, Kenya celebrates World Refugee Day on June 20th to appreciate the lives of all displaced people scattered across the world.

KENYA HAS nearly half a million refugees, mainly from the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa region. Around 40 percent of the refugees live in Kakuma in Turkana County, one of the poorest counties in northern Kenya, and Finn Church Aid (FCA) offers humanitarian services to the displaced persons in Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement.

This year’s celebration highlights the theme “Together we heal, learn and shine”. In the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic particularly disrupted the education and health sector. Learning was almost impossible because of the protocols put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Children have more space during classes thanks to tent structures that create more space at school.

Children have more space during classes thanks to tent structures that create more space at school.

“The school children relied on lessons broadcasted on radio, and this was helpful to the learners,” says Emmanuel Mr. Wamalwa, Headteacher of Future Primary School in Kalobeyei Settlement.

During the protracted crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is vital to ensure children still have access to education. FCA provides safe and inclusive quality pre-primary and primary education to 21,000 learners, 19,950 of them refugees. The reopening of schools has required new solutions to ensure that learners continue studying and observing the social distance protocol.

Before Covid-19, the classes at Future Primary School accommodated 130 learners per classroom. With funding from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Finland, the school received eight temporary tents to decongest classes and achieve the required distance between learners. One tent carries 36 desks.

“The tents are a relief to us as learners can keep social distance and maintain hygiene,” says Mr. Wamalwa.

In celebration of World Refugee Day, the school will arrange a sports event for the entire school where children can run, play ball games and recite poems. Playing together helps to ease the children’s minds from the demanding life of the refugee camp, and it builds unity among those displaced.

“Most of our learners are refugees, and we want to celebrate the day with them. We advise them to live one day at a time and be mindful about their mental wellbeing,” emphasizes Mr. Wamalwa.

Text: Elizabeth Oriedi
Cover photo: Jari Kivelä

Fighting Period Poverty Leads to a Future of Confident and Educated Women

Monthly sanitary pad distributions at school prevent girls from missing classes or dropping out completely. Education about menstruation increases self-esteem.

WHEN HER monthly period comes, 16-year-old Michelina tears a pillow and picks out pieces of its worn stuffing – an old cloth rug that she uses in place of the sanitary pad she cannot afford. That is just the tip of the iceberg. The worst part is that Michelina, who lives in Kalobeyei refugee settlement, cannot talk to anyone about her periods.

Despite being a normal biological process, menstruation remains taboo. Many girls stay home from school during their periods, leaving them behind in their education. In class, girls say that their concern about leakages makes it harder for them to concentrate in class or dissuade them from participating in the first place. Even with sanitary pads or towels, Michelina says that finding a bathroom is an issue.

“Without safe, private places for cleaning and changing during our periods, we continue to struggle despite the supplies”, she says.

Working against period poverty is an integral part of Finn Church Aid’s (FCA) education support in the refugee settlements Kakuma and Kalobeyei. Distributions of sanitary pads have reached 5,000 adolescent girls since last year. Project officer Catherine Angwenyi says the program has supported girls in several other ways too.

FCA’s sanitary pads distribution couples with sexual and reproductive health education, and the program has reduced school absenteeism among the girls.

Catherine Angewenyi (in the middle) from FCA distributing sanitary pads at Kalobeyei refugee settlement. Photo: Loduye Ghaisen

“When parents do not take the time to talk to their girls on menstrual hygiene, the only way girls get information and support is through education programs that distribute pads,” Angweny explains.

Monthly sanitary pad distributions prevent girls from dropping out and keep them from asking for pads from men that can take advantage of them. When girls go to school, they are less likely to become pregnant or, for instance, get an HIV infection.

Angwenyi believes that by doing everything for girls to stay in school, we are heading to a future of fewer teenage pregnancies and more educated and confident women.

“When you educate a girl, you change the world,” she says.

Sanitary pad distributions are an integral part of FCA Kenya’s education program.

Nkurunziza, 16, says that learning about menstruation and hygiene practices has changed her attitude: she no longer stays home from school during her periods.

“Having pads increases my confidence and helps me focus on my studies, and I can even excel in exams”, she says.

Text: Elizabeth Oriedi
Photos: Loduye Ghaisen


Women Taking the Lead in Ending the Conflict in Kerio Valley

The Northern Kenya Integrated Development project trains women in peacebuilding. Milka Rutonye explains how the women brought two conflicting communities together.

THREE YEARS AGOMilka Rutonye had had enough. The mother of seven children grew up in Kenya’s Pokot area but married a man from the neighbouring Marakwet. Milka could no longer bear with the impact of conflicts between the two communities.

Political incitement, livestock theft and a scramble for water between the Pokot and Marakwet led to shootings, violence against women and disruptions in the children’s education. Milka was determined to leave her husband’s home, leaving her children behind, and return to her family in Pokot just to run away from the gunshots.

“I always felt terrible when the Pokot ­– my people – came to Marakwet and caused chaos,” she says. “They forget that their children, sisters and nieces are married to the Marakwet.”

In 2018, Milka spoke with bitterness and complained of the area’s insecurity and its impact on her life. She began taking part in talking circles for women from both of the conflicting communities. Through the platform created by Finn Church Aid (FCA), the 57 women found a common cause and took it upon themselves to change the narrative of insecurity in the Kerio Valley.

Today the talking circles connect women from the neighbouring communities of Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot. Issues, such as water scarcity and cattle theft, have sparked violence in this area of Kenya.

Milka Rutonye has participated in women’s talking circles since 2018.
Milka Rutonye has participated in women’s talking circles since 2018.

Training gave birth to peacebuilding initiatives

The group calls itself Endo Chamkalya. It encourages women to be resilient in all aspects of life and actively create a just, peaceful, and equal society through formal and informal structures. Ahead of the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021, Milka speaks from inspiration.

“I was touched to see that FCA, coming from outside our communities, was concerned about our well-being. The talking circles have opened our eyes to the causes of our conflict”, she says.

“Water scarcity contributed to the fighting because we wanted to ensure that our livestock gets food. The training has built our capacity to hear and understand each other.”

The Northern Kenya Integrated Development project arranges training in peacebuilding. The training gave birth to various initiatives that the women undertook to restore peace.

Milka recalls a significant event in 2018; a protest against violence. During a border conflict between Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot, the Endo women crossed over to the Pokot side when the conflict had practically restricted all movement across the border. They prayed for peace.

“We had mobilized the Pokot women that are married to Marakwet and decided that we will seek peace by all means. Our only way was to seek an audience with the Pokot,” she says.

The women of Marakwet and Pokot gathering in prayers for peace.

Women from the Pokot community met the women that Milka’s group had gathered. The women from the talking circle ended up meeting with 35 village elders of West Pokot. In two mediation meetings, the women spoke out about how they wanted their children to go to school without interruption, their animals to graze freely, and enjoy peace like any other part of Kenya.

Peacebuilding may start with as simple things as learning to express oneself to the other person.  Milka says that the Pokot elders did not know that they were attacking their blood relatives, those that were married to the Marakwet. They regretted it, and some of them even cried.

More importantly, according to Milka, the story shows that anyone can find a moment like this and connect to it – and eventually, become a peacebuilder.

“We were able to influence the village elders of both Pokot and Marakwet to come together and discuss.”

Clearing the road improved livelihood opportunities

Since the peace negotiation led by the FCA talking circle, the situation between the two communities and the entire Kerio Valley has improved.

Benedicta, a moderator in Milka’s women’s talking circle, says that youth from both Pokot and Marakwet joined in clearing the nine-kilometer-long road connecting the two communities. The thick bush had provided hideouts for armed robbers, and there were also other physical obstacles that restricted movement. In the past, Benedicta witnessed two pregnant women die due to the impassable road.

“They were on their way to the district hospital, which is two hours away in normal conditions. The peace engagements have kept the road safe. Now, no one will die because of the road,” she says.

Marakwet and Pokot youth clearing the bush along the road connecting the two communities in Northern Kenya.

This road led to the opening of the Lodio market, an important centre for the communities’ livelihoods, and eased access to the health centre. According to Benedicta, it paved the way for people to trade and improve their living standard.

When Covid-19 restricted gatherings in the Kerio Valley, the women groups found creative ways to arrange peace meetings. Peace talks continued during the lockdown on radio channels, such as North Rift FM and Upendo FM Eldoret, with a substantial contribution from the women.

“The talking circles have empowered us women, and we are now committed to advocating for human rights and lead herders and the entire community to disarmament, development, livelihood and gender equality,” Milka adds.

Text: Elizabeth Oriedi
Photos: Aziza Maalim