I arrived in Kakuma on Wednesday after two days of flights brought me to the desert of Kenya. For those of you wondering, it goes like this: Tampa to Miami. 30 minutes. 2 hour layover. Miami to London. 8.5 hours. No time to enjoy the ancestors as my next flight leaves in 45 minutes. London to Nairobi 8.5 hours. Overnight in Nairobi at the Jesuit House, which I leave at 5 am the next morning so no time to see Nairobi in the daytime this visit. The final leg is the UN plane. 1.5 hours.
The UN plane is always an interesting experience, not just in the different types of people who are on it, but for the experience of getting weighed before you go (always enjoyable) and the flight over the country. The flight was half full so they weren't too worried about weighing each of us. I'm happy by the little things. The flight over the country was interesting, though. There is a distinct difference from when I was here in January: there is green visible on the earth below. Rain has come in the past few weeks, bringing some relief to the drought the country was enduring. South Sudan is still suffering from drought and famine, which has led nearly 900,000 people moving south into neighboring Uganda.
I get off the plane onto the gravely runway, and the first thing I don't notice is the oppressive heat. I was about halfway to the gate where we greet those coming to pick us up when I realized it was cool. Pleasant, even.
I am here in Kakuma to conduct interviews for the university program. Over 300 students applied, and only 40 will be accepted. The interviews are the third and final round before applicants are selected based on their scores in English, essay writing, and the interview.
We spend Wednesday planning our two days of sessions with our Kenyan education team. I'm instantly reminded how quietly they talk. Somehow they can hear each other, too. I purposefully go out of my way not to be a loud American, but even my quiet tones are louder than their normal ones.
Wednesday evening comes, I haven't slept in two days, and I have work to do. The two are instantly in conflict with one another. Work wins out. Thursday dawns with continued sleep deprivation, but today is interview day. Time to look fresh.
Refugees understand the value of education. They talk about education in a way that transcends the personal achievement it represents. Absolutely none of the 20 applicants my team spoke with today mentioned (1) the prestige of education or a few letters after their name, or (2) using education so that they could resettle to the United States. For them, education is about bringing change to their community.
One applicant says it is the one chance he has to change the direction of his life and that of his community. For some reason an image of my two teenage boys flashes in mind. What if this were their fate? Would I deny them an opportunity at any cost?
I'm struck by the barriers that women have had to education. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), women face significant discrimination, compounded by gender violence, lack of food security, and no right to an education. Several of our applicants – male and female – are involved in community based organizations that seek to help women achieve an education, protect them from (and educate the community about) female genital mutilation, and strongly campaign against early marriage. In the DRC, an early marriage comes at 15, and without an education, women are extremely vulnerable. Societies without gender equality or near gender equality suffer economically, and this is evidenced by the DRC's wars in recent years. In turn, they end up in Kakuma, looking for safety.
When I ask them about personal challenges, they look at me like, "I know challenges." Their lives are challenges, and I guess what I want to get from them is how they overcome those challenges. What innovative solutions have they come up with? As it turns out, the past is prologue. Innovative solutions are communal. One applicant said that when he has difficulties, he takes it to his tribe.
And I think that sums up the overarching theme for the day: learning – whether it is about overcoming challenges or finding ways to bring liberal arts ideas into 21st century African conflicts – is about community.