Refugees in Kenya – Brian Gitahi ’23

In light of the systemic oppression and discrimination brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement, let’s take a look at some of the unseen peoples living in Kenya. 

Mariam Mac and Agot Anyang playing ‘Bao’, Sudanese Refugee Camp, Kakuma, Kenya, 1993
Fazal Sheikh, American, born 1965
Gelatin silver print

In this gelatin silver print image from the Princeton University Art Museum collections, two Sudanese refugees at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya are pictured playing Bao, a popular board game in East Africa.

This image struck me because it shows how Mariam Mac and Agot Anyang are making the most of their situation. Yes, the situation is dire, but they found a way to be at leisure. Notice that they’re using the ground as the set instead of the typical wooden board. They didn’t have the actual board, but that didn’t stop them.  They made do with what they had, and they made it work.

Ismahan Hussein, 36, from Kakuma, stands next to her pastel on soot – henna design at the Artists for Refugees exhibition which is being held at Alliançe Française in Nairobi (2017). UNHCR/M.Ndubi.

Bao isn’t the only source of leisure at the refugee camp in Kakuma. Kakuma has produced quite a number of talented artists in recent years. Pictured is the beautiful Ismahan Hussein beside one of her designs. Ismahan is one of the various artists from Kakuma who are part of the Artists for Refugees project. This particular piece is a traditional henna design creatively brought to life by pastels on soot. Heena is a traditional body adornment usually used during festivities like marriage ceremonies by women. For Ismahan, art is not only a source of leisure, but also a source of income. As a Somali refugee living in Kenya, art has been one of the most empowering aspects of her life.  

A quick note about Alliançe Francaise, where Hussein’s artwork was on view, before I move on: Alliançe Francaise is  the hub of upcoming art in Nairobi. I never found this particular piece on display during an exhibition, but it reminded me of the refreshing feeling that came with a leisurely stroll down the aisle of the periodical exhibitions of upcoming artists from all over the country. 

Mudey arranges some of his paintings to dry outside his hour where he works from. UNHCR/M.Ndubi

The image above shows Mudey Bashir Muktar and three of his works. Before I say anything else, I want to draw your attention to the simple yet spectacular way in which he depicts the nomadic lifestyle of the Somalis.  Like Ismahan, Mariam and Agot, Mudey is a refugee living in Kenya. He and his family lived in Dadaab refugee camp before moving to Nairobi. As is the case with Ismahan, art for him is both leisure and a source of livelihood. Through the UNHCR project, Artists for Refugees, both Ismahan and Mudey have been able to develop their skills and gain a platform for their art.

If there’s one thing we can learn from these refugees is that there’s hope in adversity. Even in the tough times when we’re feeling helpless, we can find ways to make the most of the situation. So it’s possible to be happy even in times like these. Just keep moving… or swimming (insert Dory accent)!