Making her way back from the clinic in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Miremba Okello* knew there was trouble brewing when she heard the young men taunting: “Shoga, shoga.”
“That is the song they sing wherever you go. Whether you are going to the tap or even when you are going to church. Whenever they attack, the people around you will sing: ‘See that one is a shoga.’ Even a person who doesn’t know you will know [after that] that you are lesbian or you are a gay,” says the 32-year-old, who fled Uganda because of her sexual orientation. “One person can just start singing that and then a group of people will join. You understand? Young kids, boys, youth. Like that. They point at you. They throw stones at you.”
On that day, however, they did much more. Weak with typhoid fever, Okello struggled to fight back as the group of men took turns raping her.
It was not the first time she had been attacked while living in the camp. A few months earlier, while Okello was walking with “three other lesbians and one minor”, a “group of homophobic guys” surrounded them.
“They tried to undress us, to remove our clothes, to see what is so special about us that we are not like other girls. Somehow, some way, we managed to run away. But we were injured [because] they were cutting us [as they were trying] to cut our panties,” she says.
‘We have no sleep’
Housing approximately 200 000 refugees and asylum seekers, Kakuma Refugee Camp is considered the largest in the world. “The situation at Kakuma is grave,” says the Refugee Council USA website. “There are minimal opportunities for employment, and cases of disease and malnutrition are very common.”
Also common are queerphobic attacks.
On 15 March, “around 2am”, a petrol bomb hit Block 13, which houses just more than 100 of the camp’s LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers. The attack left Ayesigye Jordan and Atuhwera Chriton with second-degree burns.
“Some of us sleep outside,” says Gilbert Kagarura, Block 13’s spokesperson. “So when they threw the petrol bomb, it landed in a section [where] some of us were sleeping … The petrol spread. Two men were burnt extensively. Very, very extensively. Actually, we were a bit fortunate because where it landed was a bit close to the shelter where we let the children [sleep] at night. It never reached the children, but these two men were burnt horrifically.”
Prior to this, on 15 February, four gay men “were set ablaze by other migrants”.
“So many things [happen here in Block 13],” says Okello. “It’s too … challenging. The situation is bad. Completely bad. We are facing attacks all the time. Severe attacks all the time. We have no sleep.”
As a devout Christian, Okello would find comfort in the Sunday services she attended back home in Uganda. In the Kakuma Refugee Camp, however, there is little such comfort to be found.
Children of God
In November 2011, David Ndikumana* fled Burundi, along with his wife and children, and eventually found something of a home in the camp. A mechanic by profession but ordained as an evangelical pastor, Ndikumana established a church in the camp in 2013.
“When I decided to open the church… it was very sad because many people were without a house of worship. I remember there was one church, but it was very far [away],” Ndikumana says. “Another thing that pushed me to open up the church was many people were angry with life in Kakuma, the challenges of life here. So I decided to open the church to bring people together and to give them hope while living in this difficult life … It was very wonderful to create that church during that time.”
Shortly after opening his church’s doors, Ndikumana met a transgender woman who asked a simple question: “If I came to the church, would you chase me away?”
“I said, ‘No’,” Ndikumana says. “That person asked me, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because you are a child of God.’”
Word soon got around that Ndikumana’s church was queer-friendly. “During that time, more LGBTIQ people were feeling that in our church they could come and worship with us. But some people in our church [were] inciting people to be against them, saying: ‘This is sodomist things that the pastor is trying to invite into our church.’ So people turned against me. It was very bad. Then they demolished the church. Even one part of my house was burnt. That time, I felt so bad because I didn’t expect to be in [this] kind of a situation,” he says.
It took Ndikumana time to recover from the hurt of seeing his church burnt to the ground – “My heart was so broken,” he says. But in 2016, three years after the attack, he decided to fight back.
“It was very difficult for me to reopen the church again … But I got the motivation because I’m a pastor. Always a pastor is a pastor. Doesn’t matter what challenge I face. Because so many people were [in] the camp without having a church. And not everyone was hating me. No. Some people were standing with me. They say, ‘Pastor, it doesn’t matter what happened. Reopen the church. We will stand with you.’ The strong person always fights for his vision, so I decided to stand again to fight and to make sure I accomplish my mission in the camp: to create a space for all.”
Okello was one of Ndikumana’s parishioners. “When I went there for the first time,” she says, “I introduced myself. I said, ‘I am a Ugandan’.”
Okello explains that because Ugandan refugees in the camp are almost exclusively LGBTQIA+, when someone introduces themselves as Ugandan, it is immediately understood that they are queer.
“When I told them I am from Uganda, I didn’t expect to get that welcome from the church. Especially in a church in this camp, because everyone doesn’t like us. I used to fear to go for prayers because I was like, ‘What if I go and they get to know I am a lesbian? They are going to beat me and kill me. They are going to put me to jail.’ But when I went there, I introduced myself and the members of the congregation kept quiet. And after service, the pastor told me, ‘You are always welcome here. We have people like you, your fellow Ugandans. You are always welcome.’ I was happy. But still, inside my mind I was like, ‘Well, the pastor said you are welcome, but what about the congregation? When the service is over, going out, everyone is going to look at me like, ‘Eh, this one is a disgusting thing.’ You know? That means that after the service, you have to run away so fast. Because the pastor will not be with you all the time.”
Recently, Okello stopped attending the services out of concern for her safety while taking the hour-long walk to the church.
“It’s because of security,” she says. “So many of our members would like to go to [that] church, but we cannot go because … we fear … to walk. How many months? I can’t even count. I can’t find my way to church. I can’t walk alone. If I don’t have money to get a boda-boda or any means of transport, I cannot go. They’ll kill me on the way. They will beat me on the way. So that is the problem.”
Petitioning for relocation
Following the petrol bomb attack, the Coalition of African Lesbians, Just Associates Southern Africa and the Triangle Project started an online petition to relocate Block 13’s queer refugees somewhere safer.
“Despite years of urging by organisations to act and protect LGBTQ+ refugees at the Kakuma camp, the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has shown little political will and commitment to intervene. This is in direct violation of UNHCR’s mandate to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country,” the petition reads.
It is not so cut and dried, says Eujin Byun, UNHCR Kenya’s spokesperson. “Resettlement spaces are very, very limited worldwide. Only, like, less than 1% of refugees [worldwide] are getting resettlement. And that number is shrinking every year.”
For Byun, the numbers also have to be taken into consideration. “Kakuma has about 200 000 refugees, mainly from South Sudan. This group in Block 13 doesn’t represent the whole LGBTQ refugee and asylum seeker community … There are 1 000 LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya. Three hundred in Kakuma. There are LGBTQ refugees who are not part of the Block 13 group. I’m not going to say they are 100% safe, because there are attacks. There is violence. We’re not going to deny it. We acknowledge those attacks. They’re still living in Kakuma. And relatively safe and integrated into the community.”
Byun adds that the UNHCR “fully understands” what the queer refugees face – and their wish to be resettled outside Kenya.
“We recognise that there are some very vulnerable people among LGBTQ refugees and have spared no efforts to help … Our top priority is always to identify these individuals and families and work with them and our partners to find practical ways to address their problem. We are ready to continue listening to the concerns and will continue to engage to find reasonable solutions.”
But Block 13’s spokesperson Kagarura is not buying it. “Surely if they want, they can protect us,” he says. “What we are suffering from is a problem of attitudes. Not a lack of capacity or a lack of resources on the part of UNHCR and the Kenyan government. I pray that the UNHCR does not endanger more LGBTQ people by putting them in already-proven hostile environments. I pray that they respect their obligations and protect us while we are in the country as asylum seekers. I would like to see LGBTQ people protected. Not just this current group, but the others who will come after us.”
The protection of people has become something of a passion for Ndikumana, who, for the past two years, has been working with the faith-based organisation Church World Service in putting together training workshops for the camp’s community leaders “to understand LGBTI people who live with us. Not discriminate against them.”
“Starting my church, I got a lot of challenges,” he says. “I was discriminated against by my community. People abuse my wife. People abuse my children, saying: ‘Your father is demonic.’ So many challenges. But … even if I die today, I will be happy because there are now other people like [me]. There is another pastor, who is now also a friend and defender of LGBTIQ people. So I thank God, because already I create a space for LGBTIQ refugees. We are here to defend them because there is no other people. You see?”
For Kagarura, the matter is simple. “Places like Kakuma,” he says, “should not be places for LGBTIQ persons. I would like to see real protection from UNHCR and the Kenyan government for the LGBTIQ persons under their care. That’s what I pray for.”
With little in the way of active international support and even less hope of being relocated, the queer residents of Block 13 have little but prayer to hold on to.
“What we really want is a safe place,” says Okello. “A place where we are going to feel loved. Not rejected. You know? Where we are going to walk and don’t see anyone stoning us. Where we don’t hear anyone saying, ‘Shoga, shoga.’ You understand? A community where we are going to go … to live a happy life, like a normal human being. That is what we are praying for. That is all we are praying for.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
On 24 March 2021, the Kenyan government ordered the closure of the Dadaab and the Kakuma refugee camps.