There is no such thing as an environmental refugee, yet displacement as the result of climate change is growing exponentially. A personal look at the crisis in East Africa.
Image courtesy UNICEF Ethiopia
My interpreter Teddy’s phone rings. He drops coins on the table and motions for me to stand. We exit the restaurant, back into the frenzy and heat of the Nairobi, Kenya afternoon. The only words I can pick out from his conversation are “Eshi, eshi” (Amharic for “yes, yes”), and the repeated “Obama, Obama,” which is a common landmark title here: there’s the Obama copy shop, Obama street, the Obama Hotel.
We’re looking for a group of paperless Ethiopian immigrants who are hiding in Nairobi’s shadows. Naturally, they are wary of speaking with us. Teddy, a refugee from Ethiopia with official papers in his pocket, leads us to a shop window where a woman behind a grate sells sundries. The blue-painted storefront, no more than 5 feet long and 4 feet deep, boasts, “We have Injera!” in uneven yellow script beneath the window. The shopkeeper stares me down for a few moments, then nods. We’re in.
Inside, Ethiopian music grieves. The owner points us to another door. Teddy knocks, and a short mustachioed man peers wide-eyed through the crack. He pulls us into a 10 by 20 foot room, a dim, airless box of concrete, like a forgotten supply closet. It’s packed with barrels and bags, lit by a single bulb, windowless, the air warm and sour with fermentation. “Admassu,” he introduces himself.
If there were such a thing as an environmental refugee, Admassu, [who left Ethiopia’s desiccating landscape,] would be one—but there is simply no such thing.
“He’s making injera,” Teddy says, motioning to the half-dozen plastic buckets teeming with thin porridge. Bags of rice line the shelves, and a rusted mill in the corner grinds the rice into a dusty flour. Our host leans over one of the barrels and scoops out the watery mix so we can watch it dribble back into its bin. “Injera,” Admassu repeats, handing me a plastic bag filled with the final product: a sour, spongy pancake that’s an Ethiopian staple. Admassu turns over an empty bin and motions for Teddy and me to sit down.
Both Teddy and Admassu were born in Ethiopia and forced to flee their homes. Teddy left after he and his father were tortured by the current regime for handing out human rights leaflets. He fits the standard definition of refugee, having fled his country’s trenchant political persecution. But for Admassu, who left Ethiopia’s desiccating landscape, things are more complicated. If there were such a thing as an environmental refugee, Admassu, along with hundreds of thousands of others around the globe, would be one—but there is simply no such thing.
A refugee is a person who flees persecution based on his or her race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. This is the definition the international community coined in “never again” spirit in the wake of the Holocaust. Currently, Kenya is home to over 600,000 refugees from dozens of neighboring countries: they flee political repression in Ethiopia, protracted conflict in eastern Congo, and, most infamously in recent years, a devastating state failure and wide-spread famine in Somalia. But Kenya is also home to thousands of migrants like Admassu who are not among these protected refugees—nor will they be unless current laws change.
Admassu left the Kambata region of Ethiopia in October of 2011, just two months prior to our meeting, because the changing weather rendered his life, in effect, unlivable. He comes from a long line of farmers in one of Ethiopia’s most fertile regions. But since 2005, Teddy translates, the weather has not been right. “Before five years ago, the weather is better for growing something. This time, it’s not good,” Teddy translates. All the weather patterns Admassu had come to rely on are now bunk. “Nothing grows. It’s very dry.”
He was no longer able to grow enough crops to feed his family, let alone make a living. “Poor,” the man says in English, flashing an incongruous smile. When the rain finally comes, he continues in Amharic, it “disqualifies” the crops. “When I want it to rain, it wasn’t coming. When I need it to be dry to cut the crops,” Admassu says, “only rain.” Admassu, like the others in his region, was working according to generations and generations of a particular rain cycle, reliable as the coming of night.
When he began to believe that the weather would not get better, Admassu saved up all the money he could, bid his family goodbye, and struck out alone to the dry boundary regions of Ethiopia and Kenya. There, he stole across the border and bribed his way south, thrown into one small town prison after another for his lack of papers, until he reached Eastleigh, a Nairobi slum quilted tightly with migrants from throughout the region. Whenever he was arrested (maybe half a dozen times, he estimates), he’d slip the police some cash in exchange for release. According to the many Ethiopians I spoke to in Kenya who’d taken a similar route, one thing about the trip was certain: you needed enough money for both bus fare and bribes. “I ran out money and had to sell my wedding ring to the police,” I was told by a former Ethiopian politician who had fled south to Nairobi.
In his cement room thick with fermentation, Admassu tells me that many like him head from Eastleigh to Mombasa, Kenya’s coastal city and regional trucking hub ten hours away by bus, where they illicitly board trucks headed for South Africa. The trucks are crammed and dark and hot, stopping only every twelve hours to let the migrants out to shit and eat.
“I don’t want to go to South Africa,” Admassu says. “But if I cannot make money here in Kenya, I will have to.” His family, meanwhile, is near starving at home.
About twenty minutes into my visit, there’s a knock on the door and four other men enter the room. “These ones live here, too,” says Teddy. Daytimes, they mix injera in exchange for room and board; at night, they roll out mats and sleep (six of them total) amidst the blue barrels fizzing with yeast. I picture all the men laying down—there would barely be room to tiptoe among them. They rarely leave the building for fear, they say, of the police.
From the same region of Ethiopia, the six roommates were strangers before Eastleigh. But they all left for the same reason: there was no longer enough rainfall to sustain their crops. They could not go north from their homes in Kambata or shift to another region of Ethiopia, they explain, because they would not be accepted elsewhere (the Ethiopian government has, in an effort to divide and control their people and to keep them from organizing, encouraged regionalism and tension among the more than eighty ethnic groups). And anyway, Admassu says, the other regions are experiencing the same problems of rainfall.
Environmental degradation in Ethiopia is widely documented. According to a recent USAID report, in the past thirty years, Ethiopia has seen a rise in temperature that ranges between .1 and .25 degrees Celsius per decade. Concurrently, there has been a steady decrease in annual rainfall since 1996. These changes are most commonly attributed to global climate change. The wicked irony is that although Ethiopia is one of the world’s countries most heavily impacted by the adverse effects of climate change, it contributes the least—less than almost all other developing countries—to the global CO2 emissions that cause the atmosphere to warm. Though severe drought-induced famine and food insecurity have punctuated Ethiopian history since the seventies (“Don’t you remember ‘We are the World?’” a young Ethiopian refugee activist asked me with a wry smile), in recent years Ethiopia has experienced “increased frequency of extreme weather” and “alarming declines in rainfall,” according to USAID, as well as—and perhaps worst of all for the agriculturalists who comprise 80 percent of Ethiopia’s populace—the unpredictable rain patterns that Admassu describes.
While the source of climate change in Ethiopia is largely external, internal politics have worsened already precarious environmental conditions for many Ethiopians. Due to their open-air struggles for political freedom, ethnic groups like the Ogaden southerners have been barred from drought relief, government infrastructure, and social services. According to Human Rights Watch, in the Gambella and other southern regions, the government has seized land from forcibly-relocated individual farmers, re-designating these zones for commercial sugar plantations tied to foreign investors, and, in the case of the Omo regions, to the construction of the controversial Gibe III dam. These projects fatten the bellies of government ministers and foreign contractors, heedless to the local farmers who, if they don’t have their land, have nothing at all.
Admassu and his friends felt that things had gotten so bad in Ethiopia that they were better off sneaking across the border to Kenya and living in hiding than they were staying put.
Though humans are confined to borders, climate change knows no boundaries. How could Admassu’s home, with its once-thriving fields and clean air, be responsible for its own demise? The answer, of course, is that it’s not.
I ask Admassu what he thinks was the cause of this drastic weather change. He shrugs. “We must ask Jesus,” he says. I ask if he’d ever heard of climate change. This term perplexes even Teddy. “It’s the idea,” I say, “that because of pollution in the air, the weather is changing. It’s getting too hot.” As Teddy translates, Admassu shakes his head. “He says,” says Teddy, “That this maybe happens in other places, but not where he is coming from. His town is very beautiful, very clean air. So that cannot be the problem for these people. It must be something else.”
Though humans are confined to borders, climate change knows no boundaries. How could Admassu’s home, with its once-thriving fields and clean air, be responsible for its own demise? The answer, of course, is that it’s not.
Due to its proximity to so many conflict-ridden countries as well as its infrastructure, well-developed by regional standards, Kenya bears the brunt of regional migration. When I meet with Madame Otenyo, the assistant director of the immigration department in downtown Nairobi’s Nyayo House, we discuss current challenges in Kenya’s immigration system. A poster-size map on the wall depicts Kenya’s current (in black) and proposed (in red) border crossings. There are thirteen immigration control points along Kenya’s land borders. The red wish-list projects seventeen additional posts—five of them along the 535 mile border with Ethiopia—that, due to recent departmental reorganizing, have zero dollars allocated for their construction. But hope is not lost, says Otenyo, as the money should come through eventually (particularly now that Al Shabaab, the Somali Al Qaeda offshoot, is growing its armies in the region, and sneaking through into Kenya).
As far as Otenyo’s concerned, those coming into Kenya for environmental reasons are economic migrants—without papers. She tells me that her department is launching a civic education campaign “to show citizens that it is unlawful to house an illegal immigrant.” This should help, she says, with some of the illegal harboring that occurs in Kenya. One of the problems, she says, is that “the British gave us very bad borders.” Arbitrarily drawn as the Europeans carved up territory for their colonization, the lines cut through ethnic groups that are, at their heart if not by their citizenship, “one in the same.” The people’s allegiances in these border zones are stronger to one another than to their governments. Human traffickers, says Otenyo, “have collaborated with border agents” to skirt people across—for a fee. “Of course we’ve had corruption issues. Some officers are easily compromised. They help illegal immigrants to cross.” All a man like Admassu had to do was keep a low profile and line his pockets with enough cash to pay off the officers.
Downstairs from Madame Otenyo’s office I meet with an immigration officer. He is tall and bald and scowly and his thick fingers are adorned with sizable rings, the strangest of which is a silver skull and crossbones of a lion. Madame Otenyo had suggested I ask him how many illegal immigrants are in Kenya—an estimate she couldn’t provide. When I do, he looks at me like I’m the world’s biggest fool. “Now,” he says, “how would we know that one? If we knew, pah,” he shoots his finger toward Ethiopia, “They’d be out!” The officer, who watches my notes closely to make sure I don’t take down his name, tells me that there’s an upsurge in Ethiopian “illegals” over the last couple years. “They sneak in through a porous border, or are taken by a syndicate of smugglers who have linkages to South Africa.”
The immigration officer shifts back and forth in his seat, repeatedly asking me if I have any more questions in hopes, I suspect, that I don’t. His desk is stacked with files—deportation orders, he tells me, to send the apprehended migrants home. The U.N. has a strict non-refoulement policy, which means that no one can be sent back to a country where he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution. “These are not refugees,” he explains, slapping the pile. “These are people who use our territory for transit!”
I ask him how many deportations occur each year to neighboring countries. He puts out both hands to stop me. “Let’s not use the word deport,” he says. He prefers repatriate. I rephrase. “How many do you repatriate each year?” He estimates that Kenya “repatriates” over 2,000 Ethiopians annually—and maybe 200 or 300 migrants from other countries. It’s a legitimate hardship on the Kenyan government, which has to pay the cost of transporting them home. Though neither he nor Madame Otenyo could specify the cost of illegal immigration, he insisted that “it is a very expensive problem.” When I ask about corruption among officials at the border crossings, he shakes his head. “That one is not true,” he says. “I have not come across that. These guys—they sneak in.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres refers to displacement as a result of climate change (like severe and prolonged drought, famine, typhoons, or flooding,) as the “defining challenge of our times.”
Not unlike the Kenyan government, the international community hasn’t figured out what to do about environmentally forced migrants like Admassu. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, in places like South Sudan and Somalia, depleting resources have spurned conflict that has in turn produced refugees. But when environmental causes force people to flee before conflict erupts, writes leading environmental migration scholar Jane McAdam for the 2011 International Dialogue on Migration conference, “They run the risk of interdiction, detention and expulsion if they attempt to cross an international border and have no legal entitlement to stay.” Despite the fact that U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutteres refers to displacement as a result of climate change (like severe and prolonged drought, famine, typhoons, or flooding,) as the “defining challenge of our times,” the U.N. has not figured out a way to deal with the fact that, according to a recent U.N.H.C.R. paper, before 2050, an estimated 200 million people around the globe will be forced to leave their homes due to environmental stresses. (This estimate varies wildly, depending on who is making the prediction, though the U.N.H.C.R. calls its number “conservative.”)
Forced migration from environmental causes—be they sudden onset, like a typhoon, or slow onset, like a drought—does not a refugee make. There is simply no such thing as an “environmental refugee” because to be a refugee, one must face persecution. Even if you were to argue that climate change is a form of indirect persecution of the world’s most vulnerable by the world’s richest and most over-consumptive countries (like the U.S. or China), who pump enough CO2 into the global sky to change weather across the globe, according to McAdam, you’d have to prove that the persecution was on account of the impacted person’s race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or social group. That is to say, you’d have to make the case for intent. And you’d be hard-pressed to do so.
But we have to start somewhere, because the predictions are astonishing. As Alice Thomas, of the Bacon Center for the Study of Climate Displacement at Refugees International, says, “If we don’t act now to put policies in place, we’re going to really limit our ability to act in the future.”
As the world heats up and crowds with more humans who are hungry, thirsty, and consuming fossil fuels, more and more people are finding their homes unlivable: nearly one million Somalis displaced (many to Kenya) during the 2011 famine; 600,000 displaced by flooding in Bangladesh this past July; the entire population of islands like Tuvalu (11,000) and Kiribati (over 100,000) threatened with forced departure as their islands sink slowly but surely into the sea. Given that climate change has brought us a new set of international conditions that impact the way people live (and if they can live at all) on a very large scale, the U.N. recognizes that there is a dire need to plan for protection of current and future climate migrants. “I am convinced that climate change will increasingly be a driver in worsening displacement crises in the world. It is very important for the world to come together to respond to this challenge,” Commissioner Guterres announced last June.
But coming up with the definition of a “climate refugee” is quite the slippery fish. The problem, argues McAdam in several U.N. papers, is basically this: how can we differentiate between those who flee simply for a better life and economic opportunity and those who are, with no other choice, fleeing environmental catastrophes that force them to look for both literal and figurative greener pastures?
As Thomas explains to me, within the international community of policymakers, “Everyone is agreeing that we need to do something, but may not agree on exactly what that is. Most people think it’s unrealistic to imagine a new international agreement, and say this is just a pie-in-the-sky idea.” Though there are international leaders and activists still calling for a comprehensive law to protect environmental migrants, akin to the Refugee Convention, “They are being shot down. It’s pretty much dead in the water.” It’s difficult to make a blanket law for something as variable and complicated as climate change. Response mechanisms and protective standards for sudden-onset disasters will be drastically different from those of slow-onset, for example, and potential solutions in Bangladesh will differ wildly from those available and appropriate in Ethiopia. Plus, for those like Admassu who flee slow-onset changes, there is the question of how to empirically identify the tipping point at which someone’s life went from difficult to impossible.
Waiting for climate disasters to strike is a losing proposition, Thomas explains: “We need to plan now for migratory movements.” Within countries, this might look like community-led relocations—providing international and governmental support to help impacted communities, like the farmers in the drought-ridden regions of Southern Ethiopia, decide where and how to move. (This requires benevolent government actors—Ethiopia has initiated “voluntary relocations” that aren’t, in fact, voluntary at all.) On the international scale, the most realistic protection prospect, she says, will most likely be bilateral agreements between specific states (such as what is happening now between New Zealand and the sinking islands, or between post-earthquake Haiti and the U.S.) that manage intentional migration over time and, in best case scenarios, before the environmental breaking point. The problem is that while this “solution” responds to the particularities of an environmental migration crisis, the migration would occur at the pleasure of the host government. Not all “environmental migrants” would win that lottery. As for a blanket law that would require U.N. member states to take in a whole new class of people, according to Thomas, “there’s little political will to move forward with this.” It’s “politically unpalatable.”
In the absence of international protection, Admassu the injera-maker and his pals have turned to that age-old strategy of human adaptation: they’ve taken matters into their own hands.
Teddy invites me to church. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Yaya neighborhood of Nairobi was renovated just six years ago and now stands proudly just off the main road. Teddy’s friend Berekhet shows us around. “We had to rebuild to accommodate all the people,” he said. “These days, many, many more are coming.” Some are legal refugees, others are not. And this church isn’t the only game in town—Berekhet tells me about the main competitor, the Ethiopian Pentecostal Church with its wild music and dancing that smack of sin.
Built in the shape of a crucifix, the inside of the Orthodox church is covered in folk-style paintings of Bible tales: bright colors, flat shapes, and Jesus seated in the grass. The iconography reminds me of Latin American chapels and the thick-fingered Christos with big, open eyes. The church is empty today, a Monday. But on Sunday, they assure me, it’s packed to the gills. Sure enough, when I make my way back that Sunday, seats are filled.
Above the altar is a painted image of the holy trinity. “You see it is beyond man’s comprehension to understand how God can be one and three at the same time. And yet he is,” Berekhet says. “Take the sun—the sun is the physical object we know in the sky. But the sun is also light. And the sun brings heat to our bodies and to the earth. You see? The sun is like God—many things at the same time.”
Whatever their religion, it seems most southern Ethiopians, living at the whim of the weather, would likely agree with this business about the many facets of the sun.
On Sunday, the pastors cant the Amharic prayers in monotone verses. They pad barefoot down the aisles, floating incense among the pews as parishioners ring prayers toward their toes. The refugee law protects many of these people, but what of all the ones it doesn’t? How are they celebrating today, I wonder.
Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, which displaced over a million people and rendered 30 percent of all Somali children acutely malnourished, added to the misunderstanding that “environmental refugees” are recognized by the international community. The media referred to the hundreds of thousands of Somalis arriving in Kenyan refugee camps that chugged through the airwaves as “environmental refugees.”
But the reason these famine victims were classified as refugees is because all migrants from southern Somalia are, according to Kenya’s constitution, granted prima facie status due to the widespread political upheaval that has plagued Somalia for decades, meaning that any Somali is automatically granted refugee status upon stepping onto Kenya’s yellow-brown soil. The famine crisis was only the latest devastation that forced thousands from Somalia into Kenya. Famine refugees were pre-approved for refugee status before the famine had even begun.
And thank goodness. With over two hundred thousand refugees arriving in Kenya’s Dadaab camp between July and September, the sheer manpower needed to evaluate each case would have been so great that it would have left thousands to die in line under the sun. As Jeff Savage, a Senior Protection Officer for U.N.H.C.R. at the Kakuma refugee camp, puts it, without prima facie status for Somalis, “Resource-wise it would have be a disaster. There are just too damned many of them. We wouldn’t have been able to interview them all.”
I meet Jeff in his air-conditioned office in Kakuma camp, home to more than 80,000 people cast into Kenya’s Turkana region, a sweeping hot nowhereland. I ask him about environmental migration into Kenya. “Of course,” he says, “the Somalis are the most affected by the famine crisis” in the Horn of Africa.
The famine crisis was worse—far worse—than what Admassu’s community experienced in Ethiopia. I imagine what the recent famine crisis would have looked like without the prima facie law—or worse, what a famine like that would mean in a country with no political problems at all. In a case like that, there would be no grounds for refugee protection. Aid would eventually come (though, as it often does, too late), but people would be restricted from moving elsewhere in search of food and water if that elsewhere happened to be across a border.
“Sadly, if someone from Sudan came in claiming these [same] issues,” says Jeff, “Their claim would probably be rejected.”
Yet Jeff is more optimistic than others about the prospects of refugee law shifting to accommodate environmental causes. “The Convention is not a static document,” he says. It has been expanded over time to include people from outside of Europe and internally displaced people. Environmental migration is a current hot topic in refugee policy, he says, and he wouldn’t be surprised if U.N.H.C.R. eventually came up with a new set of international standards for environmental migration. At this point, however, there is little movement toward blanket change.
Outside Jeff’s office, the heat leaves us buoyant in the late afternoon air. We load into a U.N. vehicle with Caroline, Kakuma’s public relations officer, to take a tour of the camp. The air-conditioner is cranked high, windows up, as we jerk over Kakuma’s mean roads, thick dust like smoke bobbing listlessly behind us.
When we think of climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa, we tend to think of sweeping dry landscapes like Kakuma, of drought and desertification and famine. Indeed, this place is parched. Kakuma heat is infamous—the kind of hot that rations water and keeps people inside for much of the day. Caroline has worked in Kakuma since 2005. These days, she says, the weather is changing, but in ways quite surprising. “It rained so much last month. I’d never seen it like that in the many years I’ve been here. This year, it rained more than ever.” The rain is a cooling agent on the hot skin of Kakuma dirt. “The climate has changed positively for us,” says Caroline. “Except for the floods,” she adds.
Warmer air holds more water. Increasingly, these desiccated African landscapes, (and others, too—in Bangladesh, in Pakistan), survive months and months of no rain, then get sudden deluges. Though it cools the air, the rain leaks through the houses’ metal roofs, which wear with time and weather and, with the high volume of rainfall, can melt the mud-brick houses back into Kakuma sludge.
When it rains, Kakuma, built as a safe haven for the world’s most vulnerable, becomes its own disaster zone.
Kakuma is separated into various camps by lagers, naturally occurring seasonal rivers that, most of the time, sit like the refugees in a state of dry waiting. The main roads from camp to camp dip in and out of the lagers, and residents use them to transport this or that, to get to market or to the hospital or to the U.N. compound. Instead of dust, the lagers are walled with beach-like sand. Heavy rains like those in recent months bring the rivers to life, the lagers flash-flooding with water. This separates the various sections of camp from one another, blocking people from commerce, from access to the U.N. compound, and even from medical care for up to a couple of days. In November of 2011, three people died trying to cross the surging river, and many more lost their homes as the shanties were carried southward, eventually to become silt and rubble in the lager basin many kilometers away.
When it rains, Kakuma, built as a safe haven for the world’s most vulnerable, becomes its own disaster zone.
“You don’t have to see rain here for the water to come,” explains my translator Elias later as we sit in the dark of his shop. When it rains in the high plateaus of neighboring Uganda, the water speeds wildly down toward and through the flats until it can’t go any farther—ripping through Kakuma and filling the lagers with water, thick and unstoppable.
Elias and I go down to visit the lager that splits Kakuma camp’s sections I and II. The place is wide and empty, a flattened dune of sand that tongues for miles in all directions. South of us, children kick a homemade ball through the sand. The eastern bank of Kakuma I is newly cut by the floods. Elias points out the houses—some torn from below, a result of the recent floods, and others abandoned by their owners in fear they’d be next. Those who escaped the floods took the metal corrugated roofs of their houses with them, leaving behind dissolved mud bricks.
Later, we weave through thin alleys between Kakuma houses, ducking beneath doorways hewn from U.N. ration tins brandishing “U.S.A.” In the dappled shade of strung-up cloth, I meet Sinina, a Somali woman who, in the August floods, escaped her house before it was torn from under her. Around midnight, she and her six children had awakened to the heavy sound of water. The lager-side room, where they kept their cooking things, collapsed. As she tells her story, she’s seated on a blue and green mat of woven grass, head covered, feet outstretched in front of her. She doesn’t look at me, or anyone, when she talks, focusing instead on a pile of marbles she shifts across the mat. Her girl and boy—ages three and four—sit dutifully beside her, picking up a marble every now and then to admire and drop back into Sinina’s palm. “I was told to stay here for a period of time—I’m just waiting to hear where my new place will be.” The flood was in August, our meeting in mid-December. The night of the flood, Sinina became a refugee twice over, having escaped rampant drought and political conflict—much of it spurned by food and water scarcity—in her native Somalia.
What does she think is the cause of all this flooding? I ask. Like Admassu, she says, “I can’t know why. It comes from the side of God.”
Kakuma’s airstrip, just a carved-out rut in the ground, is short. In December, just before the holidays, half the camp staff is booked on the same Friday flight I am. The plane can only take off with so much weight so my name is added to the list for a convoy headed west to Lokichoggio, where we’ll meet the plane on its way to refuel and board there.
Tony, our driver, gathers up the manifest. “Picking up escort, six passengers to Loki,” he radios in. “Do you copy?” The Kenyan Police vehicle swerves in behind us. “Highway banditry,” my seatmate explains. “It is mandatory to use an escort.”
Lokichoggio, our destination, is a frontier town on the border of Kenya and the approximately 4,000 square miles of no man’s land in the Kenya-Sudan disputed territory. Less than 30 miles southwest is the border with Uganda, source of the Kakuma floods. The former U.N. headquarters of the area, Loki, is now a washed-up town. “It used to be a good place,” says my seatmate as we hit the road, “But now, eh!”
We drive through the dry Turkana landscape. “In America, can you drive for this long without seeing any houses?” asks John, another passenger. Everyone in the car is Kenyan except me.
“Some places,” I reply. Montana comes to mind, that long stretch of I-90 through the hills. But before I can say that, John offers, “Like Texas?”
And in fact, the landscape is in a way just like Texas—I remember driving through the southeastern bulge of the state years ago, approaching the Guadalupe Mountains. That dry, wheat-colored soil, the sprites of green thorngrass and shrub from the scant but recent rain, the now-empty lagers of sand, the Guadalupes looming large in the backdrop just like Mogila Mountain in front of me now, marking the edge of Kenya’s firm territory. Just like in Texas, the stories of both rainfall and migration loom large.
“Yes,” I reply. “Like parts of Texas. Only, in America, there’d be more cars.” So far we’ve passed no one save the occasional Turkana herder, clad in a blue cloth, with his brood of thirsty animals.
Almost to the airport, which feels like being almost to the dead center of nowhere, Tony cranks up the music as a kind of farewell to us. He’ll be making the trip back alone. Dolly Parton, singing “Let’s Tie Our Love in A Double Knot,” twangs her way through the speakers.
Everybody sings and dances along to Dolly in their seats, both mocking and enjoying the music. “When it rains in Uganda, it brings hell to us,” a family in Kakuma had once told me. Emissions from the cars we drive in Texas and California dry the fields in Ethiopia and flood the sandy Kakuma towns. The invisible carbon pumped into the atmosphere forces people to move—more and more and more, all the borders and bridges and fences and lawns and the millions of people that sneak through or don’t.
Tony stops the car, and we, because we are able, board the plane, passports in hand, to leave that windswept desert land behind us.
Note: Because of the repression in Ethiopia that forced him to flee to Kenya, my interpreter requested that his name be changed for his own protection.
Lauren Markham is a Bay Area fiction writer and journalist. With an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous outlets including This American Life, Orion Magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Earth Island Journal and High Country News. Lauren was a recent Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism, which funded the reporting of this piece. In addition to writing, Lauren works with immigrant communities in Oakland, California.