7:45 am – A convoy of 4×4 UNHCR vehicles, escorted by a Kenyan police patrol car, leaves the safe haven of the office and residential compound for all international aid agencies. Our vehicle, piled high with Lifeline radio cartons and, with members of the UNHCR Community Services team, four Somali-speaking trainers from the local Pastoralist Journalist Network (PAJAN) and me, Lifeline Energy’s Project Manager, is part of this fleet moving towards the Ifo refugee camp on a desolate, red clay road.
Ifo, the first and the largest of the three camps comprising Dadaab – with a population of 100,000 people – is a six kilometre drive. The October rains have turned the flat-topped Acacia trees and scrubs in this semi-arid region of North Eastern Kenya lush green. The scenery is pretty, with the sun climbing into the clear blue sky in the background. Our drive along the bumpy track is made even more unpredictable as our vehicle surges through deep, flooded ruts at a speed of 80 kilometres per hour.
Splashing muddy water on the goat herds passing by and with our tyres immersed in slush for most of the rollercoaster-like journey, we arrive at Ifo. We are welcomed by CARE International and the National Council of the Churches of Kenya (NCCK) field staff. They introduce us to the Somali refugees who we are going to work with today – woman and adolescent girls, some of whom have been living in the camp since it was established in 1991.
We are here to distribute Lifeline radios and train the group in their use and care. The radios are to be used by women and girls in listening circles in their communities, to give them reliable access to news and other vital information. None of them have ready access to radio at home.
The first task is to further divide the group according to the languages spoken. Today we have Somali-speaking women, Ethiopian women from the western Gambella region who speak English, and a Swahili-speaking woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The PAJAN trainers conduct the training workshops, explaining the concepts in detail and testing the women as they go along. I observe for the most part, only jumping in when necessary.
The women sign the user agreements which commit to the radio’s good use and care and receive their radios. They are a little nervous in the beginning, but all their shyness goes away when they begin cranking the radios with full force. It is hard to tell the exact expressions on their faces, as most of them are completely veiled, but the chatter and laughter in the group expresses their delight.
The women and girls tell us that they are tired of relying on second-hand information, and are excited to feel in control of the news affecting their lives. They are eager to know the latest about the political situation in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Congo, as well as keep abreast of the developments in Kenya and the rest of the world. Health programmes on HIV/AIDS and other diseases, maternity care, and the importance of breastfeeding and agricultural features on farming and spraying livestock all form part of the list of broadcasts that they want to tune into.
After an interactive session of questions, answers, some one-on-one interviews and picture taking, we wave goodbye to the women and girls and set off. A quick pit stop for a lunch of cold drinks, Energy Plus biscuits and tinned pineapple under the shade of a neem tree, and we are on our way back to the UNHCR compound. The scorching sun, high in the sky, beats down relentlessly and a sauna-like afternoon heat envelops us.
When we first started working in Dadaab in 2007 there were 170,000 refugees. With the ongoing violence in Somalia, that number has swelled to 350,000 and the majority are women and children.