Of hawks and chicken and refugees

We filled up at the gas station with no gas, which happened to have gas that day. We were all shocked. It was lucky too because Victor was about to run out.

On Thursday we went to a UNHCR (UN high commissioner for refugees)-sponsored event. The intent of the event was to expose the Kenyan public (who are often suspicious and ill-informed about refugees) to the stories and cultures of the refugees. However, this intent was thwarted by poor planning. FilmAid received its invitation to host a tent literally one day before the event. I did not see one Kenyan who appeared to be unaffiliated with refugee activities.

But the power and internet were out all day in the FilmAid office due to rationing (!!), so we stayed at the event. There was some incredible Ethiopian food that we took liberally from and several refugee aid organizations displaying pamphlets. A large stage held many important-looking people, a few of whom would from time to time stand up and give important-sounding speeches about how much better things were than last year. The VIPs then departed to eat snacks and some really awesome entertainment came on, with regional dances and performances from different tribes.

We were with Kate, a singer from the Kakuma camp who now works with FilmAid. In 2006 she fled Uganda for the camp; now, she is learning film and employed with FilmAid, recording an album in Nairobi, and flying to Geneva to work with a record producer. She struck me immediately with her overwhelmingly positive energy and drive to succeed – and even more so when I learned her story (watch her film of it here.) When I mentioned that her story wold be very helpful to her in her career, that people loved the narrative of a person coming from nothing to be successful, she balked. “I don’t talk about my life that way,” she said. “I don’t think about how my life has been hard, I always try to be optimistic.” And it showed – she’s made a choice to put her best foot forward and ignore despondency, which is remarkable. The video above has a short teaser of the song she recorded.

We also met Honey, another refugee from Kakuma who used to work with FilmAid and is now working with another organization. Seeing the light in her eyes when she talked about FilmAid told me in a way deeper than I had already known: this program is really giving people what it is they crave. I’m getting a greater appreciation for the extraordinary reach of something begun by one person, Caroline Baron, ten years ago. More on that later once I see it in the field.

Grace took some chicken and rice in a styrofoam plate to go, and as we were walking back to FilmAid, Wesley the messenger ran up to us to give Stella (the country director) a check to sign. Wesley was picking at Grace’s food when Stella turned around and saw a hawk – no joke here – swooping directly down 300 feet, aiming directly for Grace’s chicken. “Grace, watch out!” screamed Stella, and Grace had just enough time to look up, scream, and throw the chicken plate all over Wesley. The hawk swooped away in fear, and we sat bewildered for a moment wondering what had happened. When a chicken-soaked Wesley walked up to Stella asking her to sign the chicken-soaked check, we finally burst into uncontrollable laughter. For the next few days anything Grace was eating became immediately hilarious.

Most of my meetings have been related to equipment and workflow – how do we get the best quality footage, how do we best set up an edit suite, how do we streamline our processes, etc. I’ve been getting a much better sense of the way the camps run, which is useful in my preparation to head out there.

So what began as a blurry, sub-caffeinated picture has come further into focus, and I have the first glimpses of a country beyond its stark exterior. The trend of the country is definitely upward – while the election around a constitutional referendum two months ago was marred by violence and death, it was nothing like the brutal 2007 election. While policemen routinely asks for bribes and the streets are not always safe to walk in, you will no longer disappear for saying bad things about the government and safety is getting better. Education and will to work is high, and my (extremely limited) sense from conversations I have had is that the country needs stability most: an environment for business and foreign investment to thrive.

Unless I’m in Victor’s house, I am never out of sight of a FilmAid staff. I miss the independence of being able to walk wherever I please and buy anything within ten minutes of needing it. I’m definitely in withdrawal from the drug of New York City. This weekend should be exciting, though: we will go out in Nairobi (possibly even for Halloween!) and Antipas will take me around the city (possibly even to the nature preserve nearby!) Stay tuned…

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