One mouth too many

Post Date: Jul 5th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

By Sara Corbett for the New York Times, 1 July 2011

One day each month in Eastleigh, a run-down suburb of Nairobi with dirt roads and rivering sewers, a young Kenyan woman named Dorothy Gakii starts calling out numbers. “Numbaa one!” she shouts, using slow and deliberate English. “Numbaa two!” Gathered before her on long wooden benches in a church meeting hall are several dozen refugees holding scraps of paper that mark their place in line. They are waiting for food — for the sacks of dried beans and rice and maize flour piled against one wall. For the seriously malnourished, there is a nutritional porridge mix labeled, “Pure Wimbi.”

Seven, eight, nine. Gakii calls numbers, and they approach. She has 74 families on her list today. The Congolese sit together by the windows. The Somalis have clustered on the left. The Ethiopians mostly occupy the middle. The women wear floor-length abayas and frayed sandals. Sometimes they hold out their arms and show scars from their hometown wars, telling stories about roving militias and lost children. “What we hear about a lot,” Gakii says, “is rape. Mothers raped in front of their daughters, daughters in front of their mothers. . . .” Her voice trails off. You might think the hungriest of refugees would be found in the United Nations-run camps in Kenya’s dustier north. But mirroring a more global phenomenon, they are increasingly turning up in urban areas like Nairobi, figuring both rightly and wrongly that the city holds more promise.

A worker brings food to refugees in the suburb of Nairobi known as Little Mogadishu.
A worker brings food to refugees in the suburb of Nairobi known as Little Mogadishu.

More than 1,000 refugees arrive in Nairobi each month, often via the brightly painted minibuses that lumber through Eastleigh’s cratered streets. Some are readily absorbed into the city, but many aren’t. Refugees can’t work legally in Kenya. The best-case opportunity is usually an informal arrangement washing dishes in a back-alley restaurant or selling spears of pineapple from a blanket spread over the rainy-season mud. Gakii works for an organization called RefugePoint, which gives supplemental food to about 800 of these people monthly. Each family is prescreened by a staff social worker and allotted supplies based on size and comparative need. After six months to a year, they are dropped from the roll. The waiting list is too long to do otherwise. “This is the hardest part,” Gakii says. “At some point, you have to tell them they can’t come back.”

This is her second job after college. She reminds herself of its small rewards. There’s the grandfatherly man with the hennaed beard who clasps her hand when she finds his name on her list and the babies who come slung in cotton on their mothers’ backs, looking a smidge healthier than they did a month ago. By the time she reaches No. 60, she feels a headache brewing. Moments later, a familiar woman wearing a purple head scarf and holding an empty grain sack gives her name — Chaltu Amin Ahmed. Gakii flips through the pages of her list, lips pursed. “You’re not on here anymore,” she says, first in English, then calling for a Somali-speaker to translate. “We told you last time not to come back.” “Why?” the woman asks.

Gakii is silent. It daunts her to consider the situation’s basic math, the impossibility of matching her supplies to their numbers. Sometimes in the evenings, she goes home to her apartment in a quieter, leafier part of the city, hugs her 2-year-old daughter and businessman husband and then asks, for a while, to be left alone. “We don’t have a way to help,” she says finally, firmly, before waving the next person forward. A standoff begins. Ahmed deposits herself on a nearby bench, resting a cheek in one hand. Gakii busily loads beans and dry milk into more sacks, then calls those who have yet to show up. (“Hello? We are giving out food at the center. In fact, we are waiting for you.”) At one point, she leaves a co-worker in charge and drives food to clients who are too sick to walk. She hauls a 70-pound sack up two flights of unlighted stairs and delivers it to a pair of H.I.V.-positive mothers living with a passel of skinny children. She returns two hours later, sweating, her working-woman pumps crusted with street slop. Her colleagues have gathered the leftover food and piled it next to the door and are waiting to leave. The hall is empty but for Ahmed, who, spotting her, stands up.

Neither woman speaks as Ahmed proffers her empty sack and Gakii quickly fills it. There is no palpable relief, no bubbling, desperate gratitude. The transaction is awkward and fast. When it’s over, both women appear spent. Was this an exercise in power or helplessness? Who can say? Ahmed utters a few soft words in Kiswahili, Gakii’s native language — something about her child at home, along with an earnest promise never to come back.Then she moves to the door and drags it all away.