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Movement restrictions, False Hopes, And Language Barriers Facing Youths in Kakuma Refugee Camp

It is never easy leaving the home you know. Civil and political unrest has seen many Africans flee from their countries to an unfamiliar place within the continent. They move into countries with different environments, strange laws, and new cultures. Young people, especially children, find it difficult to adjust in the first few months as they have been suddenly uprooted from what is familiar into something entirely out of routine.

Pathway in Kakuma refugee camp
A pathway in the midst of homesteads within Kakuma Refugee Camp which was established in 1991.

A New Life and No Home

*Alice was born in 1997 as a healthy young baby girl into a family living in DRC. She grew up experiencing all the unforgettable adventures of childhood until she joined school and life got serious with a daily routine and strict timetables. At age 16, Alice, together with her family, was forced to flee from DRC due to civil unrest that posed a great danger to their wellbeing.

In 2014, Alice and her family relocated to Kenya and were settled in Kakuma Refugee Camp located in Turkana County after months of living on edge hoping to find a peaceful place to call home as they wait for stability in DRC.

A ‘mama’ among kids

French was the only language Alice was literate in. On the other hand, her Swahili was not good enough for a simple conversation. Secondly, she left her homeland having been at the Secondary level in terms of knowledge and intelligence. Lastly, her age may pose a problem if she was to enroll in the lower classes of the Kenyan education system, which mainly catered to children between ages 6 to 11.

Undeterred by the overwhelming worries and unfavorable circumstances, she chose to join grade 5 at a public school in Kakuma Refugee Camp after taking a basic pretest to determine her literacy level. It is here that her nightmare of learning Swahili and English as a 16-year-old in the midst of 6- to 11-year-olds started.

“It was tough. In my mind, I was like, "what is a 16-year-old mama doing in the midst of children?" I was even confused and ashamed when I realized these small children spoke better English and Swahili than me, a 16-year-old, who should be the one paving an example for them. The most embarrassing thing was getting punished before of my classmates when I made a mistake during class; a whole teenager being treated in a demeaning way in front of children was not sitting well with me. But what would I have done? I just endured it.”

Too Old for a Scholarship, Shattered Dreams

She faced the challenges head-on. Alice took the whispers of ridicule by the horns, turning them into motivation fuel that led her to achieve her goal of being fluent in English and Swahili; being better in Mathematics, and being the top performer in her classes, after 3 years.

Now in grade 8, Alice's view on promises was painted black.

“That year I was sitting for my K.C.P.E, a group of people came to my school. I remember being excited about the talk. They promised scholarships to the school’s top performers in the upcoming national examinations, and the chance to sponsor them into their dream schools. My dream was to attend a boarding school for my secondary education. I had a particular one in mind. So I studied hard and vowed to reach the qualification marks for the scholarship which I did once the results came out in December that year.

“I remember marching to their offices to get my scholarship when the person in charge explained that I was too old for it. Only those below 18 years were eligible and I was 20 at the time. I was shattered. They never mentioned age limits when they visited our school! I felt bad I was not going to my dream school and I was also disappointed in them for omitting that important detail when they came. At that moment, I was ready to give up.”

Hope from a caring stranger

Education age-limits, false promises and language barriers facing youths living in Kakuma Refugee Camp
Alice and Alex at her homestead in the camp

Alex is a community worker and a long-term employee of Resilience Action International. He’s a refugee is from Burundi and has lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp for over 7 years now. Alex has witnessed girls like Alice discontinue their education and opt for marriage due to inadequate or lack of funds, unplanned pregnancy, and lack of interest in learning.

“I met Alice when she first arrived at the camp. We were neighbors at that time, so I would regularly pass by their home to greet her family and see how they were coping with the new environment. I recall the day she expressed her interest in continuing her education from where she left. I was impressed that she didn’t opt for the normal but terrible choice of early marriage like the majority in her age bracket (13- to -19 years old). Out of my own choice, I decided to buy uniforms, books, and other school equipment for Alice so she can pursue education regardless of her family’s inability to support her ambition.”

“When she came to me disappointed about her failed scholarship, I could see she’d already given up because she kept on saying “what’s the point of working hard and ending up nowhere?” We talked for some hours and I managed to encourage her to not give up for, as you know, strong people are not built by easy life. Alice agreed and we began searching for a suitable secondary school in Kakuma to enroll her. At first, it was difficult because some principals were asking for unspecified charges to enroll her. Eventually, we found a day secondary school willing to admit her here in Kakuma without complications.” Alex still mentors Alice and keeps tabs on her progress in school.

Peer Pressure, Early marriage, and Teenage Mothers

“I wanted to fit in. I wanted friends. I didn’t want to hide in class when it was break time. So, I did what any other lonely girl would do, that is, find out what is popular among my peers. I was in Form 2 when I was introduced to the concept of relationship and sex through breaktime discussions with other girls at my school. Most of my friends had boyfriends and were engaging in sex, while others were planning to move in with their lovers and start a family without finishing school. I envied them because they seemed to have their life planned out to the last detail.

Education, Age-limits, false promises, and language barriers facing youths in Kakuma Refugee Camp
A jovial Alice now waiting for her KCSE exams in March 2022. This is her home in the camp.

“Once, I tried having a relationship so that I too can have stories to share at break time, and not look boring to the group. It didn’t last long. I found out that the relationship was time and energy-consuming. Also, I started to lose focus on my studies and my grades began failing. Plus, I didn’t want to get pregnant- it would be too much for me.

This forced me to rethink my choices and stop the relationship to focus on my education without distraction.

“Presently, some of the girls I schooled with have dropped out of school and are already married with children. One told me how she now has money and can do whatever she wants, dress however she desires, and buy anything she fancies without restrictions because her husband is a man of means. Others got children but are not married. They want to come back to school but they are afraid of being called names or being ridiculed by others. Now, they are just at home doing odd jobs.

“Despite marriage being an easy way out of this struggle, I chose not to take it. I want to be stable and independent before doing any of that; I also want to pursue higher education after my K.C.S.E.”

Renewed Courage to Face the Future

Alice is still hopeful for her future; notwithstanding the challenges she has overcome, and those that she continues to face as a 25-year-old in high school, and as a woman battling misogyny and traditions that impede women in Kakuma Refugee Camp.

“People are astonished to find that a 25-year-old like me is not yet married and having children. Others are even shocked I don’t have children. I made my choice to stick to what I want. That is, having and finishing my education. I have come too far to give up and in March this year, I am sitting for my K.C.S.E!

"Since the incident in primary, I still don’t trust scholarships right now and more so motivation speakers. I feel like motivation speakers don’t resonate with what I stand for or believe at this stage in my life. However, this doesn’t mean I won’t take a scholarship when offered by a legitimate institution that doesn’t have age limits or other hidden limitations. I will accept it and use it to further my education after K.C.S.E and fulfill my personal goals.


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DRC: Democratic Republic of Congo

• K.C.P.E: Kenya Certificate of Primary Education

• K.C.S.E: Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education

• NGO: Non-Profit Organization


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