News by refugees, for refugees in Kenya

August 21, 2018
Qaabata Boru hugs a Kanere colleague. Photo by Ruairi Casey.

When I visited Kakuma, a large refugee camp in Kenya, in late 2016, it had been over six months since Kanere had published an issue—and nearly as long since rain had fallen on the camp’s cracked soil. Sitting in Franco’s, a tarpaulin-roofed Ethiopian restaurant so popular it has a second branch in Nairobi, Kanere’s assembled journalists told me they were busying themselves with day jobs as interpreters or teachers, reporting for the paper in their spare time. Across a small wooden table, one explained their latest story, about a recent car accident in which a small child had been killed.

Minutes later I followed Qaabata Boru, Kanere’s founding editor and a refugee himself, through the busy streets of Kakuma 1, the oldest and most vibrant sector of the camp, to meet the child’s family. We took a boda-boda, one of Kakuma’s ubiquitous motorbike taxis, to the edge of the camp to meet the parents of the young girl, who had been struck and killed instantly, reportedly by a jeep owned by an international NGO. The South Sudanese parents sat arranged on plastic chairs, their younger children rolling behind them as the father spoke, his voice sad but tinged with anger. He had filed a police report over a month ago, he said, but had not yet received a court hearing. A meeting with an official from the NGO which owned the vehicle and employed the driver left him “disgusted and intimidated,” he said, when they told him he had no right to approach the organization directly.

As night settled, the interview ended with thanks and handshakes. As we returned to the road through a narrow alley flanked by sharp thorn boundaries, Boru expressed his sympathies. He was familiar with the feeling that his voice was ignored because of his refugee status.

Kanere, which Boru began publishing in Kakuma in 2008, says its mission is to “create a more open society in refugee camps and to develop a platform for fair public debate on refugee affairs.” Primarily a source of news for camp residents, it also strives to be a beacon to the wider world, using refugees’ own words to reflect the reality of life in Kakuma. A number of academics, lawyers, and aid workers from around the world have also contributed to the project as writers.

Over 2.5 million people now reside in refugee camps worldwide. Once envisioned as temporary sanctuaries, the camps have become places where displaced people can spend their entire lives. There have been attempts to distribute power—through the election of refugee councils and rudimentary community courts, for example—but residents have minimal control over their lives. Kanere has tried to redress this imbalance for almost a decade, and has, at times, come into conflict with the same governments, agencies, and charities that run the camp.


Boru (center) and Kanere colleagues at Franco’s in Kakuma. Photo by Ruairi Casey.

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Boru was just 20 years old when his article about a violent police crackdown on protesters in Ethiopia led to his arrest. Rounded up with thousands of others during the disturbances that followed the country’s 2005 elections, he spent two weeks in jail in Addis Ababa. The second-year journalism student had ambitions of being a political reporter, but with repeated police threats to his safety and the ongoing persecution of his Oromo ethnic group, he weighed his options and fled his home country to seek asylum in neighboring Kenya.

Arriving in Nairobi in 2006, authorities instructed him to move to one of the country’s refugee camps so they could process his asylum case. Kakuma, in the country’s remote north, would become his home for the next 11 years, and is where he would establish Kanere, the world’s first independent refugee camp newspaper. Kakuma is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, a sprawling mass of ramshackle homes spread across the bare and arid expanse of Kenya’s Turkana County. It was established in 1992 to accommodate the so-called lost boys of Sudan, but has since grown to house 186,000 people. The majority have fled the ongoing civil war in South Sudan, but the camp now hosts people from over a dozen African countries.

When Boru arrived at Kakuma, he first picked up a job as a head teacher at a NGO-run school and began to adjust to a new routine. In queues for food and firewood, long-time residents of the camp told him stories about violent attacks in their communities, outbreaks of disease, and shortages of food and water.

“As a journalism student, I had a perception that there was no avenue to tell [refugee] stories or let the international community or any person know about what’s happening in Kakuma,” Boru tells CJR from Vancouver, where he was resettled last year.

“And the reality is, from my experience, people from outside Kakuma don’t know what’s really happening, including the Kenyans.”

Along with 17 other teachers and friends, some with prior experience as journalists, Boru established Kanere, short for Kakuma News Reflector. After two months of research and reporting, its first issue was published in December 2008. It appeared online and in print, with color copies pressed in Nairobi and transported over 450 miles to the camp.

Since its inception, Kanere has reported on issues as diverse as robberies, community elections, and alleged corruption among NGO staff and police. Coverage is often positive, highlighting improvements to infrastructure or educational achievements, but Kanere does not shy away from the camp’s darker realities.

When a spate of killings between the Dinka and Nuer groups from South Sudan in 2014 claimed 20 lives and displaced 3,000 from within the camp, Kanere reporters were at the scene to determine the cause of the violence. More recently, in February of this year Kanere reported that an Ethiopian political refugee in the camp had been gunned down by police; they claimed he had been stealing a solar panel. Witnesses and the man’s family said it was an extrajudicial killing, and that police warned them of repercussions if they pressed the case.

Resettlement, by which refugees can begin a new life in a host country like the US or Australia, is easily the most common topic of discussion within Kakuma. The “process,” as they call it, is a recurring feature in Kanere.

A few hundred copies are printed per issue and distributed in restaurants and food collection points, and stapled to noticeboards across the camp. But on its website and social media platforms Kanere is able to reach far beyond Kakuma. The site can receive up to 3,000 views per day when fresh stories are posted, drawing clicks and comments from other African refugee camps and people as far away as the US and Australia.

There has never been a consistent source of funding to support Kanere’s reporting. Volunteer journalists contribute their own money from jobs as teachers, interpreters or fixers for foreign media outlets, which sometimes donate towards the paper. Its stock of equipment is a handful of aging laptops, recorders, and cameras. Meetings are held in homes, schools, or restaurants for lack of an office.

But Kanere has retained its editorial independence, insisting that it will remain an uncensored expression of the refugee experience in Kakuma. This stance has not always sat well with other organizations within the camp, including the UN’s Refugee Agency, which runs the camp alongside the Kenyan government.

“UNHCR personnel were extremely upset that we were publishing articles about events in the camp that were available to an international audience without giving UNHCR the final say in what made it to the blog,” says US academic Bethany Ojalehto, who helped establish Kanere while conducting research in the camp. “Perhaps their goal was to ensure accuracy, but it felt more like censorship.”

Reputation is the currency of the NGO world, and refugee services in Kakuma, from education and healthcare to food provision, are supported by major international donors who need constant assurances their money is wisely spent. It’s unsurprising that NGO literature emphasizes narratives of success and resilience. The grittier reality found in the pages of Kanere, of recurring violence and mismanagement, could undermine the inspiring stories that keep cash flowing into the camp.

“The world always reads the good things of the aid agencies,” says Kanere’s current editor, Tolossa Asrat. “You or any outsiders, say donors, will not get real information how refugees are living in the refugee camp; how their aid is being used; and how those organisation are treating refugees. But the reality on the ground is different.”

One early story discussed the substantial pay disparity between refugee and Kenyan staff in the camp, of which Boru had personal experience. Refugee nurses, teachers, and translators employed by NGOs were often paid less than one-tenth of what Kenyan colleagues took home, though these positions remain much coveted given the near-total lack of jobs in Kakuma. Boru’s own job as head teacher earned him only $30 per month, a byproduct of Kenya’s tight laws on refugee employment. His employer, a major international NGO, took issue with the story and asked the UNHCR to intercede, beginning a protracted dispute that eventually led to his termination, he says.

In response to a request for financial and logistical assistance in 2009, the then-head of the agency’s Kakuma office said the paper had not proven “that its activities do add value to the refugee programme.” Kanere also sought to register as a community business organization, giving it formal legal status. A local government official initially signed the registration documents, but later told Boru that the UNHCR had raised objections and demanded their return, saying the application would not be approved until differences between the two parties were resolved.

In an editorial published by Kanere, Kenyan constitutional law expert Ekuru Aukot said the government did not have grounds to impede its work. “I am therefore not satisfied that should refugees choose to exercise the right to a free press through Kanere or any other medium, anyone would be justified in inhibiting this right,” he concluded. Only in 2012 would Kanere be registered as a national NGO, allowing it to operate in up to five counties.

In a series of fractious meetings between 2011 and 2012, the agency offered to support Kanere if it was granted editorial oversight, or if the paper would take down its website and exist in print form only; both offers were rejected, with a majority of Kanere volunteers determined to remain fully independent and online, even as the paper struggled financially.

UNHCR Kenya spokesperson Yvonne Ndege said she was not aware of any such proposals, but says the “UNHCR supports press freedom, and absolutely supports refugee media and publications.”

As of this year, the UNHCR has no formal relationship with Kanere, though it features other refugee organizations on its website. The current UNHCR head of sub-office, Tayyar Sukru Cansizoglu, has not met with any Kanere journalists since his appointment in June last year, but suggests a more cordial relationship is possible.

“Today with social media, with Twitter, I believe there is no information that we can say we control or we channel,” he tells CJR. “I don’t see any difference between the US or Kakuma, or anywhere else in the world. People need to report what they think.”

Cansizoglu says he has been discussing ways for refugees to contribute to the UNHCR website, which posts occasional news articles, all penned by staff members, about various initiatives and projects. Regarding independent media, he thinks it would not be appropriate for the UN to fund an outlet like Kanere directly, but it could participate in an incubator programme should it prove viable as a small business. “I will be the first one who comes as a customer,” he says.

At its peak, Kanere had 23 journalists from seven countries, including Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Uganda. There was even a correspondent in Dadaab, another camp in eastern Kenya. Back then, Kanere published several issues each year, but since the resettlement of several founding members to the US and Canada, it has struggled to maintain a consistent output. No issue was published in 2017 and only one has been published this year, in February, though social media posts remain more frequent.

Reporters without Borders has twice requested that the UNHCR guarantee the security of Kanere journalists and reassure camp residents that interacting with the paper will not jeopardize their chances of resettlement. One journalist claimed he was attacked by unknown assailants and his house later set on fire, while others say their refugee status has been threatened by government officials. It is not clear whether or not the UNHCR has acted on those requests. Ndege tells CJR, “we take such matters extremely seriously and do approach the security services over such allegations.”

In the meantime Kanere reporters have also had repeated difficulties with the local police, who manage security in the camp. Several have been detained for short periods or physically assaulted by officers, volunteers say. (Local police declined to speak with CJR.) “Harassment and abuse are common for Kanere staff,” says Asrat. Several journalists have stopped working due to threats or harassment, diminishing its ability to report. Only eight journalists currently work regularly with the paper.

And the paper has also suffered since Boru was resettled in Canada. Vancouver, Boru’s home since last July, has proven a welcome change in some respects, but he has struggled to find employment as a journalist, working instead at a restoration firm to make ends meet. He remains dedicated to the project he began almost a decade ago, still editing stories and offering assistance when he finds the time, as do other Kanere founders now in the US and Canada.

Kanere’s great challenge now is to continue past its first generation of writers and to uphold the conviction set out in its first editorial: “We press for the day when refugee rights are an entitlement rather than a gift. It is a long time coming and we are only one voice, but our vision burns.”

Ruairi Casey is a freelance journalist based in London. His work focuses on migration and human rights and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera English, VICE News, New Statesman, Irish Times, and elsewhere.