Kenya: Refugee helps local child reunite with family
27 January 2011

Kakuma refugee camp is located in the semi-arid desert of north-western Kenya. The local Turkanas are nomadic pastoralists and water is a rare commodity in the area. (Angela Hellmuth/JRS)
"I almost tiptoed through the camp because I felt anxious about being confronted with so many different people, languages and features."

Kakuma, 27 January 2011 – I fled Sudan in 1996 because of the war. I made my way to Kakuma refugee camp across the border in north-west Kenya and was registered as a refugee. 


For the first time in my life I lived among people coming from eight different nationalities and from various social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I almost tiptoed through the camp because I felt anxious about being confronted with so many different people, languages and features. ‘How am I going to live in peace with all these strangers,” I asked myself. ‘Which language should I use to talk to them?’ 


As time went on I discovered ways of interacting and communicating with them. I also realised that there were many other Sudanese in the camp with backgrounds similar to mine and my fear disappeared. 


In February 2010 one of my neighbours brought a young, maybe 11-year-old boy to my house. The boy seemed abandoned and confused. I asked him where he came from, but he did not respond for half an hour. Then I tried to talk to him in the local Turkana language. He replied, so he belonged to the local Turkana tribe and was Kenyan. His name was Lopiding. 


In search of food and water


After I had found a woman who helped us translate we found out that Lopiding and his uncle had walked for more than seven days from the Ugandan border to Kakuma. They were searching for food and water for their flock of goats. All they had eaten during the journey were leaves from the bushes and Lopiding had been forced to drink his urine several times. His uncle had beaten him on several occasions and there was nobody to protect him. His father had died in a river.


I took the boy home and asked my wife to prepare some food. I told Lopiding to take a bath and feel at home. We bought some clothes for him and shaved off his matted hair.   


I then reported the case to the camp security and the child protection unit, who told me to host the boy while they are looking for his relatives. During the following weeks they didn’t find anyone. I started searching as well. I consulted colleagues, I looked around the camp and I considered the experience of my own flight. 


Being a community leader and a trainer I finally asked myself why I can’t take care of this boy. After all he was a human being like me. So he stayed with me and my family for eight months. He even learned to say some words in my native language, Didinga. 


I found out later, that Lopiding’s relatives assumed he had died and they tried to forget his existence by not mentioning his name anymore. 


Found at last


In October 2010 a man from the Turkana tribe approached the primary school, which Lopiding had started attending. The man was only covered with the traditional Turkana “ashuka”, a piece of cloth which is wrapped around the hips. 


Coincidentally he heard the children asking the teacher for Lopiding. The man immediately approached the teacher, demanding to see that boy. The teacher hesitated, pointing out that Lopiding was a refugee but the man insisted. 


Directed by a pupil, the man finally came to my house. Lopiding was feeling unwell that day.  When he saw the visitor, he got scared and locked himself in the house. The man introduced himself as Lopiding’s uncle. He left on the same day and went back to his home village at the border to tell the boy’s mother that he had been found in Kakuma. His mother was so happy about the good news that she came all the way to Kakuma to see her son.


In the meantime I had encouraged Lopiding to join his real family. At first he insisted that he had found a new father and mother in me and my wife and that there would be no food, no clothes and no education in his village. But finally he left my house with his mother and his uncle at the end of October 2010. I do not know where they have gone.