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My meeting with a community leader

This week, I had my first encounter with a hostile community leader in Hagadera camp, Dadaab, the collective name for the 3 refugee camps in North East Kenya which has a population of about 90,000 people. The block leader threw us out of her area of jurisdiction despite the fact that we had informed all the leaders of the areas we would cover. A “block” is a division in the camp. About 8 blocks make up a Section. There are 13 Sections that make up Hagadera camp.

For the four months that I have worked in Dadaab refugee camp, I had never experienced direct hostility from a community leader. However, when we ventured out for day 2 of a health campaign, my colleagues and I did for the first time.

The saga has its roots in mid February 2009 when there was a cholera outbreak in Dadaab refugee camp. Luckily, there were no fatalities that I know of.

Save the Children was involved in daily interagency meetings to tackle the problem and offered a tent to the IRC-run hospital for the response.

CARE, which is handling water and sanitation, took the lead in implementing health education. Save the Children also integrated hygiene and health education into all our activities like children’s club meetings, foster parents associations and other community structures we are working with.

One month on, cholera has died out but the threat is still very real. Due to the terrain of Hagadera camp, latrines cannot be dug very deep, because there is hard rock just a few feet under. Therefore, latrines often fill up very quickly. Moreover, not every household has one. Sometimes, more than five families share one.

Furthermore, for much of last year, with the intermittent fighting in Somalia, there was an influx of new refugees. The original population, the thousands of new arrivals (about 5000 per month), and the silent population (thousands of livestock, especially goats and camels of the nomadic host and refugee community) have overstretched the water supply because the boreholes and funding haven’t increased but the population has.

Therefore, some refugees see washing hands before eating food or after visiting the latrine as a waste of the little water available. The water shortages coupled with latrine shortages means that cholera is a time bomb waiting to explode again. Children are especially at risk. We scheduled a week-long campaign targeting particular blocks of refugees whom we deemed ‘high risk’ due to the general poor sanitation in their blocks.

However, last week something came up rather abruptly – and we rescheduled the health campaign to this week.

On day one, I had an appointment to follow-up a child-headed household as well as represent Save the Children at a conference. Therefore, I missed out on day one of the health campaign.

Day two came and I was enthusiastic. I’d never done this type of awareness raising before. We got into the car and carried along the megaphone and some leaflets with bullet points on simple primary health care tips.

As we drove to the far-off blocks, one of my colleagues who spoke Somali coached me on the what to say.  “Ogesis! Ogesis!” That means “awareness”. One just has to say that over and over again and people would know there is an awareness campaign.

When we reached the first stop, I got out of the double cabin car, got the megaphone and tried out that new word. The locals laughed at my accent and were impressed that I was trying.

However, the fun didn’t last long. As community members, especially children gathered, the block leader, an elderly lady who seemed very furious, arrived. I hardly understand Kisomali but from the tone of her voice, her violent actions and the melodrama surrounding her expressions, I knew she was quarrelling. I could hear “Save the Children” every now and then.

The community workers were reluctant to interpret what she was saying despite the fact that I was dying to know. At one point, I thought she was going to literally throw us out. The crowd was gathering and I started getting nervous and asked myself what if she wasn’t the only one who didn’t like Save the Children.

She said she wouldn’t have us do anything in her block because Save the Children did not give her non-food items. After attempts to negotiate with her proved futile, we decided to leave the block, and felt it was a shame that her block members would miss out on the information we wanted to pass on.

In Dadaab, Save the Children strictly carries out child protection work. Unfortunately, it is an invisible intervention and many people do not appreciate our work. The confidentiality that surrounds some cases we deal with makes us more ‘invisible’.

We have a small stock of non-food items, but they are strictly given out to children at risk and not to every community member or leader who wants a mat, a school uniform, education kit or a tarpaulin.

In the end, the health campaign continued well. We walked through several blocks spreading the hygiene messages, as well as listening to the community. In the end, many community leaders in the “blocks” warmly welcomed us, which made my day!

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