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Resources for ages 15-18 in Language & Literature

Teaching Tools, 13 March 2007

Misganaw Worknehe

All tomorrows are the same

from Tilting Cages: An Anthology of Refugee Writings. Edited by Naomi Flutter and Carl Solomon. Sydney, 1995

Kakuma is found in Turkana district which is situated in the north-western part of Kenya, bordering Ethiopia, Uganda and the Sudan. The area where the refugee camp is located is dry, dusty and sunny. Sometimes you feel the heat as if the sun is only kilometers away. The air is full of dust particles.

At the far end of the refugee camp stands a lone plastic make-shift hut, as if it has no care for what exists in the world. The owner is also lonely; he lives by himself in an alien land. The shabby shelter is neither a house nor a pen. But it partially protects its owner from the sun and the big grains of sand and it is the only worldly thing which related Mesfin with property. He says "It is my house", but deep inside he knows that he does not deserve it.

When Mesfin feels the stress from the combined forces of loneliness, lack of love and hunger he usually loiters in the forest. Moreover, when there is a shortage of firewood, which is more often than not, he walks for about twenty kilometers to fetch twigs. The wood is essential to provide the energy required to boil the beans which are hard to cook. The firewood rationed is hardly enough to make a day's meals, so fetching wood is one of Mesfin's main activities. Buying charcoal is out of the question since money is hard to come across; collecting from around the camp is illegal and it would invite confrontation with the uncompromising local Turkana people. But having a piece of wood is the difference between eating and going without food. So, to cook and eat a decent meal, he has to rise with the sun and go in search of firewood.

Once he almost lost his life because of a bundle of firewood. Shame. On this occasion he walked very far from the camp. He collected fallen trees and branches, tied the pieces together with the rope he had carried with him and started his journey back to the camp. He braved the scorching sun from above and the burning heat of the sand under his feet. He took strength from the hope that he would reach home safely with his bundle, to cook and to eat his fill.

After traveling much of the distance back to the camp, sweating and panting under the load of the bundle, the unexpected happened. Unfortunately he met an aggressive local Turkana armed with knives and arrows and was asked to throw the bundle he was carrying down. Poor chap! He tried to reason with the Turkana forgetting that neither of them could understand the other. He tried to win his heart by showing submissiveness and bowing repeatedly, but in vain. He even tried to cry to evoke sympathy, but to no avail. The local was determined and uncompromising. He threatened Mesfin with his armaments and indicated the place where Mesfin should place the bundle of wood. Finally, when Mesfin understood his position and when he knew that he was beaten, he abandoned the bundle and restarted the interrupted journey back home. He doesn't know how he covered the remaining distance, since he finished it moving as a corpse, cursing the star under which he had been born.

Back at home he lay on his mat. He forgot that he had eaten nothing the whole day and that his stomach was empty. He crouched with his head and knees together as a hungry dog and cried for peace. He wondered if it was proper to cry at the age of 40 or so, but it was the only way to keep his sanity; all he could do to keep himself from self-destruction.

When he sits and ponders what he is doing with his life or what is being done to him, Mesfin always ends up confused. He first fled his home country to the Sudan when the Marxist junta which had stood for the down-trodden won state power and started to eliminate the so-called reactionaries. He returned to Ethiopia when President Mengistu took his turn to flee the country and to join the refugees in Harare, and when the new Ethiopian Transitional Government came to power. He returned and stayed in the country long enough to see how fast Ethiopians were going "from the frying pan into the fire". Then he took off again, this time to Kenya. Born to run away as a rabbit at the first sight of a problem, he thought to himself silently.

He learned nothing from his running, but his long life as a refugee taught him tolerance. He knows that tolerance is the rule of the game and it is the way to sanity. That is why he is still alive. He remembered how many of his friends perished and how many went mad and disappeared into the desert, left to unknown fates. Once while wandering around somewhere, he had found an identity card, an Ethiopian one, near a partially decomposed body. He tried to see the face of the deceased but his legs failed him. He fell to the ground and vomited. When he had composed himself, he ran to the camp and hid in his hut for days.

He hated remembering, sitting on his mat, counting the days that he had lived in the refugee camp, enduring the unendurable. But here he was, sitting and remembering.

He tolerated the police who behave as if they own the world, and demand so much when they see a refugee. He tolerated the workers of the humanitarian organisations who think that they know the needs of the refugees. And he also tolerated the hunger, the thirst, the cold and the sun which are intolerable.

As he sat, he prayed for his deliverance. But he knows God is unfair in his treatment of individuals. The illogical God allows some creatures to wither away in a hot desert, in an alien land, while others are leading luxurious lives. Today, he doubts fairness.

Finally, he was tired and went to sleep, to wait for another tomorrow. In a refugee's life, all tomorrows are the same. No story to tell, no history to write and no future to plan. Tomorrow is just another miserable day.