One fateful morning we awoke to the sound of gunfire outside our flat. My father looked out of the window to see a sea of people being hoarded off. There were soldiers everywhere with big guns who were yelling at everyone in Swahili, one of my national languages: “Get out of you flats right now!
My father looked at us with despondent eyes — he realized how much trouble we were in. He said hurriedly, “Okay guys pick up a few things and lets go. Stick together all of you.” We left our flat and were taken to a roundabout station along with many others where we were all accused of something incredible. A well-decorated soldier stood robustly at a podium where he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Last night two of my soldiers were killed on this village. I am here to find out who did it. We are going to have a firing squad until someone comes forward with this information.”
Immediately there was an audible gash of disbelief from the crowd. First of all, there was a curfew in the village. No one was allowed out on the streets after 6 p.m. Secondly, why would you victimize the whole village when there are processes of investigation in policing a State? So there we were before a “kangaroo court” because of these buffoons who didn’t know how to govern and always resorted to torture and killing.
Within no time, they rounded off four people who were brought to the front. Next, we heard loud gunshots. Yes, they had been killed on the spot. Quickly another four were rounded up, and people at this point were in total mayhem. Neighbors were pit against each other. The women and children cried. It was horrible. The second group of four was summarily shot to death. Before another group was picked, a young man offered himself as the killer in question. He was brought to the front of the room where there was a short interrogation and yet another gunshot. He was dead. What become evident to all of us at that point was that this young man was actually a visitor to the village and had just sacrificed his life to stop the killing. I will never forget this experience because how many of us a willing to sacrifice our lives for anything in protection of the common good? Well he did and after that we were informed of our freedom and warned to never kill any soldier.
After this experience and many more, my mother had a big discussion with my father about becoming refugees in Kenya where every Ugandan at the time fled. After we were attacked a second time, my mother, like a true mummy grisly bear, picked up my sisters and me and left for Kenya.
What started off, as a wonderful, normal life was now the life of refugees with no home country to speak off, a new language to learn, new friends to make, and a new culture to assimilate to. The fear that engulfed us was remarkable. Going to another land without knowing if you will ever see your homeland again is one of the most mind-numbing experiences.
What was shocking about being a refugee was realizing how many there were.
Did you know that there are 43.3 million refugees in the world, among whom 50 percent are women and over 10 percent are children? In Kenya, where I was a refugee, there are over 800,000 refugees, meaning one out of 30 people in Kenya is a refugee from a neighboring country. Why? Because of uncontrollable wars. War is one of the most devastating instruments against communities globally. And yes wars are very expensive for all of us globally, and more so for women.
For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the American Journal of Public Health published this month, the Guardian reports: “It found 1,152 women are raped every day — a rate equal to 48 per hour. That rate is 26 times more than the previous estimate of 16,000 rapes reported in one year by the United Nations.”
Apart from this horror that women have to endure, I also found that diseases, especially the easy ones to treat are a big deal within the refugee population. Among the poor refugees, sanitation and hygiene, which are hugely important for women and girls, become an anomaly. Small amenities like soap are inaccessible. Here in the U.S., a bar of soap is so cheap we barely think of its cost. For people who live on a dollar or less a day, it’s hard to take that and buy soap when you haven’t eaten yet. So again women who don’t make much and have no control of their resources, because men take those away from them, fall victim to diarrhea. In fact according to Rehydrate.org:
“2.2 million children will die from diarrhea and related diseases this year. 80% of them in the first two years of their life; 42,000 a week, 6,000 a day, four every minute, one every fourteen seconds.”
But as the era of questioning carried on in my mind, I made and important mental note as a young boy going though this horrific transformation. My father made soap and here I was with people that needed soap. Something could be done. I parked that away into the universe and hoped I could find a solution one day …