In vast Kenya camp, refugee journalists on coronavirus front line

KANERE is on a mission to raise awareness about pandemic in Kakuma, one of world’s largest camps for displaced people.

A van drives through the Kakuma refugee camps, broadcasting multilingual messages about the coronavirus (credit: Capital Juba studios)
A vehicle drives through Kakuma, broadcasting multilingual messages about the coronavirus [Credit: Capital Juba studios]

For more than a decade, KANERE, the world’s first fully independent refugee camp news outlet, has defied funding shortages and other challenges to publish investigations and reports about life in Kenya’s remote Kakuma camp.

Now, with the vast settlement registering its first COVID-19 case, the publication arguably faces its biggest challenge yet.

“KANERE’s work is more important than ever,” Tolossa Asrat, managing editor at KANERE, told Al Jazeera via WhatsApp.

“Journalists are always on the front line next to health professionals in providing clear information to society to combat the pandemic, [and] KANERE is the only media which can provide information about the COVID-19 situation on the ground.”

Asrat’s team of refugee journalists is on a mission to keep residents informed about the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic amid increasing concerns that a potential outbreak could devastate the camp’s vulnerable population.

Accommodation for the nearly 200,000 people living in Kakuma, one of the world’s largest camps for displaced people, is typically squalid and cramped. Water is limited to public pumps, meaning physical distancing and good hygiene – the cornerstones of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) coronavirus guidelines – are near impossible.

For more than two months now, KANERE’s 10 reporters and editors have been working long hours to provide news and updates about new restrictions and hygiene advice, posting information on social media as well as printing copies and attaching them to notice boards around the camp.

A picture of the KANERE team from 2016 (credit: Qabaata Boru)
The KANERE team in 2016. The current team is working to inform people about new restrictions and hygiene advice [Credit: Qabaata Boru]

This week, a man in his early 30s tested positive for the novel coronavirus after being placed at a quarantine facility at Kakuma upon his return from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, despite a decision by Kenya’s interior ministry to prohibit all exit and entry to the camp in late April. The patient has since been moved to an isolation centre while the test results of people who had come in contact with him came back negative.

“In this case, he was found in a quarantine facility, meaning that hopefully there is no local transmission,” Eujin Byun, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told Al Jazeera.

Still, the first appearance of COVID-19 in Kakuma serves as an uneasy reminder for camp authorities and residents of the need to remain on high alert.

Two cases have already been recorded in Dadaab, another major refugee camp on the Somali border whose residents also face movement curbs as part of strict measures imposed by the government to slow the spread of the pandemic.

To date, Kenya has registered 1,286 confirmed coronavirus cases and 52 related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

‘We’re able to build trust’

Though Kakuma has so far avoided an outbreak, the travel restrictions and a night-time curfew have upended daily life in the camp.


The UNHCR, which runs the camp, has adapted by limiting contact between aid workers and residents, distributing food monthly rather than every second week, and promoting the WHO’s WhatsApp information service.

But KANERE, short for Kakuma News Reflector, offers another perspective, sometimes corrective, to the camp’s officialdom – like when it recently highlighted the insufficient physical distancing precautions taken at food distribution centres.

Launched in 2008, the publication’s staff are drawn from across the camp’s diverse population, among whom its voice carries weight that aid organisations do not always enjoy.

“We are the first people in contact with the community, and we have a very good collaboration with the community leaders. Through this, we’re able to build trust,” said founding editor Qaabata Boru, who now lives in Vancouver, Canada, but continues to edit the paper remotely.

“People have acceptance from KANERE, as opposed to some other organisations flying to Kakuma or those driving around.”

In recent weeks, the news outlet’s coverage has included speaking to restaurant owners whose premises have been shuttered and shopkeepers who can no longer order stock from outside the camps, as well as students struggling to study for exams while schools are closed.

Its journalists have also kept track of various rumours circulating in the camp in a bid to counter the flow of misinformation about the virus, including claims that it can be cured by drinking tea or that it only affects white people or Christians. Having debunked these, their coverage urges readers to heed the advice provided by the UNHCR and the WHO.

Like their colleagues across the world, KANERE’s staff have had to find new ways to report during the pandemic, as curfews and physical distancing make it more difficult to conduct face-to-face interviews. Most are now done by WhatsApp, a tricky task given the poor network coverage in the camp.

Another persistent challenge is a lack of funding. KANERE has in the past declined funding from the UN that would jeopardise its editorial independence, so the publication relies on contributions from its own staff and occasional donations of cash and equipment from abroad to stay afloat.

However, a recent grant from a German NGO has allowed KANERE to expand its coronavirus coverage to broadcast in collaboration with a local radio station. Under the initiative, a white jeep now roves through the camp’s dirt thoroughfares, a generator and loudspeakers strapped to its roof, playing recorded messages in several languages that urge residents to maintain good hygiene and physical distancing.

Asrat and Boru understand the urgency of reaching as wide an audience as possible due to the already overstretched health infrastructure in the camp.

Kakuma is serviced by just one hospital, whose five doctors can see up to 100 patients, many of whom have underlying health conditions, in the course of a regular day. Oxygen supplies, crucial for pneumonia patients, are low, and there are no intensive care beds or ventilators, the nearest of which are over 100km (62 miles) away by road.

“We have 16 isolation units, which is really little [since] Kakuma refugees is a crowded place,” said Titus Ruto, health manager for the International Rescue Committee, which runs the hospital.

A series of cholera outbreaks, most recently in March, show just how quickly disease can spread through the camp, Ruto added.

“God forbid if that infection comes. It will be able to spread at a very high rate, and we may not be able to handle the cases.”

Source: Al Jazeera