Life may have thrown many curveballs at Margaret Imoli from Kalobeyei Settlement in Turkana County. But it has also taught her resilience and made her tough and accountable for her age and circumstances.
At only 18 years of age, the dutiful teenager has done what most older people would scarcely do: taken care of her five siblings, splendidly and virtually single-handedly.
Imoli lives with her siblings at Kalobeyei Settlement for refugees in Turkana West Sub-County. The family of six came to Kenya in December 2016 when war broke out in South Sudan. Since they settled in Kenya, the six have not heard from their parents. They do not know where they are. Or whether they are still alive.
Chances are, Imoli admits with difficulty and obvious wretchedness, her parents could be among the tens of thousands of fatalities in the recent bloodbath.
As the head of her young family for two years now, Imoli has played the tripartite role of caregiver, provider and protector to her sisters and brothers, who are aged between eight and 15.
She juggles this with her studies at Kalobeyei Settlement Primary School where she is a candidate for this year’s Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE).
She narrates: “After our registration at the border in 2016, we were brought to the camp by UNHCR. I took over the role of heading our family when I was just 16. I have headed our family since.”
As Imoli says this, it is obvious from her babyish face that this millstone, so cruelly cast on her young shoulders, has taken a toll on her. But she also speaks, with striking confidence, of the manner and grit with which she has accepted and endured her hard fate.
A typical day for Imoli starts at 5am. She wakes up to prepare her siblings for school. She makes breakfast for them and cleans her youngest sister.
“While my siblings depart for school at 7am, I stay back to clean the house and put a meal on fire. It is upon finishing these tasks that I am able to prepare and leave for school myself,” she says.
Most of the refugee households living in Kalobeyei are acutely vulnerable and often rely almost entirely on the UNHCR and other donor agencies for their survival at the new camp. But for this teenager, dealing with the vagaries of camp life has been both a dicey affair and a brutal learning curve.
Granted, camp life knows no order or decency. Circumstances often push inhabitants into all manner of callous or immoral conduct to survive. It is a life of aggression and self-centredness and infinite hazards. For a teenage girl-headed family, it is a quicksand of frightful proportions.
General insecurity, burglaries and rape happen here with unrestrained abandon. For two long years, Imoli has had to stand in the way of peril to keep her sisters and brothers out of harm’s way.
While no major incident has happened to them so far, the young family lives in constant fear of attacks and threats from lewd camp dwellers.
“My younger sister and I are powerless. It scares us because there is little we could do in the event of a raid at our house. There are times when I wish I was a boy,” she says, her words capturing the vulnerability that hovers above her life as well as that of her siblings.
“When some families exhaust their supplies, they break into other people’s houses to steal food and other valuables,” explains Imoli, showing a mud-walled safe in the house that she had to construct to hide food and other valuables.
These break-ins, she says, are conducted during the day when they are all away at school. Thieves use razors and other sharp objects to tear their way through the tent.
She says: “Sometimes I leave a meal cooking on the fire only to find it gone when we return home from school. That way, I have to make another one. If there is nothing else in the house, we sleep hungry.”
The family has spent the night with the agony of empty stomachs on numerous occasions after their meal vanished in inexplicable circumstances. Such incidents are a matter of course in the hostile camp life, she says.
The camp hosts more than 30 households, and when burglary occurs, it is hard to identify the thief.
“Some families are lazy and careless with their food. They eat everything within a short time and start borrowing from the rest of us. Others start stealing to feed their families,” she laments.
Of the many lessons that Imoli has gathered, she could not be happier about being frugal. Her household is a beneficiary of the popular “Bamba Chakula”, a SIM-based system of aid by the UNHCR.
The aid comes in form of mobile money that households use to shop for food from stores within the settlement that accept this mode of exchange.
As a “size six” (family of six), Imoli’s family receives Sh8200 per month from UNHCR. This money, she says, has to be spent with absolute discreetness to last them until the next instalment.
“We do not have any other source of livelihood besides "Bamba Chakula". I have to budget well so that the money buys us enough food and other household items, clothes and shoes for the six of us. Should an emergency arise, this is the same money that has to cater for that,” she explains.
There are times though when, try as she might to penny-pinch, the money runs out before the end of the month. This spells out the anxiety of starvation. Other times, the provision is delayed by the donor, forcing the young woman to borrow food stuffs from the shops to pay later.
“I have had to identify a shop owner in the camp and built trust with them. This way, I am allowed to take food items on credit and pay later when the new subscription arrives,” she says, noting that being in a shop owner’s good books is priceless camp life survival strategy.
From their clean and well-tended compound in Village 26 of Kalobeyei Settlement, it requires no particular discerning power to notice the girl’s maturity. The beautifully plastered front foyer to their house, the only such facade in the whole village, is a masterpiece of inventiveness and evidence to her splendid sense of design.
When her siblings are taken ill, it is her responsibility to take them to hospitals within the camp. At school meetings, she assumes the role of the parent. Imoli is also the chief disciplinarian in her family.
“We normally handle minor cases of errant behaviour at home. When there are more serious cases involving disobedience, I involve the children’s office in the camp to counsel them,” she explains.
Thankfully, her siblings are not very mischievous, she says.
Her sister Agnes Idua though is a free spirit. Idua, 17, does not go to the same school with the rest. Instead, she attends the nearby Friends Primary School. She is in Standard Seven.
While the rest of the family are devout Catholics, Idua worships at Kalobeyei’s African Inland Church. At home, she does the bare minimum.
Idua is somewhat deviant, and does not pretend to be like her siblings. She speaks less, is unusually reserved, except for her intermittent grins, and stays clear of her family most of the times.
“We have learnt to accept her ways. She does not offend, only she chose to be different. We love her the way she is,” says Imoli.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
The head teacher of Kalobeyei Settlement Primary School Ms Lilian Cherotich says that her school does not accord any preferential treatment to teenagers who have parenting responsibilities, noting that there is a large number of such learners in her school.
“The school seeks to offer a level playing field for all our learners. We fully acknowledge their circumstances, but it is not easy to allow some pupils to bend school rules, on say, reporting time and doing their schoolwork, for any reason,” Ms Cherotich tells DN2.
“Most of our learners come from very vulnerable families. It is almost impractical, therefore, to handle cases on an individual basis. We try to help the concerned families whenever we can,” she adds.
On any given day, Imoli usually has so much on her plate to deal with that, as she sits in class, her mind occasionally drifts away, worrying about her siblings.
Her happiness depends on her siblings’ well-being. When all is not well with any of them, she bears the burden just like any mother would. In her case, she is both the mother and the father of their household.
Despite all this, she has somehow managed to hold on. She goes to school without fail, and her performance is as satisfactory as that of her classmates’, better than that of most of her fellow pupils’ who have parents to mind them.
In the end of term exams in July, for instance, she scored an impressive 260 out of 500 marks, a remarkable feat considering the dizzying amount of domestic chores she has to plough through every day.
“I am targeting 300 marks in the KCPE. Hopefully this can earn me a scholarship to study in a boarding school away from the camp,” she says.
Joining a boarding school would be a big break for the teenager. But this is also a Catch-22 for her. Should she earn a scholarship to study in a boarding school, her sister Idua, who will be a candidate next year, will have to take over the care of the family, a scenario that she has misgivings about.
“I am not sure how the family would fare under her care,” she admits, adding: “But I don’t doubt her ability to take good care of them.”
Whereas Imoli would like her sister to study with less distractions and to do better in her national exams, she feels that as the eldest two children in their family, this responsibility has to be shared.
Life has not been without trials for this young woman, including snide remarks and offers of marriage from people who consider her quest for education meaningless.
“The men ridicule me saying that I am wasting my time because after all, I will be married soon. Some ask me to marry them so that they can provide for my siblings,” she says.
Imoli, though, has always rejected such proposals with resolute vehemence, owing to what she considers her most sacred mission: finding a better life for herself and her siblings.
“I cannot get married for whatever reason. I wish to pursue my education to the highest possible level and get a job so that I can support my siblings less strenuously. I have taken care of them for two years. I cannot afford to give up now,” she says.
Such is her desire. And should tranquillity return in South Sudan, she says, she hopes to take her family back to their country. Perhaps deliver them safely back to their parents — if they are still alive.