Kakuma Refugee Camp, a hot, dusty, sprawling settlement in northern Kenya, seems an unlikely place for the birth of a 12-member band that fuses traditional melodies from southern Sudan with beats common in music blaring on modern-day East African radio stations.
Cathy Majtenyi

Even more unlikely are the instruments that these musicians use. They are fashioned from cowhides, tree branches, the bottom part of a frying pan, and even bottle caps. Recently, the sounds combined from this motley ensemble had a small crowd of Nairobi youth whooping with delight when the band, visiting from Kakuma, played for them.

This is what we call adungu, bandleader Marial Mark Awuok points out. It consists of a rather large wooden box, covered with cowhide and having a hole in the middle. From the box on one side juts out a large, curved tree branch. Strings are wound around metal spikes that are drilled into the wood and are attached to the box. It is plucked, and looks and sounds like a harp.

And this is kochkoch, he says. It is a wooden bench onto which are attached three rows of bottle caps and small pieces of metal, strung together by a wire. Jutting out of the bench on both sides of the metal rows are two spikes that hold two flat, metal plates. Three drums sit in front of the bench. The musician hits the bottle caps, metal plates, and drums with sticks.

The rababa looks like a lyre. A metal plate is fused together with the bottom part of a frying pan. From this jut out two sticks that have a third stick attaching them at the top. Five plastic strings are strung from the top stick and are attached to the metal plate. This is also plucked.

Such is the resourcefulness and creativity of the Nazal Jazz Band of the New Sudan Youth Association in Kakuma Camp. Formed at the camp in 1992, the band and its four dancers perform for camp residents throughout the year and on festivals commemorating important days such as World AIDS Day and International Women's Day.

But the band is not strictly about entertainment. In Kakuma, life is very hard, explains band member Charles Chan Kondok, who is originally from Bahr el Ghazal, Sudan. Many of the camp's residents go for days without food and suffer from malnutrition and other conditions as they languish in the overcrowded, unsanitary, and sometimes violent camp.

Many camp residents have suicidal thoughts or even attempt suicide, he says. Some people might say, this is the end of our life. When we realized that these conditions are now facing so many people, [we] composed some songs of courage whereby we encourage them.

In particular, the band tries to target youth. "Some people say that, in these conditions, 'why should I bother going to school? I should just sit at home, or do other things'," says Kondok. We encourage them to join school and to work hard to build their future and change their lives. We sing your day will still come, he says.

Through their music, band members also educate their audiences about HIV/AIDS prevention, the dangers of early marriages, and encourage parents to take their girl-children to school. Depending upon the audience who are also refugees from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other places the band sings in English, Kiswahili, Arabic, or their native Dinka language.

The music is not only meant to uplift the minds and spirits of Kakuma's residents, it is also a survival tactic for the band members themselves as they cope with their own frustrations and traumatic pasts.

The situation is the camp is very hard: you may face so many difficulties and become so discouraged, says band member Dominic Mawut, also from Bahr el Ghazal. What encourages us the most is our music. He says they get great joy from singing with people and educating them.

That the members of Nazal Jazz Band made it to Kakuma Camp in the first place is itself a miracle. They were among the so-called Lost boys of Sudan, an estimated 10,000 children who, in 1987, fled their villages in south Sudan during a particularly fierce round of fighting between the Sudan government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army, which have been at war with one another since 1983 over religion and access to oil, among other reasons.

The boys, having been separated from their parents, walked an incredible 1,000 miles in a five-year period from south Sudan to Ethiopia (where they lived briefly in refugee camps) and back to Sudan following the change of government in Ethiopia, then on to Kakuma Refugee Camp, where they arrived and have lived since 1992.

Along the way, many of the boys died of starvation, dehydration, violence from soldiers, and attacks by crocodiles and lions.

The band members met each other as they were fleeing Sudan. We encountered many problems along the way, says Mawut. "Because of these problems, people have to sing songs of encouragement.

And that was the genesis of Nazal Jazz Band. Although they had no instruments at the time, the band members began to compose songs to motivate people to keep walking and to assure them that food would soon be on the way.

Once they arrived in Ethiopia, they formed a 24-member band and made instruments out of whatever materials they could find around their refugee camp. People were very, very happy with what we were doing. [We] encouraged many people in the area, recalls Mawut.

However, following the fall of Mengistu in Ethiopia, the boys had to flee yet again. Band members scattered about. The boys walked back to Sudan, then on to Kakuma Camp, where they met each other again and formed Nazal Jazz Band.

The band members were separated yet again when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the U.S. State Department began a special resettlement programme for the lost boys at the end of 1999. Throughout 2001 and into 2002, approximately 3,800 youth were to be relocated to the United States.

Half of the band members are now in the U.S. under this programme. The remaining members were also supposed to go, but are still in Kakuma. Mawut thinks that the terrorist attacks in the U.S. have slowed the programme down.

When those Nazal Jazz Band members were leaving for the U.S., the rest of the band wrote a special song for them, recalls Mawut. We sang to them, don't forget our country, Sudan.

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