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Biosociality and Political Economy of Waiting at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

posted on 2019-07-08, 00:00 authored by Rieti G. Gengo

As global political and economic conditions that cause people to flee their homes continue to intensify and become entrenched, millions of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons occupy managed settlements for years or decades. Refugee camps and other settlements have consistently operated under an ideology of biopolitical humanitarian governance, characterized by enforced dependency on humanitarian agencies for basic necessities of food and shelter, curtailed human rights, restrictions on movement, severely limited access to quality education and healthcare, and idleness. In this dissertation, I build upon Oka’s (2014) description of the “refugee wait” as a state of static transience, using an integrative, biosocial approach based in practice theory. In the context of protracted refugee encampment, waiting is existential and infuses nearly all aspects of life. Drawing on both ethnographic and physiological biomarker data, I show that the structural constraints of encamped life that keep refugees in extended limbo—the structured contours of the refugee wait itself—shape daily practices of active waiting. Not only do practices associated with waiting reshape the structural constraints of the refugee wait to make it more livable and dignified, but they also mitigate refugees’ embodied experiences of stress, health, and physiological function.

A central element of the refugee wait at Kakuma is being placed alongside the Turkana host community. Separate narratives of the violent Other are produced and reinforced through processes of interdiscursive, chronotopic semiosis that form collective memories of violence and mistreatment at the hands of the Other, and these narratives infuse most refugee-host interactions with fear and distrust. Refugees cope with these fears by cultivating transactional relationships with Turkana, but they also use collective memories of Turkana violence to build inter-ethnic solidarity and trust with their neighbors in the camp. Another essential feature of the refugee wait is a demoralizing sense that life is placed on hold during encampment. Somali and Oromo refugees mitigate the stress and uncertainty of the wait by engaging in active practices of waiting that center around miraa (khat) consumption. Its psychotropic properties help refugees mentally escape backintonormal life, social chewing sessions provide a means of passing idle time, relationships formed through miraa exchange practices build social capital, and miraa consumption drives the market economy in other “luxury” goods and services. In terms of neuroendocrine and immuno-inflammatory stress physiology, practices of active waiting may mitigate some of the negative psychological and physical health effects of the refugee wait. However, miraa, tobacco, and sugary foods and beverages consumed in the pursuit of a sense of dignity and normalcy may be damaging to long-term health. An integrative anthropological perspective reveals considerable complexity in encamped refugee behavior and well-being, and it has the potential to shape policies that may improve refugees’ livelihoods.


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Defense Date


CIP Code

  • 30.0501

Research Director(s)

Agustin Fuentes

Committee Members

Lee Gettler James McKenna


  • Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Level

  • Doctoral Dissertation

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Library Record


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Additional Groups

  • Peace Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

Program Name

  • Anthropology