Trip blog – Visiting a refugee camp

Trip blog – Visiting a refugee camp

Visiting a refugee camp is something that I have never done. Today’s agenda was to visit two of the huge camps near here that house South Sudanese refugees, Imvepi and Bidi Bidi. Bidi Bidi alone has nearly half a million refugees.

Refugee camp view
Refugee camp view

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I suppose I thought there would be row upon row of white tents and lots of charity workers and UN officials but in fact as you approach the camps, which are far from town, down roads that verge on dangerous, it initially looks just like there are a lot of tukuls set in verdant countryside. But you quickly notice that there’s a lot of white. White roofs, white walls, some tukuls completely covered with the white UNHCR tarpaulins or ‘carpets’ that everyone is issued with when you arrive. Then, as you go further into the camp, it starts to resemble a small town with little shack shops lining both sides of the road. People make money any way they can. Stone breakers chip away at rocks with heavy hammers creating mounds of gravel which they sell as the foundations for tukuls. Others scoop up sand for sale. We saw the odd sewing machine and mobile maize mill. There’s no official entrance to the camp on the road we used so we just drove in. Almost immediately we came across a great crowd waiting outside a fenced enclosure housing some massive warehouses. This is where the refugees collect their monthly rations: 12 kg of maize for everyone in the family, 2 kg of dried beans and about 2 gallons of oil. As we travelled around the camps we saw people everywhere bringing great sacks of maize back to their homes, balanced on the back of bicycles, or on a boda boda. For communities further out, the UNHCR provide lorries to transport them back home. Julius, CRESS’s agricultural officer explained more about how the system works. He knows, because until a year ago he lived in the camp, and his wife and children and his parents, brother and sister still do. He is saving, so that as soon as he can he can bring his family to join him in Arua.

A street in the camp
A street in the refugee camp

When you first arrive at the camp you are registered using thumbprint recognition and then allocated a place to live. Every family gets a 10 by 20m plot and the means to build a shelter (wood and a tarpaulin). Communities arriving together are allocated space together. Latrines and water are provided by the camp. As you drive round, you can see a vast difference in the standard of the tukuls. Some are solidly brick built and well thatched; most however are made partly or entirely of the UN tarps. In some places an indigenous Ugandan village has been surrounded and overwhelmed by the new settlers. It’s scruffy and impossible to make nice, although you do see the odd flowering shrubs planted around some sites. The camps are situated in the bush. It’s rugged terrain; the road we took in has a sharp fall in it so tricky that vehicles regularly overturn. As we left shortly before sunset, crowds of people were sitting by the verge slightly down from this bit of the road: apparently watching the accidents is the local evening entertainment! Just before our arrival a tobacco lorry had slipped sideways, shedding its load and the drivers were collecting great bundles of tobacco leaves and carrying them back to the recovered vehicle, now safely at the top. As we waited our turn, a typically brightly painted lorry lurched alarmingly from side to side as each wheel in turn slipped down between the sheets of rock that stick up vertically from the surface of the road. It seemed impossible that it wouldn’t overturn and we held our breath until the lorry finally rightened as it got to the flatter patch at the bottom. But it was only as it passed us that we saw that the back of the lorry was full of people, protected only by widely spaced bars through which they would have been thrown had the vehicle tipped over. And of course, the terrain means that the camps are not easy places to live. The soil is in many places thin and stony, and many people are living on steep slopes. It’s possible to rent better agricultural land if you have the money, but it can be 3 or more kilometres from their tukuls. When it rains, the floodwaters rush down channels and rivulets, washing away everything in its path. In the agricultural projects plants were washed away and raised beds destroyed in last week’s downpours.

Agriculture in Refugee camps Uganda
Agriculture group in a refugee camps Uganda

We were there to visit the various agriculture projects and savings groups that CRESS has started. We had the microfinance officer, Noel, and Julius with us. CRESS exists to bring hope to the South Sudanese through projects that empower, and wonderfully this trip we have been able to collect evidence that this is working well.

Each agriculture project consists of 16 women who collectively work a piece of land. They grow a wide range of vegetables which they use to supplement their families’ diets as well as selling in the market. They are trained in some simple but effective techniques that increase productivity markedly: building vegetable beds that also create liquid manure via a hole in the top where waste is put; making their own natural pesticides; shading the seedbeds; irrigating well. They are highly organised and commit to working two days every week on the project. By pooling their resources the ladies can not only work more productively, they can rent more and better land. One of the CRESS groups have rented land the equivalent of 8 tennis courts. They had to clear the land by hand, no mean task as it was covered in 10 foot high grasses. Everything had grown up so much since Julius’ last visit that the entrance was hard to find, and we ended up building a log bridge to cross a little muddy river before fighting our way through the maize. They have a good variety of crops: maize, okra, aubergines, a plant similar to linnet which is harvested for oil, tomatoes, a fig tree, pumpkin and greens. They also have the all important compost heap, covered with blue plastic to produce valuable manure for the crops. This is a market garden and everything will be sold. But it comes at considerable cost to the ladies. They all work two full days a week there, alongside their normal responsibilities and the other group garden, and walk the 3 kilometres there and back carrying the tools, any water they need and the homemade pesticides.

The savings groups are about 30 people who each chip in a tiny amount every week which they use to create more money through business opportunities. These groups can be surprisingly profitable. One we saw earlier in the week had made £850 in just 15 weeks! They have just invested in 50 plastic chairs to rent out at a rate of 1,000 Ugandan shillings a day. During the year the profits accumulate and members can take out loans which are repaid on strict business terms with interest. These could be used for school fees or to pay for medicines, for example, or to use to set up their own enterprise. Both the agriculture and the savings groups are run on very strict lines with rules and fines for non-attendance. Membership is limited to keep the groups focussed and tight. As soon as funds become available, CRESS will replicate these groups as many times as they can, creating pinpricks of hope in an otherwise desolate place.

Because of the profits they are making, members of both the agriculture groups and the savings groups are setting up additional small businesses on the side: mostly buying and selling, but one enterprising group are in the process of setting up their own small restaurant in the camp. And when you talk to the members, the hope these groups have brought them beams out from their faces. They aren’t making huge amounts but they now have hope. And hope brings life and strength and a future.

Children gathered
Children gathered together

Our last stop was to visit Pastor Jakob, who is an archdeacon in the diocese of Liwolo, with oversight of 12 deaneries. He and his community, again situated on a difficult slope with very poor soil, have built a big cathedral church where Pastor Jakob holds two services every Sunday, each with 800 people attending. The church is substantial, with mounded pews and traditionally built walls with tiny wIndows. The roof is made up of UN carpets; there is a simple wooden altar and a cross painted on the wall. And it is a centre of hope for the people. Children milled about the church as we arrived, with the adults watching. It’s easy to see the big smiles, the willingness to play, the laughter and miss the bigger picture. Almost without exception the children’s clothes were tattered and dirty, and it looked as if they will be worn until they fall apart. Some had flip flops but most had none. There wasn’t a single toy or rope or ball. Nothing. Not even the homemade toys we have seen elsewhere: balls made from plastic bags squeezed together and bound with string, or toy cars constructed from wire with bottle tops for wheels. These people have barely anything other than what they are wearing and life here is very hard. But that’s not because they are uneducated or unable. It’s because they have had their choices taken away. When they fled, they left everything behind. When your wealth and security and likelihood has been robbed from you, the reality is that you have nothing and there’s no social security net to pick you up. And the camp reflects the whole of society. Julius was a teacher when they fled South Sudan; there are also doctors and lawyers and shopkeepers and tailors and mechanics and business people and nurses stuck there. South Sudanese can’t work easily in Uganda so almost all are trapped. Without a huge stroke of luck or a leg up, it’s incredibly difficult to escape.

We asked Pastor Jakob what were the main challenges facing his communities. Some were what we expected: poor education for the children and particularly the teens; sickness; poor soil; and the need for agricultural training so they can have a better diet and better health. He also explained that in many families, after the women have collected the family’s rations, the father will steal some to sell to buy alcohol. As is so often the case because men are disempowered and have no role, drunkenness becomes a widespread problem. But shockingly, alongside these, he added rape. Many girls and women are raped, resulting in pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Rape is so common that it’s just another problem on the list.

Refugee child
Refugee child

One of the things that I had expected was to see more help on the ground. There was a tiny medical centre and various UN compounds but nobody other than a refugee was in sight. I’m not sure what I thought might be there but to all intents and purposes it looks as if the refugees have been dropped down and left to their own devices. There are schools, but Julius’s children are in classes of up to 300 children and the view very strongly is that the camp schools are poor compared to the schools in Arua. We only saw play equipment in the World Vision education centre at one end of the camp and this was behind large fences, and a group of lads were kicking a ball around on an open space just outside. But there are no flat open spaces for play inside. It may be that once school starts next week things look different but maybe not.

It’s easy to see what CRESS is doing here in the camps as a drop in the ocean. But what were were told repeatedly is that CRESS is doing things that no one else is, in places in the camps where there are no other agencies. Because of CRESS people have hope and practical help. For each individual member of an agricultural or savings group, at least 10 other family members are helped. They have a new hope and are beginning to take control of a better future for themselves. And because none of what CRESS offers needs specialist equipment or continuous support, people can quickly learn and ideas spread to those around them.

On the stone
On the stone

There’s a long way to go but it is a good start, for which we thank God.