Generosity and grace in Uganda
Originally established to support 46,000 people fleeing South Sudan, the Bidibidi settlement in Northern Uganda is now a temporary home for almost 300,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. TEAR Australia is working to provide water and sanitation infrastructure in the Bidibidi settlement in Northern Uganda through our partner World Renew.
Phil Sparrow from our International Program Team visited the Bidibidi refugee camp in March this year, and shares his field notes of his experience and the resilience of the people living there.
“We are heading out to visit the Bidibidi refugee camp today. Close to 300,000 people are now living here, courtesy of the grace of the Ugandan Government. The Office of the Prime Minister is managing the camps, and every household has been registered without delay, granted a plot of land, and given the right to work. Water is being trucked in, boreholes dug, child friendly spaces built, health centres constructed. It is not astonishing to Ugandans. It is basic generosity.
After a 9-hour drive yesterday, it's another two-hour, bumpy drive in a vehicle with crippled suspension. Where is a bullet train when you need one? To pass the time, the driver puts on some pumping Christian hits. These are sung by Ugandan Christians, with a strong accent. I have trouble making out the lyrics. 'If you love Him, He will make you bankrupt" sounds plausible, and has certainly been close to our experience. But the next one - "Jesus is constantly swearing" - that can't be right?!
We arrive at the local offices of TEAR’s partner Here is Life (HIL). They are thoughtful, committed and doing good work. They are working to high standards, and the latrines and bathhouses they have built are being commended by many other agencies. For a small NGO, they are punching well above their weight. Twice, UNHCR has called on them to build additional latrines. They are getting a reputation for a mob that get the job done, well.
Then, it’s another hour to go out to the camp. Refugees are a cross section of society. While poor people are disproportionally represented in refugee settings (wealthy people have more options), in refugee camps you can find dentists, bankers, lawyers. Some people escape on bicycles and on foot, others in Prados and Pajeros. But they have all lost a great deal.
Nonetheless, these camps, like other refugee settlements I have been in, are a testament to human resilience. People are building little shops, digging latrines, making houses. I can see some who have a flour mill operating, others are making charcoal, and elsewhere, bricks. No one is sitting around helplessly.
We stop near some of the latrines HIL has made and talk to a woman. Elly, the head of HIL introduces us and explains why we are here. We ask her a bit of her story, and she speaks quietly.
"My husband is not here. I am here just with my children. I came here in October last year." She gestures to her home, which is a well-built hut in typical style. "When I came, I knew we would be here for a long time. I could see that that the tarpaulin and mats that UNHCR was giving would not last long, so I sold these and some of the food that we received, and got some people to build me this home. It is good, but we had food shortages for some time."
It is a clever bit of planning. The rains are near, and she now has a tight little home for the next few years – for surely, no one will be going home any time soon. Refugees are still coming across the border, at a rate of 2000 a day, and famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan.
Elly talks to her a bit longer, and she tells him that she and the people around have been happy with the latrines. They all looked after them, took their turns with the cleaning roster.
But I think the hardest moment of the day comes when Moses, who works with HIL recalls a conversation from earlier in the week. "There are very few men in this Bidibidi camp, as you have seen," he says. It is true. Boys, children and women. 80% of households here are women-headed. It is also mostly a Nuer camp. (Nuer is one of the ethnic groups which is fighting against the Dinka group). Many of the men have returned to try and salvage their home from the conflict.
Moses goes on: "Where are the men? They have gone back to South Sudan. One man has told me, 'My family is safe, everything else we have lost. Now I am going back to make our country a place where the Dinka no longer exist'."
Food, water and sanitation are crucial. These are the most basic needs. But without peace and reconciliation and the transforming of hearts and minds, the future is still very uncertain for the people of South Sudan.
Update from Phil:
“It’s encouraging that HIL have now started a next phase of work in Bidibidi, with a focus on trauma counselling and livelihoods, and supporting sanitation and hygiene efforts at a household level.
Other good work is taking place in other camps, and the generosity of the Ugandan hosts continues. Let us pray for practical help for the refugees in Northern Uganda, for healing, and let us give thanks for the generosity of the local people.”
South Sudan - a short background
South Sudan has suffered through conflict and instability for many months. There are longstanding ethnic grievances between the different local ethnic groups – Nuer and Dinka, and others. The escalation of last year has been catalysed by a total collapse in relationships between the President and the Vice President, and their respective armies and followers have taken up the fight.
Around 300,000 people have been killed, and 900,000 are now living in several refugee camps spread across northern Uganda, with many others in the Congo and Kenya.
Phil Sparrow is the TEAR Australia International Program Officer for Afghanistan, Northern Uganda, Somalia and Sudan.