A few small bananas

My third day in Nakivale, Uganda’s oldest refugee settlement, and feeling ready to move on tomorrow. Meanwhile my guide and translator, a film-maker and actor called Alex, is in his ninth year of living here. Some Rwandans I’ve spoken to have been here 16 years. Some mention those who were resettled in the US, Canada, Denmark; many have disappeared to try to make it in Uganda’s cities. Most people stay.

And they come. New arrivals — about 3000 each month — put the current number of inhabitants at 110,000. The population looks set to keep growing:  Uganda is receiving refugees from not one next-door crisis, but three: DR Congo, Burundi, South Sudan.

I’ve talked to maybe 20 people, some for five minutes, some for several hours. Olga, a warm young Congolese woman who has galvanised a group of her peers to start making and selling crafts, tells me in well-spoken French that life is better here for simple reasons: securité, liberté. We can do what we want. Many others are less positive. Yes, we could go and live elsewhere, but how can we afford to? Yes, we can set up businesses here in Nakivale, but how, without capital? Yes, we could buy better or cheaper goods from the cities, but who pays our transport there?

Alex and his crew are restless, bright young lads hungry for any connections or introductions I can offer them. Another group of entrepreneurs tells me they repeatedly see jobs being given to Ugandan nationals (“If you’re a refugee it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your skills”, says Marie, “only your family and your land!”); they are frustrated, but they have a foothold and, it seems, the energy to make things happen. In the rural end of the settlement, Nshimiye, in his 50s, runs multiple small ventures and plans to expand his pig farm and open a pork barbecue joint: more refugees coming here would be good for his business, he says.

But even the more positive interviewees all say life is hard here. Drought. Illness. Insufficient food (“old cases”, who’ve been here five years or more, get their food rations reduced by half). And often, a sense of impossibility. Samuel, one of the actors in Alex’s company, cut off his university studies a year ago in DRC to flee to Nakivale, where there’s no college (and only one secondary school); he works with his cousin in a 2-seater barbershop. You have to prioritise getting enough to eat, he says quietly.

A Burundian who runs a small phone charging shop has no solar panels, as some of her neighbours do, and tells me she has no other source of income for when the power cuts hit (they last days, even weeks). It’s not a great interview; she was never that keen to begin with, and at the end of a hot day I’m weak and weary from trying to understand unfamiliar accents and answers that don’t seem related to my questions. After a few minutes, she turns back to me. Can I support her? Who can, then? How should she grow her business when every penny she makes has to go to pay for food or for school fees? I don’t even know if Alex is translating what my reply — that journalists can’t pay sources, that my way of trying to help is by telling stories not giving money, that I can’t give to everyone — or if he is just giving her a lecture, as is his tendency (mansplaining is big in Africa).

I buy a few more bananas from the bunch on her counter.

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