Relativity

Flee to Uganda and you can make a future here, if you’re a little bit lucky or not too poor.

Like Mimy, a Congolese mother of ten (!) who spent two years barely scraping by in Kampala — but was then taken to Nakivale settlement, where she no longer has to pay rent, and gets monthly food provisions and medical care, while running her dressmaking business.

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Or like Nshimiye, who spotted an opportunity for more footfall when a new distribution point was due to open on another street, and requested to move his business there. 

Or like Samuel’s brother-in-law, who opened up his barber-shop within two months of arriving last year.

Or like the estimated 20% of people here who are self-sufficient, either through their own business or working for others.

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Refugees arriving here are given a future: a plot of land, the basic materials to build a home, and food every day. They can hustle and seek out work and move to where the opportunities are. There are organisations here responsible for counselling, child protection, prevention of violence, healthcare, even one that brings mobile courts to Nakivale and monitors those who end up going to prison. As a place of refuge, it’s pretty good.

But as a place to live?

People here don’t have money these days to buy her dresses, says Mimi. The water is bad and there are many illnesses — all the family have been hospitalised at some point. She faced fear and violence and death in DR Congo, but all the children went to school. We lived in an enclosed plot, she says. We locked the door at night. Now, the family struggles to make their 22kg ration of beans last the entire month and sends only three kids to school.

I no longer know what the point of comparison should be for this place. Other refugee camps? (Pretty good.) Their country of origin? (At the moment, pretty good.) Ugandan citizens living nearby? (In some ways, not bad: for now, refugees get free water supplies while their neighbours, many equally poor, have to pay.) But for someone with no prospects of returning home, or someone who’s been here nine or 16 or even 22 years — many Rwandans first arrived here in 1994 — do they count themselves lucky, or do they demand more? And if it’s the latter: from who, exactly? 100% of Uganda’s refugee assistance is funded by international donors, who cannot keep up with the rising level of need around the world; Uganda has its own poverty to deal with.

What both the international organisations and the national government hope for, then, is more self-sufficiency. And in some ways, it’s happening: as more and more refugees arrive — every single day — and plot sizes get smaller (or are expected to), people realise they have little choice. Jimmy, a project manager for the NGO responsible for livelihoods, told me that since his organisation arrived in 2009, “attitudes of refugees have changed… they see more responsibility for their welfare than ever before. More and more want to go out and work”. John, a Kenyan refugee in his 50s and the founder of the settlement’s internet cafe, told me that although many young people here have “dependency syndrome”, he sees many out in the garden, working. They are “business-oriented”.

And the leaders and politicians and crooks responsible for the mess that is still driving so many people here – where are they?

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