A change taking place in Kiryandongo

June 20, 2018

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In Uganda, there are no refugee camps. The Government of Uganda calls them settlements as refugees live with the host community. Refugee families get a piece of land to build their houses, farms, rear cattle and are able to access basic services. They are entitled to social services because of the Refugee Act and Policy of Uganda, the most progressive legal framework in the world, to create a robust protection environment for the refugees.

When I entered the settlement of Kiryandongo on 25 May 2018, I felt butterflies in my stomach. I was expecting an overcrowded crunched settlement of more than 550,000 people in a small place, almost as I had seen in Cox’s Bazar of Bangladesh. But I was surprised to see the settlement. It was not crowded, not even crunched. Houses had their own spaces for toilets, kitchens and even small granaries for maize.

In Uganda, there are no refugee camps. The Government of Uganda calls them settlements as refugees from Congo, Burundi, Kenya or South Sudan live with the host community. The refugee families get a piece of land to build their houses, farms, rear cattle and are able to access education, health facilities, livelihood, etc. They are entitled to social services because of the Refugee Act and Policy of Uganda, the most progressive legal framework in the world, to create a robust protection environment for the refugees.

Kiryandongo is a stable settlement. It is more than 20 years old. Mainly inhabited by South Sudanese population (99% of total population), they are the largest population in the settlement. The total area of the settlement is nearly 45 square kilometres. Whilst Uganda has the best refugee protection legal framework, it lacks the support to maintain the necessary social services in the settlements. A mere 7% of total need is funded in Uganda. Therefore, the Government of Uganda is promoting a self-sustainability approach for the refugees and host communities.

BRAC Uganda has started a small pilot to build economic conditions and empower 300 families with funding from Novo Foundation, which started from October 2017. This project – SLEP (Social-Economic and Livelihood Empowerment Project) is working with 15 groups using the self-help group model of BRAC. Among the 15 groups, 10 are formed from youth and adolescent girls and five from women. Women groups are called mothers’ group and the others are called the youth groups.

Other than the amount of space, Kiryandongo is similar to all the other refugee camps in the world. I have seen the long line of water jars in front of every water point, as water is supplied only at specific times in a day. I have seen young children carrying water jars to their home. I have seen adolescent girls and boys roaming around. The demarcations of host and refugee families are invisible but pretty clear. Refugees are not allowed to build fully permanent houses. Although few of them have built semi-permanent houses, most of the families are living in traditional huts similar to those in their native land of South Sudan. The positive side is that both host community and refugees have access to land. They can farm, produce their own food and sell the surplus to markets.

Simon and Sanoni, two admirably dedicated staff of the SLEP took us deep inside the Kiryandongo settlement. The terrain is very similar to the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh; hilly with muddy roads, which made me wonder how people moved during the rainy season. We crossed a large market area, clusters of houses, then reached an open ground. We left our vehicle and walked down the hill through a narrow road where we were supposed to meet a women group, and go through the maize production plot. After 10 or 15 minutes’ walk we saw a small plot of eggplants, plot of tomatoes and beans. Then we reached a house where we met an amazing group of women from the mother’s group.

This particular group was composed of refugee and host families. The leader was Monica. We had planned to stay there for half an hour, but we spent more than one and half-hours with this group of women. They were all sparkling people; they shared their experiences and expressed their thoughts openly without any hesitation. I strongly sensed that they were hungry for change and self-sustainability. Monica understood all types of languages spoken in the settlement. She understood the political dynamics, the needs of her group members, and the market demands. She moderated the discussion without any hesitation. The group had a male member, Sadrick. I asked why? Joyce and Rose, two group members shared that they had included him in their group to make their husbands understand what they were doing.

In the beginning, when they started the group with BRAC’s support, their husbands had physically harassed or beaten them in suspicion. Husbands thought that the wives were wasting time outside of the house. Inclusion of a male member changed the scenario, Monica shared. Sadrick talked with the husbands and briefed them about the activities. Husbands were no longer interfering in group activities nor harassing their wives. Then the group talked about BRAC’s contribution in bringing them to this position. Rose and Suzan, two other members, shared that they received vegetables, maize seeds, farming tools and coaching from staffs of BRAC Uganda. The production from farming had given them more income opportunities, a new hope, and a new dream. ‘We want BRAC Uganda to continue working with us’, group members shared.

I was curious. Are they praising BRAC Uganda because we are here and visiting the group and their works? I asked them, ‘what was your situation before BRAC Uganda came here?’ The group members shared that they have been surviving on relief support. However, families living here more than five years were not entitled to receive full relief package according to the government rules. Therefore, some people started doing businesses, and some were doing farming. But all were doing it individually. ‘So, you are surviving well’, I cited. Joyce replied, ‘Yes, we are, but it was not like this. ‘So, what are the differences and why do you want BRAC to continue to work with you’, I asked again. Monica, Rose, and other members shared that the group approach was new to them, and had been really helpful. It was helping them to stay united and work together. Joyce said, “all of us need regular income and economic solvency to send our children to schools, make savings for future and take care of our health issues’. They then added that the trainings provided by BRAC Uganda through this project are like an added value to their life. They have received training on leadership, business planning, and also a bit of accounting. Those trainings are helping them to become self-aware, confident and vocal. Monica and other group members said, they now want a loan for a longer period so that they start farming or other businesses, establish enterprises and start sustaining their income. I asked, ‘most of you are refugees, if you flee with the money who will give it back? It will be a total loss for the organisation’. Sadrick and Joyce replied back, ‘we have families, kin and relatives living in this settlement. If any of us become a defaulter, others will take the responsibility to pay back. And we now have a group. The group will ensure that nobody becomes a defaulter’. I further queried, ‘but you already have made some savings in the group. Why don’t you help each other?’ The reply was simple. ‘We have our savings but not enough to give out as loans. The market and its demands are increasing, if we do not invest enough for farming or business, we cannot make sufficient profit. We are not worried about marketing as the big buyers come directly to our settlement and buy what we produce. If we can produce more we will be able to make a good earning. That’s why we need financial service, we need support of BRAC Uganda’.

I have been touched by their desire of self-sustainability, felt the presence of dignity of the mothers’ group members. I have felt the wind of change. They didn’t ask for humanitarian assistance. They are asking for financial service because they want to be economically empowered. They want to be the social change makers, evidence for other families in the settlement – both to hosts and refugees. And these are all visible as BRAC Uganda started the small project SLEP.

On the way back we got a chance to visit the high school, which was established by the South Sudanese refugees catering to the needs of their children’s education. The school has 1001 students and 36 teachers. More than 220 girls stay in the hostel inside the school as their families are either in other settlements or traveling to Kenya and South Sudan regularly. The school does not get much support from the Uganda education ministry. However, the school has been able to pay the teachers (below the national salary scale) regularly from the tuition fees of the students and support from the host and refugee families within the settlement. It gave me more confidence. If families are willing to keep their children in school and pay the fees, they will not run away with the loan money.

I came out of the camp with renewed hope and vigour. We have the right kind of approach; we have a dedicated staff. We have a better chance than any other organisation to build a conflict sensitive development approach. Kiryandongo of Uganda would be an ideal place as the settlement has been stable for many years and the government legal framework is highly favourable. We are working with the refugees and host communities to make them self-sustainable in Kiryandongo. If this model works, it could be replicated to Kiryandongo and other settlements in Uganda, other BRAC countries and even in Bangladesh where more than a million Rohingyas take refuge.   


Shashanka Saadi is the head of BRAC’s emergency preparedness and response programme.

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