Arriving in Uganda is an assault on the senses: the smell
of warm rain on red earth; the bright greens of the bush;
the startling colours of the women’s wrappers; the
different tastes and textures of posho, the maize staple,
and mtoke, made from green bananas. Even the air has a different
quality — more luminous somehow.
I land at Arua airport in northern Uganda, having
flown for two hours on a six-seater plane. Bad timing, it
turns out, as a Ugandan rebel group arrives from Sudan on
the same day with the aim of destabilising the area prior
to the elections. They hijack trucks belonging to relief workers,
lay landmines and sow terror in their wake.
They also completely stymie my well-laid travel
plans. I had intended to go straight to Ikafe, a Sudanese
refugee settlement where I was to spend three weeks. But now
I am trapped in Arua, two hours’ drive away from Ikafe,
for four days while the situation temporarily calms down and
the roads are “cleared” of land-mines by the army.
(I get the impression this was by driving up and down hoping
they are not going to be blown up.)
Finally given permission to go. An Italian aid worker had
his foot blown off yesterday when his car hit a landmine on
one road, so we take another route. I thank God for the fact
that I spent time in Lebanon during the war there and that
this helps me cope.
When we finally reach Ikafe, there is nothing to mark the
refugee settlement off from the surrounding area; no way of
knowing that this is where one reality ends and another begins.
The road from Arua winds on, red and dusty and full of rocks
and stones. The trees and shrubs are the same lush green.
The thatched round houses in their neatly swept compounds
look no different to a foreign eye from the Ugandan rural
tukuls — though in fact they are.
I don’t know what I had anticipated. Desert? Hungry
faces? Tents? A fence separating the Sudanese refugees from
I have just “bathed”. The “bathroom”
is a structure made of sticks and a bucket of water. You pour
water from a tin drum into a plastic bowl, hang your towel
over the top of the “bathroom” wall to show that
it is occupied, and then use a mug to pour the water over
your body. It doesn’t conform to my idea of a good wash.
I talk to Beatrice, a Ugandan nurse working in Ikafe, about
the differences between life in Africa and life in the West.
“My sister went to Britain on a three-month course,”
she says. “She enjoyed it, and had an interesting time.
But when they asked her if she wanted to stay longer, she
was quite clear that she didn’t.”
“Why?” I ask curiously.
“Because life in your country is just too hectic. You
are always rushing around and you have so little time to sit
and talk; to spend with people.”
I reflect that this is strange, given that in the West we
don’t have to spend much time on basics like food and
drink. I wonder what it would mean to our lives if we had
to collect our water at standpipes or wait for hours for bread.
I am getting used to bathing in the open under the stars,
and now enjoy it more than bathing at home.
The same goes for food. Some of my worries before leaving
had been that I might be taking food away from the refugees
or that the diet would be insufficient and monotonous. For
the refugees this might well be the case, but my meals are
cooked in a central kitchen that caters to relief workers
here. We take a plate and stand in a queue. The food is similar
from day to day, but there is always plenty. I don’t
miss my usual diet at all. And today someone brought some
mangoes, small, sweet and sticky, with bits that stick between
While I am not living with as few resources as the refugees,
I am encouraged to find how little I actually need, not just
for survival, but to maintain life at a reasonable level.
So many of the extras we have at home are just not necessary
– it seems obvious that in an ideal world people in
Uganda would have more and we in the UK would manage perfectly
well with less. A plastic bag is a precious commodity in the
settlement; at home I think nothing of throwing one away.
I have immense admiration for all the women I meet and a
sense of awe at how they cope in such adversity. Some have
been raped on the way to Uganda (though they don’t talk
about this). Often their menfolk have been killed or left
behind in Sudan. All have had to manage an arduous journey
for days or weeks through the bush, carrying babies and urging
on small tired children.
In Ikafe, they have to walk many kilometres and wait for
hours in line before they can fill their jerrycans with water
or take their turn to have their maize ration ground at the
So much of life as a refugee has to do with patience. Waiting
for water, waiting for food, waiting at the grinding mill,
for hours, sometimes for days. I have to wait so little in
my own life and I become impatient so quickly, even with water
on tap, instant heat and short queues in the supermarket.
I have been surprised by generosity. Firstly, the generosity
of the Ugandan government in welcoming the refugees and giving
them land. Secondly, that of the local Ugandans in allowing
their land to be given, and thirdly, the generosity of the
refugees themselves, to me, a complete stranger.
So many of them openly share their stories and their experiences.
I am given presents, lent precious bicycles. They also share
with me the one thing they have least of and need most –
I spend a morning with Lona and Alice, talking about the
situation of women refugees. There is much laughter and much
comradeship. When finally we get up to say our good-byes,
the two women whisper together. Lona dashes off and comes
back again with something tied in a cloth in her hands.
“Nikki,” Alice says, “unfortunately we
have not been able to give you food because the food is not
there. We are sorry that we cannot give you more. If we were
in our own country we would cook you a meal. But please accept
these eggs as a gift from us, as an offering from Lona, to
thank you for sitting with us and listening to us.”
Despite my worries about taking food from those who have
so little, it is an offer I know I cannot refuse.
|Nikki van der Gaag
is an editor at the New Internationalist magazine, a UK-based
publication. In April and May this year, in preparation for
an issue of the magazine dedicated to refugees, she spent three
weeks living among Sudanese refugees in Uganda. She agreed to
share some of her personal observations from those weeks with
Red Cross, Red Crescent.
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