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Week One

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 the Ugandans?


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.


Week Two

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 your teeth.



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.

Week Three

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 grinding mill.

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 – food.

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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