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Making a home in a refugee camp

By Lynda Tilley

Lynda is a humanist based in South Africa. She is a founding member of United African Humanists and a Board Advisor for Humanist Global Charity. In this article, she describes the resilience of Ugandan women who have been displaced by conflict and are living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in neighbouring Kenya.

Humans evolved in Africa. Over thousands of years, they either migrated out of Africa or formed into tribal groups, intermingling and spreading from present day West Africa through the Great Lakes region and across the continent to its southernmost tip. None of our ancestors were born in refugee camps, slums, or segregated townships on the edge of big cities. Yet the majority of Africans are now living in places such as these – having been displaced from and no longer resident on their original tribal land (see Note 1). Even those who retained their tribal land for centuries are slowly being displaced as a result of new or ongoing conflicts.

UNHCR statistics show that there are currently around 30 million internally displaced people in the Sub-Saharan region alone. They currently account for around 30 per cent of the world’s entire refugee population which, at the end of 2021, stood at around 89 million people. People are fleeing their homes because of conflicts, civil unrest, oppressive regimes and the human rights abuses that go hand-in-hand with these, as well as environmental disasters.

Why are so many Africans having to flee their homes?

Is it just a coincidence that many African people are fleeing mineral rich areas which are subject to conflicts, civil unrest and oppressive regimes? Or that they are fleeing to barren areas with little rainfall or fertile soils on which to graze livestock or to plant crops and, as a result, are being forced into situations vulnerable to famine? As more people are displaced from mineral rich land, the mining of valuable minerals is suddenly taking place in these now uninhabited areas, and in many instances irreversible damage is being done to the environment as a result. This includes the contamination of natural water sources from the by-products of mining, as well as damage to soils, trees and vegetation, and habitats for insects, birds and wild animals.

Africa is the second-largest continent in the world (China, India, the UK, the USA, and most of Europe can all fit inside our borders!), but with massive areas of tribal land fenced off for national parks, increasing numbers of private game reserves, and newly discovered mineral-rich areas being earmarked for future mining enterprises, our continent feels like it's actually shrinking. Consequently, people are being forced to flee to cramped conditions in densely populated urban areas or overcrowded refugee camps. In these places, they have no means of growing food for themselves and, as a result, they are becoming increasingly dependent on food aid to survive.

Ugandan women and children in the Kakuma refugee camp

It was towards the end of 2021 that I first made contact with Ugandan refugees living in an official refugee camp – the United Nations Kakuma Camp, in their neighbouring country of Kenya, East Africa. It's one of Africa's largest camps, currently housing around 200,000 refugees from countries such as Sudan and Somalia. Uganda held elections earlier in 2021, which were the most violent to date. Human Rights Watch reports of abductions, deaths, and illegal imprisonment of opposition party members and supporters leading up to the election period, warned that it could be a very volatile time. Genocide Watch placed Uganda on their watch list.

President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since he came to power in 1986, was determined to remain in power no matter the cost, and it was common knowledge that everyone who supported a different political party to his was targeted for arrest or worse. The violence didn't stop after the elections, with the Museveni-led police and military stepping up their game. Sweeps through outlying areas and remoter villages continued as yet more people disappeared, with young men seemingly targeted the most. One woman told me how her husband had been taken simply for wearing a red t-shirt, as it was the colour of the main opposition party. His whereabouts are still unknown over two years later, and she struggles to feed their two children and survive from subsistence farming, as her husband was the main bread winner. As villages were attacked and their men taken, women and children fled. Active members of opposition parties went into hiding, or fled Uganda if they could.

Life in the refugee camp which is now their 'home'

My contact with these Ugandan refugees was the first direct contact I'd ever had with people living in refugee camps, and I was shocked at how little I'd known up until that point about the true nature of refugees. These are people just like you and me. They all once had stable, established family homes. Almost all are educated, many with university degrees, and there are business owners, teachers, lawyers, professional athletes, and professors amongst them. All have been reduced to living in squalor, with limited food, electricity and water, and many live in a type of poverty that they've never experienced before, sleeping on the floor with no furniture or basic things like books and toys for their children. Yet still, the women have come to refer to their tin walled tarpaulin roofed shelters as 'home', and have tried to make them as 'homely' as possible.

As I get to know the women, the one thing that I'm acutely aware of is that all of them are desperately homesick. They speak about the homes they fled in Uganda with longing and pain. Sarah (not her real name), the unofficial leader of a particular group of forty-four people, tells me how they all had their own 'shambas' back home. These were small plots of land which they lived on, growing subsistence crops and keeping a few cows, goats and chickens. Water was easily accessible from nearby streams or rivers. 'We were poor,' she says, 'but never as poor as this. We always had food to eat, we lacked for nothing.'

The sorrow of being a refugee

She tells me of vibrant communities left behind, including schools for their children (there is no space for them in the refugee camp schools, so their education has ground to a halt), shops, bustling markets, churches, family and neighbours. Our conversation leads to discussing cooking pots and favourite wooden spoons and kitchen layouts – all things which the women took for granted and which are now sorely missed. Sarah talks about food they rarely eat now, including chicken, fish, bananas, and all the familiar, traditional foods they can't get in the camp and which aren't supplied as part of their meagre and ever-dwindling food rations. All the women are painfully thin. Rations consist of two kilograms of sorghum per person per month, a little oil, salt and soap. Tea, sugar and meat are luxuries no one can afford to buy from the shops within the camp. There are no employment opportunities and they are not allowed to leave the camp to seek outside employment. They rely on donations from private donors and every day is a struggle to survive. Some women, in desperation to buy the basics for their children, are forced into prostitution and they feel extreme shame. All are still married to missing husbands and the pain and desperation they feel is tangible.

The months slowly turn into another new year and they are hopeful that maybe this will be the year that they can finally return home. We communicate back and forth with text messages and voice messages if they have enough battery power on their phones. I tell them never to lose hope that they will one day be able to return to their homes. They all invite me to come and visit them there one day 'when Uganda is free', and I promise them that I will. I say I will visit each and every one of them and that I can't wait to see their homes, that I look forward to eating delicious Ugandan dishes, often reserved for celebrations, wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked in fires dug into the earth. This will be food to celebrate with!

Hopes for a better future

They like the sound of this and it seems to revive them as we swap voice messages back and forth, with the children chattering happily in the background. I joke, 'We are going to be lazy women that day, a bit like our men! We will sit in the shade and drink tea and gossip about the young, pretty women in the village, the ones our men deny that they admire when we aren't around!' The women laugh at the normality of it all. 'Yes, yes!' Sarah says, 'you are always most welcome in my home, your children, too!' I thank her and the conversation returns to talk about what food we will cook.

I admire these women greatly. Over time, they have become more than friends, they feel like family and we are in contact every week. Now a close-knit group of sisters, they were once complete strangers, from different tribes and regions of Uganda, who under normal circumstances would never have met. Yet now they are collectively raising their children together and supporting each other, and they are one, big, extended family. They even refer to their makeshift shelters as 'home' now, too. I realise how, in the blink of an eye, circumstances can change and that the women of Kakuma Camp could just as easily be you or me. There's a refugee crisis all over the world and numbers are on the increase every year. There's a refugee crisis all over the world and numbers are on the increase every year. Many live in dire conditions and it doesn’t seem that things are going to improve any time soon. It's a reminder never to take anything in life for granted.

Women building homes with love

I marvel at the strength and resilience of these honourable Ugandan women, forced to live in such awful conditions, yet continuing to raise their children with manners and boundaries and still managing to keep a smile on their own faces, even during the hardest days. Where there are women, there is always a home, and there is always love. These women are testament to that and I feel honoured to know them because, as little as they have, they've added so much to my life, and I feel like a slightly better woman myself because of them.

No matter how badly off we think we are, no matter all the little irritations in our daily lives, there are always people who have it far worse than us and there is always, always something to be grateful for. You can make a home wherever you are, as long as you have people you love and care for around you.

How you can help

If you would like to help the women and children in Kakuma Camp with donations for extra food, books and toys for the children, aged four to fifteen, or mattresses for them to sleep on, please email me (Lynda) at for further information. All donations are sent directly to Sarah who ensures that everyone's needs are met. She provides receipts and photographs of all purchases and thank you messages for donors. Alternatively, you could send them a message of support, perhaps saying a little about where you live, what pets you have or what you enjoy doing in your spare time. The children especially love hearing things like this! You can email these to me as above to pass on and you will receive a reply. Thank you!

Note 1

'Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) cities such as Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, South Africa are home to some of the world’s largest slums due to massive urban growth in these countries over the past two decades. SSA records the highest number of slum dwellers. About 62% of the region’s urban population resides in slums compared with 35% in Southern Asia, 24% in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 13% in North Africa.' From 'Slum decay in Sub-Saharan Africa' (2021) by A. Kofi Amegah in National Library of Medicine

In addition, there are 30 million Africans living in refugee camps (approximately one third of the world's entire population of refugees) Link: Institute for Security Studies

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