I am not big on capital cities and I have written about my (extremely subjective) observations of Kampala. Sitting under the 'paillote' in Kigali - with a narrow view on the residential street in front of the hotel, my love for going to the field is only strengthened. Good food aside, I am kind of bored in Kigali - and good (simpeler) food I can find in the field as well.
The first real field day was to Mukono - a small city east of Kampala - and the first glance at life outside the 'Big City'. What perhaps struck me most is how green Uganda is. Plantains everywhere, rolling hills and it seemed, people everywhere. For my friend and colleague, Dirk, it was the only outing to rural Africa. He is more of a city person...
But Mukono was only the prelude ... the next day the real road trip started. With Siraj, my Red Cross designated driver on the wheel, our first port of calling was Hoima - in the west of the country - and what I kinda see as the gateway to Kyangwali, the massive refugee camp for those fleeing the violence, insecurity, hunger or misery in the DRC. Paved roads made way to hardened sand - the rainy season and mud puddles were long gone by this time although I am here to work, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the scenery which we did (and as a smoker, these short breaks were a welcome opportunity).
No matter how many years of experience you have - nothing prepares you (or shouldn't) for refugee camps. They are the epitome of human misery, no matter how hard organisations - and in Kyangwali, all of them were prominently visible - work to alleviate suffering, no matter the efforts of the Ugandan host government, the place is miserable and the people wretched. Yet they continue to arrive, at a rate of more than 200 per day. Every day. a recent UNHCR press release (in a news article) sums it up better than I can:
"Tens of thousands of people have died in inter-ethnic clashes between 1999 and 2003.
"Armed groups are said to be attacking villages, torching and looting houses, and killing men, women and children. Most people are fleeing to Uganda via Lake Albert from Ituri province, where displacement since early June is now estimated at 300,000.."
The Red Cross Society of Uganda does what it can to alleviate the suffering - starting at the reception centres and transit facilities. but as the same press release makes clear, these “... facilities are overwhelmed.... [but] the centre is currently home to some 4,600 new arrivals, 1,600 more than its maximum intended capacity.”
Let's not be fooled by the terminology - a transit camp is a collection of huge wooden sheds to sleep in; a 'health centre' is just a corner of the camp, with plastic sheeting partitions where initial health screening takes place and people are treated for worms, malaria... screened for cholera or other transmittable diseases. The constant threat of Ebola is never far away.
Red Cross volunteers teach hand washing and provide clean water for about 70 percent of the 100.000 residents of the Kyangwali refugee camp. 15 liters per person per day. With little more than a pump - donated by the Belgian government - and a few large tanks to filter the water pumped from the river. Trucking the water throughout the camp, day in, day out.
My discussions with the residents - and what I saw - remained with me for the next days. The faces of miserable people in a miserable place. Miserable, in spite of all the efforts, in spite of all the help. Because a refugee camp is not home. But for some, this misery is better than what they left behind.
And all I could think of is that song of The Klezmatics, An Undoing World