We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Democracy In Waiting


Democracy in Waiting

If refugees are treated as helpless that is what they will become. But giving control of their lives back to those who have lost everything is not easy. In Ikafe, an electoral system controlled by the refugees themselves is attempting to do just that.
Good counsel: Dominica is elected onto the Refugee Council.

In most camps refugees essentially receive welfare without any involvement,' says Tony Burdon, Oxfam's representative in Uganda. 'The UN, governments and non-governmental organisations work together for the refugees, but generally not with them. We wanted to change this.'

The Ugandan Government, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Oxfam are trying to ensure this doesn't happen in Ikafe. Dependent refugees cost more than those who are even partially self-sufficient and confident. But more importantly, says Jamie Balfour-Paul, Ikafe's deputy Programme Manager: 'We want to treat refugees as people'.

I was interested to find out what decision-making structures had been set up in Ikafe to do this. And to see what difference it had made to the refugees themselves.

In Ikafe there are elected bodies at each level from Block to village to Point to Zone and a Refugee Council that is supposed to represent the whole settlement. These structures parallel existing ones in Uganda. The idea is that this should support consultation and co-operation with local Ugandans - although as yet this has not happened.

Alice Abau Elia, who told me so much about women's lives in Ikafe, is one of two women (and 11 men) on the Refugee Council. She explains to me how the elections were held, her face breaking into a smile as she remembers:

'All the candidates stand in a line; whoever wants to vote for you stands behind you. I had a long line behind me, of both women and men. I was elected by everybody - it was very democratic. There is no restriction on age but often those who get elected are those who know how to read and write.'

Good counsel: Crescencio is elected onto the Refugee Council.
Crescencio, acting Chair of the Council, is more critical. 'The Refugee Council has only met once so far,' he charges. An agro-forester in charge of tree-planting in south Ikafe, Crescencio is a stocky man with fast, emphatic speech. 'It is not answerable to Oxfam - it is answerable to the refugees themselves. So it should not be a passive body. It should be active. It should explore ways to improve life for the refugees. This means having external support, links with other organisations and the Government.'

According to Crescencio it's critically important that more women become involved in governing the camp. 'The voice of our women is still not heard,' he says. 'We have only one women's representative at each of the different levels in Ikafe, except for the Council itself, where there are two.'

When I ask Dominica, the other woman on the Refugee Council, about this, she laughs, then becomes serious: 'Women need to be given the skills so that they can stand for elections. Most of the women in Ikafe are from the rural areas and are not educated. I was lucky. I had a father who believed in education for girls and I went to a missionary school. But even back in Sudan women are not recognized.'

When I put this to Crescencio he says firmly: 'Dominica is wrong. In Southern Sudan we have women who are lawyers, teachers, ministers. In the North, women are disadvantaged. But not in the South. In the South the war has made schooling difficult for both men and women. Anyway, here in Ikafe you do not have to be educated to be elected - though I admit that most are. It is not your sex but your ideas that are important.'

Dominica, however, is quite clear that women's position is not equal to men's, whether in Sudan or in Ikafe. But she acknowledges that things are changing:

'The pulling up of women is now agreed. People are understanding that knowledge is fruitful; that it is good for a woman to be given skills; that if she has skills and the means to live she will be OK wherever she is.'

Slowly, more women are becoming decision-makers in Ikafe. Last year there were no women on the Refugee Council - now there are two. 'Who knows,' Dominica shrugs. 'Next year there may be three. These things take time.'

Many people point out to me that the democratic structure imposed by Oxfam sits uneasily alongside the inherited positions that existed in Sudan. Crescencio feels strongly about this: 'The old structures are wrong,' he says forcefully.

I must look somewhat surprised at the vehemence of his statement. So he repeats it: 'The old system was wrong. If I die, I give my position as headman or whatever to my son. But what if my son is a thief? Or maybe he doesn't have the capacity? It is outdated. We don't want it. Back in Sudan we were already suggesting that the chiefs should be elected.'

Crescencio speaks in bursts of rapid staccato, so fast I can barely understand him. But then he slows down: 'Of course what I am saying here is a not a thing which will change overnight. This is a trend but it has to start somewhere.'

Alice agrees that the new system is a good one: 'In Sudan I would not have been on the Refugee Council because I am a woman. There are no elections like this. I feel that this system is clear and it is fair.'

At this point Theodor, my translator, who has accompanied me to meet Alice, chips in:

'In Sudan the chiefs are powerful. Even here, they are listened to more than the Chair or an elected representative. Also the church is very influential. People are familiar with the gospel and they try to follow the church leaders. This electoral system is new to most people; it has been introduced to them only here in exile.'

But 'here in exile' there is a potential for change that may not have existed back in war-torn Sudan. Dominica, Alice, Crescencio, Theodor and many other refugees are full of ideas and excitement about the new system. Whether it can deliver their dreams is another question.

In search of a church

Christianity is very important to the Southern Sudanese, and a lifeline for the refugees who have so little else to hold onto...

People told me that they heard drumming in at Point M on Sunday mornings, so one Sunday Jenny Matthews and I set out in search of a church. We soon find a young boy who says he is going to the service and would be happy to take us along.

On the way he gives us a tour of all the churches in the area. 'Over there,' he gestures towards the school, 'is the Catholic church. And here' - we have walked down a dry riverbed where the sound of frogs completely drowns out anything he is saying - 'are the Pentecostalists.' We shake hands with the three Pentecostalists who are sitting and waiting for the rest to arrive. 'And over there are the Seventh-Day Adventists. The Dinka are mostly Anglicans but they have their own service in their own language.'

We arrive at the Anglican church, a few sticks and a straw roof in the shade of a tree. Someone hurries over with some stools and a few moments later Emmanuel, the lay reader, arrives, apologizing for a) not being here to greet us and b) for the priest who has gone to Bidibidi Base Camp to take a service and is therefore not here to greet us.

It takes a while to establish that the service at Point M is not about to begin in a hurry. After sitting around for some time we suggest a tour of the area. We first go by the local water point where nationals and refugees are queuing together, then to the village where the deputy head of the local school, Taban Salah, a tall man with one black tooth, is doubling as a bicycle repairman.

Emmanuel, official and demure in his long black robe, tells us, as we joke with Taban and his wife, Mary, that the group around us are the 'revivalists', the new members of the church. As if to prove his point a man and a woman suddenly emerge from behind a grass hut and begin to play musical instruments. The man, Emmanuel Boi, blows a gonga, a long trumpet-shaped tube made from old tin containers. And the woman, Jesolina Jube, plays the koyo, made of a gourd with seeds inside. The noise is loud and vibrant and cheerful, enough to revive anyone.

Back at the church, people are now arriving and we take our seats. The service is in Kakwa but Simon, another teacher from the school, kindly translates for us and someone else lends us an English Bible. There is much singing and drumming on some battered-looking drums, then a sermon.

The whole service takes a long time, though otherwise is similar to Anglican services anywhere in the world. There are readings from the Bible as well as prayers, including one that I immediately recognize from its cadences as the 'Our Father'. Then there is a collection, where people bring small offerings, mainly of maize rather than money. And finally a long list of announcements - names of those who are going to build the roof of the new church (men) and those who are going to make tea for them (women); names of those whose houses will be open for prayers during the week; admonitions to share what you have with your neighbour. And, finally, a closing prayer:

'Though we live in hunger, God will help us if we pray. He will take us back to our own country. Jesus talked of the days of joy and the days of suffering. We are now in the days of suffering. Let us pray that soon we will have our days of joy.'

When we have said our farewells and thanked everyone for a final time we look back. The congregation have formed a circle outside the church and are still dancing and singing behind us.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 283 Contents

Subscribe   Ethical Shop