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Tents, Trees And Tukuls


Tents, trees and tukuls
Arrival at November Base; working out how Ikafe is structured
and an encounter with some unexpected wildlife...

Breakfast at Bidibidi - queuing for meals in the pyoti. They are a mainly male affair, eaten standing up.

I soon found out that a tent has distinct disadvantages as long-term accommodation. During the day, it’s an oven, baking clothes and bedding and turning facecream and suntan lotion into glutinous oily masses. At night it is freezing. I would huddle under my blankets, shivering, hoping that my mosquito net protected me from the wildlife that I could hear above, below and all around.

The first night it rained and I was woken abruptly by the floor moving up and down, with strange noises coming from underneath it. I remembered all the stories I had been told about snakes and scorpions and rats nibbling your fingers and hair and sat bolt upright.

I turned on my flashlight and shone it around. It soon alighted on a small frog, jumping frantically against the sides of the tent and falling back as it failed to get out.

I decided to brave the world outside my mosquito net, lifted up the flap and pushed the frog outside. But I still hadn’t dealt with its larger companion underneath the floor, which continued to move up and down alarmingly. By the time I got back into bed I was exhausted enough to be able to ignore everything until I was woken at 5.30 am by a noise from the next-door tent. It was the BBC World Service broadcasting an incongruous programme about the protection of Greek monuments.

Refugees, I thought, have to live like this for months, sometimes years, before their houses are built; whole families squashed under a plastic sheet – and no mosquito nets. My admiration increased over the weeks as I encountered moths as big as birds, irascible and determined rats, and finally, after the rains, the big black scorpions that everyone had told me about. A sting from one, I was told, would leave you in relentless agony for at least 24 hours.

Most of the staff in Ikafe had also lived in tents when the settlement was first set up some two years ago. Now, like the majority of the established refugees, they had built cool mud tukuls.

Bidibidi – which is what ‘November Base’ is really called – is one of the five such ‘camps’ within the settlement. The others are Yoyo, Iyete, South Base and Imvepi (see map). Imvepi is one of two new extensions to main Ikafe, the other being called, prosaically, Northern Extension.

They are all lived in by the Oxfam workers, mostly Ugandans, who work as drivers, food distribution and registration assistants, mechanics, water engineers, cooks, surveyors, registration people, public health promoters and community development workers, as well as office and management staff. Each base camp has its own (noisy) generator, but I was interested to see that offices also had solar panels.

There are few Sudanese in the base camps, partly because Ugandan law makes it difficult to get a work permit for a foreigner if they earn over a certain salary. Sudanese are employed in lower-paid positions but they live in the settlement with the rest of the refugees. It seems work permits are as difficult to get in Uganda as they are anywhere else.

I found it odd at first that ‘staff’ should be separated in this way from refugees, but realised later that it was at least partly for security reasons. Even while I was there, a curfew between six in the evening and nine in the morning restricted movement outside each of the base camps. (I heard later that in some refugee camps in Rwanda the aid agency staff live a couple of hours’ drive from the refugees.)

Bidibidi stands on a hill which dominates the surrounding area, with stunning views of the bush stretching to the mountains of Zaire – and a fence all around. As well as the large office building, there are three brick houses, garage and storage facilities and twenty or more tukuls for staff and their families.

This, and the fact that the workers are mainly male, contributed to my sense of being in a military camp. In the evenings the camp workers gather in the central pyoti or meeting house after they have eaten to watch videos – or play scrabble. The couple of times I tried the latter I found that Fred, the camp manager, and his team-mate, Daoudi, who is responsible for public health, had an amazing knack of scoring astronomically high points by using very few letters. They always won, whoever they were playing.

Such gatherings were nearly always men-only. It was noticeable that the men brought their wives with them, but that the female workers left their children with relatives in their home towns and lived in Ikafe on their own. Those men with families presumably spent the evenings at home in their tukuls.

Seedlings and smiling faces: children are eager to show off the trees that they are about to plant.

When I asked Beatrice, an Ugandan public health worker, about this, she said simply that she didn’t feel Bidibidi was a place to bring up children. Beatrice’s four children – Wendy, Andrew, Abel and Karin – were at school in Arua, so whenever she could get a lift she would go home to see them.

By contrast, in the refugee settlement itself there were children everywhere: small shy ones who burst into tears at the sight of a white woman, bolder ones who came up and waved hello, and children of all shapes and sizes sitting on stools under trees, their heads bent in concentration over their school books. By the end of my stay, those in the area nearest to Bidibidi Base Camp would call out: ‘Hello, Nikki!’ whenever I walked or cycled past – which I did often since the nearest refugees lived a couple of kilometres away. If I wanted to see refugees in the southern part of the settlement I had to hitch a lift on a vehicle and drive for an hour.

Ikafe covers an area of more than 500 square kilometres. The land was given by local people to the Government of Uganda in 1993 when the longstanding war between the Sudanese Government in the North and the peoples of southern Sudan escalated once again and Government planes shelled civilian areas (see pages 26-27). Thousands of people fled to Uganda. They were initially settled in Koboko and then moved to Ikafe where there are now 53,000 refugees along with the 4,000 existing Ugandan residents and 165 Oxfam contract staff and their families.

Ikafe’s size is mainly due to the fact that is a ‘settlement’ rather than a ‘camp’. The distinction being that because the refugees are likely to be there for a while, they are given some land to grow things on. The hope is that one day – if they haven’t been able to return home – they might be self-reliant.

Along with food, buckets and blankets, each refugee family is given a piece of land, tools and seeds. Unlike the standard media image of refugees squeezed like sardines into crowded makeshift tent cities, the refugees in Ikafe are very spread out. People live in family compounds which consist of four or five tukuls – there are different huts for different uses. One is a bedroom, one is a kitchen, another is a room to sit in. Smaller constructions are used as a pit latrine, a chicken coop and a place to wash. Sometimes the land being farmed is nearby, sometimes it is far away. But everywhere you go there is greenness, and sometimes even a profusion of flowers.

It took a while before I worked out how the settlement was structured – 24 family compounds are organized into a ‘Block’ and three to five Blocks make up a ‘village’. Several villages grouped together are a ‘Point’ and several ‘Points’ make a zone. Each Point is given a letter of the alphabet, so there is Point E or Point M or Point S. I found this confusing at first, particularly as most villages and zones also had names which the refugees had given them – often towns in Africa or even mountains and special places back home in Sudan.

To add to the confusion the zones and base camps often have the same name: Bidibidi or Yoyo or Iyete. And people introduce themselves not only by their given names but by their block and point: ‘I am Sarah, Block C, Point I.’ Or sometimes by the name of the zone: ‘Point J, Yoyo.’

I found the subject of names endlessly fascinating. Because most southern Sudanese are Christian, many have ‘Christian’ names: Raymond, Peter, Grace or Mary. Then they might have a name which indicates the state in which they came into the world: ‘Born in Exile’ or ‘Jealousy’ (if their parents weren’t getting on at the time). And finally, they take their father’s first name. Ugandans, who in this area are mainly Muslim, have a similar structure; they first names are Muslim: Kassim or Fatima, and then they have the two other names; their given name and their father’s. They might have a nickname as well. Women generally don’t change their name once they are married.

Ikafe itself is named after a tree that grows in the south of the settlement. Although many trees have been cut down to make room for the refugees, there are two tree nurseries growing replacements. I went one day to see a tree-planting session. Jenny Matthews, who was taking the photos for this issue, came with me. Several men, a number of children (who were waiting for a Catholic catechism session) and a woman called Martha were busily digging holes and planting a range of different trees. When the children shyly held up the young saplings to show us, their roots wrapped in black plastic, I couldn’t help smiling. They seemed such clear symbols of hope and renewal, as much for the children as for the local environment.

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