If you give a refugee a chapatti…

I am driving through Uganda as I write this. I am very pleased that we have had the opportunity to come to a second African country. The differences between the countries amaze me. Before I get into all of that let me catch you up on my last week in Kigali before we came here.

Our last week of classes in Kigali wrapped up our Ecology and Sustainable Development course and touched into our module on Microfinance and Poverty Reduction. In addition to this we got started on internship stuff.

One of our excursions was to visit Urwibutso, an enterprise started by Sina Gerard. This was a very interesting visit. Sina is an entrepreneur that started very small; selling doughnuts (not what Americans consider doughnuts though – they are balls of sweet bread basically) at a roadside stand and now has a pretty big business going. Everything he has done is very impressive but at the same time a little scary. Let me explain – in addition to his shops and factories in the town, he employs over 400 people living there, has built schools that employees’ children attend for free, provides health insurance, contracts with local farmers to buy their goods as well as helps them maintain crop quality with the help of hired agronomists.

We visited many parts of the town – all of them pertaining to and controlled by Urwibutso and by extension Sina. First we drove up a Rwandan sized hill to a small livestock stable. There were cows and sheep there and we were told that this was only a small group of what the enterprise owns/controls. Afterwards we walked through a small field of integrated crops. There was a strawberry patch (full of delicious strawberries), banana trees, macadamia trees, maize, avocado trees and I cannot quite remember what else but there was more…cabbage I think. After this we visited a primary school that was adjacent to a plot of pineapple trees, more strawberries, banana trees, squash, avocado and a vineyard. Urwibutso has recently begun producing wine. Then we visited a big area with pigs, rabbits, and even a couple of turtles, turkeys and monkey. It was very interesting. Lastly we visited the factory that produces juice and juice concentrate. From standing at one end of the factory it appeared to have less than 20 employees. I enjoyed everything that I saw on this excursion but the fact that the welfare of the entire town seemed to rest on one man or at least one man’s enterprise bugged me. So many people depend on the success of Urwibutso and not just for their salaries. Their health care, the education of their children as well as the livelihood of the farmers in the area all rely on Sina’s company. Thus far things have gone well for him and the enterprise but I cannot help but worry about the sustainability of it. If the farmers have a bad season and do not produce enough for the company then it is questionable whether all the benefits of Urwibutso would be able to withstand the hardship. Of course I am not an expert on the company and the safeguards it has in place in the event of something like this but it concerns me. Additionally if something were to happen to Sina Gerard it makes me wonder if there is a second in command ready to take over and ensure the smooth running and security of the company and all it’s beneficiaries. Overall the excursion was awesome and simply allowed me to critically evaluate an initiative set forth by an individual in contributing towards Rwandan’s growth.

One of the last things we did before leaving Kigali was work on planning our internships and getting in contact with organizations and individuals who could help us. I visited with an organization called Lifemate. They are a social business in Kigali that works with farmers to grow, process and export coffee on the international market. They work with YES (Youth Entrepreneurship and Sustainability). This is an international NGO that empowers young people and encourages their entrepreneurial endeavors. I am very excited that Lifemate is considering working with me. I still have not heard a decision from them but their director has been travelling so I am not terribly concerned. If I am not able to intern with them I hope to secure work with a similar organization or cooperative that works in coffee production and international trade. Our internships will last for our remaining three months here and will be an amazing opportunity to involve ourselves more deeply with a specific aspect of the country.

Our drive to Uganda was beautiful! The scenery in Rwanda and Uganda is absolutely breathtaking. Each time we drive through the countryside it amazes me. Getting to the border only took about two hours from Kigali and passing through immigration was a breeze. Once we got over the border one of the first things we did was exchange Rwandan Francs for Ugandan Shillings. This intrigued me because we negotiated our exchange rate, which I did not know was something that you did – at least not on an individual basis for small amounts of currency. We exchanged at .268 meaning we got (according to my very confusing calculations which may or may not be accurate) 3.73 shillings per Rwandan Franc and that going from USD at that rate from Francs would have been .0016. Basically, 24.875 USD = 15,000 RWF = 55,970 UGX. Which also means that they are facing very high rates of inflation and you more or less feel like you are playing with monopoly money when you are holding their currency. Some of the differences between Rwanda and Uganda were noticeable immediately after crossing the border. First off the national language is English so communicating was much easier than in Rwanda. Also the country is dirtier, less organized and for the most part things are laughably cheap.

Our first stop in Uganda was in Mbarara and our first excursion was to the Nakivale Refugee Settlement. This was a very interesting journey. It is 45 kilometers across and there are over 56,000 refugees in the settlement. The camp hosts Congolese, Rwandans, Burundians, Somalis, Kenyans, two Italians, a single Iraqi and Sudanese. Also the camp and the drive out to the settlements looked much more like I expected Africa to look: vast empty spaces, dry grass and scattered tufts of bush and trees. While we were at Nakivale we had the opportunity to meet and talk with a group of Rwandan refugees and a group of Congolese refugees. The camp is operated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ugandan Government. A handful of other organizations help with aid and assistance including the World Food Program (WFP). The Deputy Secretary Commander (a Ugandan employee in the Prime Minister’s office) of the camp met with us and gave us a basic rundown of the operations. The process for entering the camp involves acquiring status as an asylum seeker and then undergoing a series of interviews. Three or four times a year a team from Kampala, the Refugee Eligibility Committee, visits the camp to interview the asylum seekers and determine if they will be granted refugee status or not. I found it surprising that this part of the process occurs so few times a year. It means that an asylum seeker can wait up to four months before the government or international community even begins to consider them as a refugee. The Deputy did not know the specific criteria for consideration of refugee status, or at least claimed to not know it. Additionally, if the team rejects a client they have the right to appeal the team’s decision and have conduct the interview process when they return to the camp. After two, and in rare cases three, rejections by the team, individuals are taken back to their home country. However, he did not tell us the process for forced repatriation of asylum seekers who fail to acquire refugee status. Once asylum seekers receive refugee status the camp grants them a plot of land to build their house and engage in gainful economic activities. There are three options for refugees living in the camp: eventual voluntary repatriation after the country has come out of conflict, becoming citizens of the host country and resettlement. We learned that only 5% of refugees in Nakivale voluntarily repatriate. After talking with the Deputy we went out to meet with our two groups of refugees.

The Rwandans were very interesting. We all felt as if we had an extremely hard time getting information out of them. The things they said to us did not feel honest and were very hard to believe given our studies of Rwanda up to that point. The stories they told us and their reasons for refusing to repatriate did not line up with what we have heard and know about Rwanda. Of course we are not experts on Rwanda nor do we know everything that happens in the country but their claims were very far-fetched and their mannerisms and presentation of the stories made it hard for us to believe them. Meeting them was still very enlightening. Even though we did not get what we anticipated from speaking with these refugees it showed us a very interesting side of the refugee story. After talking with the Rwandans we met with a group of Congolese refugees. They were much more willing to share their stories with us and seemed a good deal more genuine. Their stories were hard to listen to and the violence they faced (or at least said they faced) was heartbreaking. I really enjoyed hearing about their pasts and the challenges they currently face. I cannot honestly say that I am not somewhat biased against the Rwandans, even though it is unintentional, simply because I know more about the country’s history. Despite this the physical appearance of the refugees told so much about them. The way they answered our questions and their body language told us so much. Also, the desire that the Congolese had to return to the DRC and their interest in what was occurring in the country at that moment made them seem much more genuine and easier to trust and sympathize with. Needless to say, meeting with the refugees was such an exciting and invaluable experience.

Oh yeah, on the way out we were eating sandwiches and chapatti on the bus. We drove by some kids and one of the guys gave him a chapatti out the window. Just as soon as that happened there was another kid running towards us. And another. And another. You get the picture. It lasted for a couple of minutes until we had given them all away as well as one of our directors sandwiches. Thought I would try to explain the title a bit 🙂

Well this barely touches on our trip to Uganda but it is a start. I will get the rest of the journey posted this weekend!!

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