Postcard — January 5, 2018, 12:18 pm

The Kids of Kyangwali

Growing up in a refugee settlement in western Uganda

COBURWAS primary school, in western Uganda. Photograph by the author

Kyangwali refugee settlement, in western Uganda, is a two-hour drive from Hoima, the nearest town. Halfway through the journey, smooth tar gives way to parched, rugged soil in dry weather, and a muddy quagmire when the rain falls. On this November day, the sun is overzealous. I’m riding in a convoy of SUVs, and the car ahead kicks up a cloud of dust, thick enough to limit visibility to three feet ahead. Along the side of the road, some leafy branches provide shade to a family of baboons who, seeing that I’m about to take a snapshot, flee cautiously into the bush.

Kyangwali was established in the early Sixties, in the wake of the Rwandan Revolution, as Hutus slaughtered Tutsis and more than a hundred thousand people fled that country. (Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s president, was among those who crossed the northern border into Uganda.) In the decades since, the settlement has also provided a haven to migrants from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Burundi, and recently, South Sudan, where civil war is roiling, and an estimated fifty thousand people are dead. Of at least two million people who have fled South Sudan because of the fighting, about half have come to Uganda.

It’s about ten in the morning when my caravan arrives at the settlement. A mere boom barrier separates the enclave from the rest of the world. We drive under a canopy of trees, passing the guards’ tents. Kyangwali is administered by the Office of the Prime Minister, which allocates land to refugees for building and planting, making the settlement largely self-sufficient; residents are permitted to conduct trade with outsiders. Nongovernmental organizations help with sanitation, primary healthcare, and monthly food rations.

I get out of the car and head down a road with Gloria, my Rwandan colleague. Along the way, we’re greeted by a herd of longhorn cows. In all, Kyangwali spans 79,360 acres, organized into seventeen villages. Homes are typically constructed with mud, thatch, bricks, and wood, then smoothed over with cement; electricity comes from tiny solar panels affixed to rooftops. Scattered among the houses we see stores, churches, health facilities, restaurants, farms, and a police station.

Gloria and I come upon an art studio, where a drunk man approaches us, holding a small bag of beans. He wants to sell it for 400 Ugandan shillings (11 US cents). I ask Gloria what language he’s speaking.

“It’s Swahili and Kinyarwanda,” she replies.

“No, it is Kinyabwisha,” the man objects in English, his words slurred. Children in our midst erupt in lively laughter. Gloria explains that the Congolese language shares similarities with Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda.

Kyangwali, home to roughly thirty-five thousand people, is a cauldron of African cultures and languages that include English and French. The place forms its own society within a nation, yet there are inescapable reminders of refugee life: exiting the settlement requires a permit, which isn’t always granted; the land is owned by the Ugandan government and can be revoked at any time; obtaining citizenship remains elusive. What’s more, there is the challenge of providing education to the settlement’s children. About 60 percent of Kyangwali’s residents are under eighteen, and with only ten primary schools and one secondary in the settlement, many are overlooked.

Joseph Munyambanza, who is twenty-seven, migrated from the D.R.C. as a boy. He attended a public primary school in Kyangwali, where he shared a classroom with more than 150 children. “Our resources are limited,” he says. “Schools are not really equipped to support the settlement’s child population.” His teachers were mostly Congolese; they spoke French but didn’t have a strong command of English, Uganda’s medium of instruction. At home, his family had trouble putting food on the table. “The UNHCR’s monthly rations were too small. Some days I went to school hungry,” he continues. “But I was determined to get an education.”

Munyambanza says that, by the time he was in sixth grade, only sixteen boys and one girl remained in his class. He managed to transfer to another primary school, and then with scholarships, cover tuition to a government-subsidized secondary school in Hoima. But in 2005, at the age of fourteen, still frustrated by Kyangwali’s limited academic and employment prospects, Munyambanza teamed up with some friends to establish an NGO called COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa, or CIYOTA. (COBURWAS stands for Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and Sudan.)

CIYOTA’s education arm, known simply as COBURWAS, began modestly, with Munyambanza and his friends tutoring twelve primary-school pupils in Kyangwali. But they had high aims: to increase refugees’ access to schooling, empower residents, and stimulate social cohesion among migrants of all backgrounds. In 2007, with support from local volunteers, Munyambanza and his friends built their first classroom. They hired Ugandan teachers familiar with the national curriculum and provided them with food, housing, and team-building activities. Later, with the establishment of a farm, students—with the assistance of adult volunteers and occasional hired hands—were able to receive vocational training and grow produce for people studying and working on campus.

COBURWAS now has more than four hundred students in kindergarten through seventh grade, to whom the organization provides meals; for secondary school, kids are placed in classrooms around Hoima, where COBURWAS helps cover the cost of housing. COBURWAS has also expanded its role to help girls cope with problems outside of school—by providing feminine hygiene products and reporting cases of child marriage to the police, which has led to some arrests. Adult participants in CIYOTA’s tailoring course—one of several initiatives helping refugees, especially women, achieve financial independence—sew the young students’ uniforms.

More than 1,700 students have passed through COBURWAS programs; about forty graduates have gone on to universities. After receiving their diplomas, Munyambanza tells me, they are encouraged to return to the settlement and volunteer in the primary school or in other CIYOTA training efforts. In the future, Munyambanza, who now works full time as the organization’s executive director, hopes to build a secondary school in Hoima and a children’s library in Kyangwali; add critical thinking and civic education to the COBURWAS curriculum; and make CIYOTA less dependent on donations, which he plans to do by hiring more help to sell the farm’s crops. Perhaps most important, Munyambanza tells me, kids in Kyangwali have started to visualize bright futures for themselves, as the equals of their peers elsewhere in Uganda: “Refugees, when given opportunities, can make it like any other person.”

The COBURWAS primary school is set in a clearing, on reddish-brown earth. There is a playground with fallen leaves from trees in the compound, a headmaster’s building, and two classroom blocks. Children troop towards an outdoor kitchen for a breakfast of maize porridge. Lunch will be beans and posho (firm maize-meal dough). The meals’ ingredients are harvested from the school farm or contributed by farmer parents.

In the afternoon, in the yard outside the headmaster’s office, I meet a nineteen-year-old South Sudanese secondary school student I’ll call Rose. (She and her family have been granted anonymity to protect their status in the settlement.) She lives in Kyangwali with her aunt, whom I’ll call Catherine, and her cousins. Rose is tall and dark, and like many girls in the settlement, her hair is closely shorn—the style required by her school in Hoima. The term has just ended, and she’s come back to attend Girls of Transformation, an empowerment talk organized by COBURWAS to preach the benefits of education. I ask if she wants to tell me her story. She nods and settles into a plastic chair.

Rose was six years old when she arrived at Kyangwali, along with her younger brother, whom I’ll call John. Their parents are dead—their father was killed in the war, their mother succumbed to illness—and their older brother went missing. Aunt Catherine sponsored the siblings’ safe delivery to Uganda and enrolled them in school. But the support didn’t last long. “She told us that we’re not her kids,” Rose explains. Catherine stopped paying fees for books and supplies, sometimes declined to give them food.

Determined to complete her education, Rose tells me, she began fetching water for neighbors on weekends, earning 5,000 Ugandan shillings per day. With the money, she was able to cover the 25,000 Ugandan shillings of required school fees for herself and John, who was too young to work. She managed to pay her way through primary school, but then there would be secondary—another 260,000 Ugandan shillings, which she could never afford.

For almost a year, Rose was out of school. She helped Catherine in her restaurant and on the family farm. Then one day, a CIYOTA employee approached Catherine with an offer: free secondary education for Rose in Hoima, including her books and housing.

Rose was off, and now she has only two more years of secondary school left. John moved from Kyangwali to another settlement, unable to endure Catherine’s harassment; he found a job and has just finished primary school. He doesn’t have a phone, but Rose hears from him once a month.

Soon, Rose says, she hopes to apply for scholarships to further her education and give back to her community; she intends to become a doctor. I ask if she plans on returning to South Sudan. She shakes her head. What about when the war ends, I prod.

“I want to stay in Uganda because the war is everlasting there,” she replies. “Even if it ends, it will start again.”

Still, trauma and uncertainty have not kept refugees like Rose from creating a semblance of normalcy. As we wind down our conversation, the bite of the sun is taken over by the soothing stroke of a cool, evening breeze. Kids straggle along the road, toting yellow jerricans—some empty, others heavy with water. Rose heads off to meet her friend Grace, a refugee from the D.R.C. who aspires to become a journalist. I return to the front gate with my group, stopping before a red hexagonal Simama sign. As the guard waves my car out, I wonder if residents of Kyangwali will ever find home beyond the barrier.

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