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.

Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today