Tuesday, January 30, 2007


2-3 dusty, dry and rattling hours north-east from Arua you will find Ikafe refugee settlement, “home” to southern Sudanese refugees who have been here as long as 15 years (some say longer). I have spent some time over the past few weeks at Ikafe and the surrounding communities. We were initially invited as guests, to visit several host families at Ikafe. We were to spend the day with them: eating, chatting, listening and learning. The families were given the resources to host us, so we were not drawing from their very small supply of food. However, many families insisted on sending us away with gifts, and one of my colleagues returned to Arua with a live chicken in the back of her car!

TPO works in Ikafe, and the staff chose our host families for their relative stability and their various standing within the community, so that we may understand “normal” in this complex and terribly impoverished camp environment.

The families were delighted to have us there, many commenting that this was their first visit with a mzungu (foreign/white person). Others mentioned that other mzungus always treated them as dirty, left as quickly as possible, and never wanted to eat with them.

Many of the families told us that they had been preparing for us for days, looking forward to the visit for weeks. All of us had very unique experiences, depending on our hosts. Common questions to us included:

“What do you grow on your land?”
“Why are you so far from your family/clan/tribe?”
“What is your religion?”
“How many wives/children do you have?”
“Is there rain in your home?”

Questions we asked included:
Who is in your family?
Have you ever been to Arua? (to discern how much/little they have traveled past the camp
What do you think of the peace agreement?
How did you become a refugee?
Are you planning on going home?
What problems do you face here?

The International Rescue Committee (www.theirc.org), in conjunction with the Office of the Prime Minister, administers most programs inside Ikafe, including the health services. I was given a gracious tour of the maternal health center and the general health clinic. The former consisted of two beds for birthing, and a scale set inside a sparse room. Two midwives tended to dozens of pregnant women, mothers and babies lined up outside the clinic, breast feeding and tending to their little ones. The birth rate at Ikafe is astronomical, and conditions for birthing poor, although better than some places. The doctor shared that the top health problems faced at Ikafe are: disease (malaria, typhoid, and waterborne diseases mostly), malnutrition, and birthing problems. HIV/AIDS is growing, but not severe in the camp. It is an ongoing struggle to identify these patients. The doctor shared, though, that the school had recently initiated a better health education program, and many of the psychosocial projects were geared toward changing attitudes about sexual behavior and associated health problems.

I had an opportunity to learn more about this because I was hosted during this initial visit to Ikafe by Ezama, a teacher at Ikafe’s school. Ezama, a Ugandan national, lives in Okubani, the abutting village. The school serves the national and refugee community alike, as does the health center. Ezama and Okubani left a lasting impression and I learned more in 8 hours than in much of my formal education.

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