Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, a symbol of Ubuntu in practice

The last time I visited one was in March 2006 with Rev. Alfred Acur (he is now the Bishop of West Lango Diocese).  We went to Alebtong and Aloi; these were settlement areas for the Internally Displaced Persons in northern Uganda.  The war by the Lord’s Resistance Army was setting, and in a couple of months was a pending (2006) historical election; the first of its kind after the return to multi-party politics.  Back then; I was combing the country, mobilizing people to participate in the 2006 elections. In Alebtong and Aloi, I could read in the faces of many glum but hopeful young and elderly people that all they needed was an immediate assurance that peace would one day come back to their tormented land. Eleven years after my visit, there is a semblance of peace in the northern part of Uganda.

Earlier this week, I had a coincidental opportunity to visit Bidi bidi refugee settlement area.  Bidi bidi is in Yumbe district, and boarders South Sudan on the upper side.  It is one of the biggest refugee settlements in the world, holding well above 270,000 people fleeing war, suffering and misery in South Sudan. To put this in perspective, Uganda currently hosts just about a million refugees and a quarter of these have settled in Bidi bidi. 

Quite interestingly, Uganda is one of the biggest refugee host countries world over.  What this means is that while others are discovering more planets in space, Uganda is at it setting a new record of what it means to stretch out a hand of compassion to humanity.  While some of the world’s ‘powerful’ are slapping sweeping bans on refugee admissions, Uganda is instead running an open-door regime for a fair number of these displaced souls. Call this swimming against the tide – yes it is.  Ordinarily, no country would agree to take on such a challenge amidst a strong global wave of terrorism, state-centric nationalism, economic down turn, famine, growing race-based discourses, to mention but a few.

A drive through the sprawling Bidi bidi expanse of mud-walled huts and tents invoked memories of the 80s and 90s when Uganda launched its proactive operation against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On one hand you see helpless but hopeful humans of all ages and gender tucked in tarpaulin temporary makeshifts, while on the other, it is a rousing impression of young and middle aged; black and white; Ugandan and foreign committed people acting seamlessly to respond to a crisis at hand – ensuring their refugee brothers and sisters have access to basic accommodation, food, health care, psychosocial support, education, clean water, self care and survival skills.

I could see a host government whose hand was stressed but remained steadily dedicated to keeping the settlement secure. I could sense the resolve of government and partners to translate the lives of refugees and the host community through nurturing valuable skills, which will, with time, promote self-reliance.

At Bidi bidi Zone II, the Amanjuluku, a self-help group of young women receive start-up support from UN Women to eke a little living from making crafts and art pieces.  However, these women, most of whom are young mothers, want more than just a living.  They want peace back home in South Sudan – so they can return and live in their country. Their aspirations move the group to sing, dance and perform ‘peace’ to visiting folks. Throughout the recitals, it was clear that their dream was beyond theatrical representations of what peace should be. They portrayed a mix of distress; attempted to tell a story of their past and present, reaffirmed their identity and expressed gratitude to the community that has dutifully stood with them. The women’s sentiments were re-echoed and amplified by other dwellers within the settlement.

The spectacle of Bidi bidi is not just a sight of a refugee settlement; it is an epic representation of positive humanistic response to a human catastrophe. It is an anecdotal illustration of what societies can do to stand side by side with one another in times of disasters. It is a classic symbol and pictogram of Ubuntu in action.

Through Bidi bidi, I saw a blue print of the togetherness that was employed to fight: the disastrous famine in Ethiopia in the 80s, the HIV/AIDS spate in Uganda in the 80s and 90s; and more recently the outbreak of Ebola virus disease, to mention a few.

For now, Bidi bidi is a panorama of the bright and dark side of humanity. The bright side being – seeing Uganda, the international community and the refugees themselves acknowledge their obligations and responsibilities that all people should be treated with compassion and dignity.   The dark side of course being the specter of refugees escaping wars and conflict that could have been averted if politicians had the will-power to peacefully engage with one another in the broader interest of their respective societies.

In the case of South Sudan, I know Mr. Salvar Kiir and Mr. Riek Machar are very important persons, and busy too; busy handling ‘important issues’.  For that reason, I know they both can’t make time to visit Bidi bidi settlement or other areas hosting their countrymen and women as refugees.

This is the point at which I wish I could charter a 270,000-seater Dreamliner to fly the innocent souls I saw in the bustling settlement of Bidi Bidi, so they could chorus to both the main occupant of ‘J-1’ in Juba and the colleague who has turned a ‘safe-house’ in Johannesburg into a command post that, war is bad!  May be then, these two folks would bite an ounce of empathy and realize it is time to end their detestable silly fights.

Well, for now, we have to contend with the upshots of these migratory crises and deal with them as they come.  The world has got to commit more resources to managing such watershed moments. But most importantly, both as ordinary people and as leaders, we must abhor catalysts of such adversities and pledge to promote peaceful, prosperous communities with happy people.

 UN Resident Coordinator Ms. Rosa Malango (Left) shares a moment with Mr. Crispin Kaheru in Bidi bidi refugee settlement - 6 March 2017
 UN Resident Coordinator, Ms. Rosa Malango (Left) and Mr. Crispin Kaheru listen to a submission being made by one of the zonal refugee leaders (middle, blue shirt) - 6 March 2017

 A mother looks after her sick baby in one of the Health Centers in Bidi bidi resettlement - 6 March 2017
 A section of Bidi bidi refugee resettlement - 6 March 2017
Mr. Crispin Kaheru shares a moment with one of the social workers at the Bidi bidi refugee reception center - 6 March 2017


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