We are two 17-year-old students who thanks to Plan International and Save the Children had the opportunity to visit the Burundi Refugee camp in Nyarugusu during our Easter break. For three days we accompanied the Baba Watoto and Save the Children teams in some of their activities. Baba Watoto is a Tanzanian non-profit organisation sponsored by Save the Children and Plan International which support the refugee children through education and play activities, including Sports and Arts.
Although we could only go for three days, we hoped to still be able to get a little idea of what life in a camp is like, and start understanding what being a refugee really means. Three days doesn’t seem like much, but in such a short time we definitely experienced and learnt a lot. This piece will share with you a little bit of our experience with the refugees from Burundi we met in Nyarugusu and some of the highly committed Tanzanian people who help them.
Arriving in Nyarugusu, you would be forgiven for thinking that the camp is laid out along a main dirt road similar to many main dirt roads in Tanzania. Wide and surprisingly smooth, it’s built solidly, though the only vehicles you are likely to see are those of humanitarian organisations, as well as bicycles and the rarer motorbikes that steer well clear of the four-by-fours you’d be in. Along either side of the road, placed in loose grids between the sparse trees sit the rows of white (and not so white) tents, stamped with the omnipresent UNHCR logo.
From the safety of a cramped car seat, what you see of the camp doesn’t look as bad as you had imagined: yes, the tents look temporary but children are playing about as they are prone to do; adults walk and talk on the side of the road. Everyone you see is going somewhere. Every so often, you drive by a group of parked motorbikes or a table where a mechanic works on rusty bicycles. There are even hair salons, complete with signs in Kirundi and Kiswahili hanging on the blue tarpaulin walls. It seems ill-fitting to label these people as “refugees”. Aren’t refugees gaunt and quiet and traumatised? These people hold their heads high. Their hands engage in their conversations, and they walk with long, decisive strides.
Unfortunately, this first impression of the camp as a nearly adequate living space is a mirage. The observer will soon begin to notice other things that do not fit with the whitewashed image starting to build in their mind: the little boys and girls, barely toddlers, wearing only a ratty t-shirt or jumper; the lack of things to play with; the tents that start to sag as you get further into the camp. And then you step out of the car into this artificial world and you remember: these people have had to flee their lives. They have for the moment no future, no possible ambitions outside the limits of this camp. You remember the true tragedy of their situation. Living in these tents for a week or even a month wouldn’t be that hard. But living in these conditions knowing that this might well be your life from now on….? Still, children laugh and adults smile. When asked, the refugees told us how glad they are to be here. A mother who welcomed us under her tent said how she is now able to sleep without fear that her home might be attacked.
There is an irrational shame when you encounter people who have so little, and you are reminded of the immense privileges you have. Walking between the tents, we had a camera in our bag, which we were careful not to flaunt. However, I was mindlessly holding a plastic bottle of water in my hand. For me, this wasn’t a big deal, not something that I had to stay aware of. That is until a little boy wearing a muddy set of pyjamas came and begged for it. “Maji…” he said, the Swahili word for water. People have begged me for money before, and although it has never been an enjoyable experience, neither has it been a particularly distressing one. This was. Even though I knew that these people lacked water, I hadn’t put two and two together. What I considered a basic commodity was for this child a luxury in its cleanliness.
Water wasn’t the only basic thing that a lot of the children marvelled at. Our visit to a Child Friendly Space showed us how a simple notebook and a pen can create high excitement. But first what are these “Child Friendly Spaces”?
One of Baba Watoto’s activities which we found particularly interesting concern Child Friendly Spaces. Child Friendly Spaces are safe locations where children of all ages can go to play with other children and young animators. These spaces achieve a triple aim: 1) they give children a chance to play again through music, theatre and dance, and in doing so help them feel secure again after the trauma they may have endured, 2) they allow parents to complete activities which may take them away from their tent – e.g. registering, taking another child to the clinic, fetching food or water – all whilst knowing that their children are safe, and 3) they spread important information to children on issues like water sanitation, hygiene and children’s rights
Although Child Friendly Spaces are located all around the camp, for a large part of the children who live further away, walking to one is not always possible. To help more children be able to take advantage of the Child Friendly activities, Baba Watoto organizes Mobile Child Friendly Spaces We attended a morning session with one of these, way off the main road, which gave us a glimpse at how truly huge the camp is. Once we arrived at destination we all clambered out of the jam packed car and started to unroll large reed mats for the quickly gathering flock of children (and their curious parents) to sit on. The kids faced a dilemma: should they listen and participate in the group activity lead by an energetic man with a microphone? or should they join another gaggle of kids around an animator drawing a cartoon on water sanitation on a whiteboard?
Their indecisiveness only grew further when we -perhaps unadvisedly- took out two notebooks and pens from our backpacks and lent them to whoever was interested in drawing. The paper and pens drew a staggering amount of interest that would have made my Art teachers back at school green with envy. Helicopters, cars labelled “Save the Children”, houses adorned with Tanzanian and American flags, drawings of different people, all grew under the pen of these artists. The mass of people surrounding the books made it difficult to see the paper, let alone draw, but nevertheless, the notebook switched hands every few minutes, and previous drawings were evaluated by excited children and unconvincingly aloof adults.
On our last day, before leaving, we visited the tent of one of the mothers who had attended a Save the Children course on parenting. She gave us her two best chairs and refused to allow us to shift instead to her wooden bench. Sitting between old jerry cans, scratched cooking pots and low-hanging wire, she showed us a toy she had made for her youngest. A green soda bottle containing a small stone. A friend from Baba Watoto translated her explanation for us: “she says that this makes her child happier”.
It is difficult to reduce the camp and our short experience of it into a blog post. Nevertheless, this is what we have tried to do here, relying on a few anecdotes that surely have more importance to us than to the reader. This experience has altered something in us. Coming back to Dar es Salaam, we saw everything with fresh eyes, from a different viewpoint. Things have more value in our eyes now, from the water we drink, to the fans and AC that keep us cool in the heat. What remains now is to hold on to that feeling, to grasp it and remember it, even though it would be so easy to let go.
Thank you to the Baba Watoto team, for bringing us along on their Mobile CFS and helping us out at both the CFS’s and the TLS’s. Thanks also to Save the Children and Plan teams for organising this trip for us. Finally, thank you to the refugees that we met, for their warmth and the stories that they told us.