Reflections on my recent visit to South Sudanese friends living as refugees in Ofua 3 settlement, Rhino Refugee Camp, Northern Uganda.
After an absence of two years, I was filled with a sense of excitement when I bend down to enter the thatched-roofed mud hut. When my eyes got used to the dimmed light in the hut I recognized Israel, Emmanuel and Taban. We greeted one another warmly and inquire about the welfare of our families. After a while Felix and Christine joined us in the hut and we repeated the greeting ritual. Soon Emma entered the hut too.
We trained these six men and women as facilitators of the “Walking with Wounded Children” course, since 2018. They qualified in January 2020. At that time, their vision for their community was “To become a healing community where children are welcome and where we help one another through play, story-telling and active listening to bring God’s peace and healing to our community.”
I brought the facilitators together to give them a chance to create a common story about the past two years, as I listen to each contribution. I captured each contribution on a story wall with “sticky notes”. With each contribution a pattern of life in this community started to unfold before our eyes on the story wall.
The challenges were many: A 40% Reduction in food rations distributed by the UNHCR, increased prices in basic commodities like soap, and vegetables to supplement their diet, water bills and school fees. Teenage pregnancies and marriages with under aged girls increased drastically, and so did domestic violence. There is not enough land available to the refugees to cultivate, and when they do plant, the harvest get spoiled by the bad condition of the soil, droughts, and arson. Water is no longer free. Healthcare facilities render notoriously bad service, and the schools are overcrowded. Crime is on the rise and with it the level of trauma experienced by everyone in this community.
When they all shared it was time to sit back and observe the result of their input as it was displayed on the story wall. I asked them to tell me what they saw. “A community at risk”, Emmanuel said. Then Felix told a story: We are like the man that was chased by a lion into a tree next to a stream. He sat on a branch hanging over the edge of the stream. Suddenly he saw a poisonous snake approaching. At the same time the branch started to break and when he looked down, he saw a crocodile waiting for him to fall……
It was indeed a somber picture with only two highlights from the past two years: The goats and the seeds donated by Crises Response Network to help supplement the food rations distributed by the UNHCR.
I challenged them again. “How do you feel when you look at the story wall?”
Slowly the responses started to flow: “sad, scared, frustrated, disturbed, useless.” The atmosphere was now heavy with emotion, and I had to bite on my lip. They continued, “abnormal, abandoned by God, isolated from the world, exploited by the system”. I could see the tears on some of the dark faces around me in the hut. And again I had to swallow hard to control my own emotions…..
I could not stop now. Somehow, we had to move beyond the sad mood hanging in the hut.
I reminded them of their vision “to become a healing community where children are welcome and where we help one another through play, story-telling and active listening to bring God’s peace and healing to our community.”
I asked them what they did in the past two years to realize this vision. As pastors and leaders in the community, people come to them to seek their counsel on various matters. They started to share testimonies of how they used the knowledge of trauma symptoms and reactions and the active listening skill to really listen to people and help them through difficult issues. Emma is now recognized as a counselor in her village, and she trained six helpers to practice active listening when they council people in the community. Israel and Emmanuel participated in two different training events organized by other organizations and presented topics from the “Walking with Wounded Children” course with good effect.
The mood in the hut was starting to change. The testimonies started to lift our spirits and they we excitedly sharing more stories of hope and restoration with one another.
Hesitant, not to dampen their spirits, I asked, “What is the biggest challenge for 2022 and beyond?”. Emmanuel referred to the increase in the levels of trauma experienced by the residents in the refugee camp. “We have to reach more people, by organizing training events to equip parents and families to deal better with their trauma. The biggest challenge is funds to feed participants when they come for a training, and for stationary like flipchart-paper and pens.”
This has been the challenge since 2020 and it was time to find a sustainable solution to generate income for the training. They agreed and we discussed a few options. Emmanuel studies agriculture and he recently completed a module on poultry farming. He was convinced that it was a very low risk solution to generate income for training events, and soon the other facilitators were excited too. He had a piece of land (56m2) and an old chicken-pen on it. The chicken-pen needed a bit of reparation, and the land needs to be fenced. They agreed to start with 20 male chicks and 5 female chicks. The excitement was growing fast, but there was still a problem. They had no money to invest in this project.
Before I left South Africa to visit our friends in the Ofua 3 settlement of Rhino Camp, Uganda, I was invited to share about my involvement in the work done in the past and about the purpose of this visit at a house church in Bellville. Just before my departure this house church gave me R11050-00 (US$715) to invest in an income-generating project that will address a need in the refugee community.
I had the money in my pocket and was trusting the Holy Spirit to prompt me when a suitable project was tabled. I realized that this is the moment, and I took the envelope out of my pocket. I shared with them about the house church and their wish to invest in a sustainable income generating project that will make a difference in the community.
They were overwhelmed with awe and joy. For the first time their vision “to become a healing community where children are welcome and where we help one another through play, story-telling and active listening to bring God’s peace and healing to our community” had a source of income to fund the trainings to realize the dream!
It was time to reflect one more time on the Story Wall and the discussions we had. “How do you feel now”, I asked. God has not abandoned us. He already answered our prayers! We are not alone! We feel relieved and strengthened! We can make a difference!
A “community at risk” can now continue to become a healing community where people can be help one another to find God’s peace and restoration in the midst of the challenges and hardship.