Published: May 23rd 2007May 23rd 2007
Walking through Dzaleka camp market
On Wednesday I was picked up near my house to head out to Dzaleka refugee camp, which is a little over an hour from Lilongwe. The proximity to a major urban center is something that makes Dzaleka unlike most refugee camps, which are usually very isolated. It is also a very established camp, which many of the refugees (most of which fled the Rwandan genocide and conflict in the Dem. Rep. of Congo) have lived in for many years—some over a decade. Mike later asked me whether it looked like what I had imagined a refugee camp to look like—yes and no. We are used to seeing images in the media of new, makeshift camps, for example like those that have recently sprung up in Chad—really rudimentary shelters consisting of some fabric pitched over some sticks. Dzaleka used to be a prison where Banda cast his political opposition, so there are a few buildings here (although don’t get the impression that I mean they are in any way liveable). The rest, and vast majority, of dwellings here are mud huts, with dirt floors, no windows, no electricity, no running water. I
was surprised that there is a market in the center of the camp, but it really isn’t surprising when you consider how long most of these people have been here. In addition to stalls selling vegetables, there are a couple of shops where sodas and things like bouillon can be purchased, several barber shops (which I also found surprising but makes sense considering no one can afford their own clippers), a butcher, a shebeen
(sort of a speakeasy), and a couple of stalls selling prepared food like fries and skewered meat. I am told most people selling in the market are Malawian.
When I first arrived at the camp I first met the teachers (all Malawian) who instruct the older students in English, needlework, and computer skills, and visited some of the classes. Then I was introduced to a refugee from the Congo who would be my guide for the day—I will call him Patrice. He is a young man who fled the Congo when he was 14; his father was murdered while he was in school, and he was advised to leave immediately. He made it to Zambia with the help of a priest, and then here to
Young girl with her baby sister
This young girl is actually the daugter of a Malawian staff member at the camp. She cares for her sister during the day while her mother is at work; although she's very shy and doesn't speak, she likes to hang around the classrooms and listen in!
Malawi, where he has been since. He spent the day taking me all over the camp so I could introduce myself to people and generally get a sense of the place. It’s spread out over the top of a hill (I am told Banda specifically located his political prison there because it gets cold and windy). Most people have a very small plot consisting of their mud hut and not much else, but some have a small plot in which they can grow maize or potatoes. Some families have an animal, such as a goat or pig. There is a mill far out on the edge of the camp where refugees take their maize to be ground into mealie meal, the staple of the southern African diet. (Here in Malawi it’s called nsima
.) There are bathrooms (which are basically very rudimentary concrete latrines) scattered around, I can’t get a good estimate but each one appears to serve around 6-8 families. There are also water pumps scattered about where refugee women and girls go to wash clothes and get water for the day in buckets.
The families we visited, mostly Congolese, were unbelievably welcoming and eager to talk to me.
Isaiah and one of his students
She is one of a handful of Somalis at the camp, and is the only Somali in her class. She is extremely shy, and beautiful but she always covers her face with her scarf while she's speaking to you.
Many Congolese speak French, though these tend to be the men. The women who didn’t have equal access to schools either speak a Congolese language or Swahili. (I could speak in French with some of the Rwandan women I met, though most speak only Kinyarwanda of which I know one word!) Many refugees have also picked up Chichewa, the Malawian language. I would generally ask them the same introductory questions, such as how long they have lived here and where they are from. I would also ask them how they feel about several thousand more refugees being moved up here from the Luwani camp, to which they invariably would say something along the lines of, “they are refugees just like us, they deserve to be here as much as us” (though this was always accompanied by the disclaimer that the government hasn’t built any additional bathrooms or water holes to accommodate them). The refugees were always very curious about me and where I was from—several, upon hearing I was from the U.S., would facetiously ask if I could bring them back with me in my suitcase. Some of the people I met practiced a skill they had brought with them
from home, such as one very old woman from Burundi who wove traditional decorative baskets. Each one took her about two weeks to make, and she was asking around $6 for them. (I would love to find a way to link her crafts and others’ up to some fair trade program like Global Exchange, if anyone has ideas as to how to do that please let me know!) The only way to make ends meet for most families is for the husbands and boys to leave the camp (illegally) to work (also illegally) as day laborers. Families only receive a monthly ration of very basic food (flour, beans, oil, salt—which may or may not be spoilt) which I am told is never enough, and no money, so for many this is the only practical way to buy additional food in the camp market.
The older people I met (mostly women since they were the ones at home during the day) did not convey to me any complaints or negative sentiments about living in the camp, I am guessing out of modesty or politeness. But a constant refrain from the younger people in the camp was the feeling that they
were wasting away in the camp, since they are not permitted to leave, or to work. Many of them have university degrees from home, which do them no good here. The youngest children tend to speak very good English, the language of instruction in the camp schools, and are very optimistic and positive. Most adults I met were adamant that they would not want to return home to Congo or Rwanda even if it were safe, while many teenagers expressed a desire to go back (which is encouraging).
Most people expressed feelings of general insecurity in the camp, both due to the condition of day-to-day survival, and because they fear that the perpetrators of atrocities back home might be living among them in the camp. Even if not the actual individual perpetrators, there are often members of the perpetrators’ tribe. Patrice told me he sees people from the tribe that killed his father every day, but that he tries to avoid looking at them through that lens. The Rwandans in the camp are probably all Hutus; I was told a story from another refugee camp in which a Hutu said that if a Tutsi refugee arrived in the camp,
he wouldn’t last a day before being killed. I haven’t heard (so far) of any such incidents here at Dzaleka, but at the very least there seems to be a general malaise.
I imagine this is getting very long to read, and I will have plenty of time to talk about my new friends here over the next few weeks! So that’s all for now.
There are more photos below