Flat Tyres and a Rolex: Toufique and Paddy in Uganda (7 November 2017)

Date: 07/11/2017

Duncan Lewis, Main Solicitors, Flat Tyres and a Rolex: Toufique and Paddy in Uganda

Banana-stalls, cement stores and carpentry-workshops blurred passed us, the diesel engine gurgled over gently, and the soft warm air breezed through the wide-open windows, caressing us into a tropical torpor. Eager to take it all in, we were struggling to fight back the sleep denied us by the all-night flight (why rest when “The Wedding-Crashers” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” feature in the in-flight entertainment?)

Toufique and I were on our way from Entebbe Airport, on the shores of Lake Victoria, to the capital of Uganda, Kampala. We had been sent by Duncan Lewis to work with the Xavier Project (XP), an organisation founded by my older brother Edmund Page (‘Ed’) with the primary aim of enabling refugees of all ages to access education and vocational training. Our destination was the XP guesthouse in the Nsambya district of the hilly capital. On arrival we succumbed to exhaustion and slept through the midday heat.

When we emerged from our siesta we wandered, day-sleep dazed, down Katwe Road, passing ‘pork joints’, yet more cement stores and a Church in full gospel song. Banish from your mind thoughts of African desert, dry rivers and safari animals. Plants reign supreme in this East African country. The city of Kampala is merely a temporary truce with nature: the forest is yearning to reclaim the hills and bury them in a green oblivion. The tropical insistence on life seems to have an impact on the atmosphere of the place. Despite the abject poverty and stale politics, the air is noticeably fresh and full of hope; people smile at each other and the streets sing with children. Reaching the end of road we bought a ‘Rolex’ each, a mouth-watering Ugandan speciality of fried-eggs rolled in a chapatti. Toufique turned to me with a grin: “This is Africa.”

Katwe Road

We spent the next couple of days preparing for a seminar on the 1951 Refugee Convention we were to present to refugees with whom XP work. The quest for decent wifi took us downtown to cafés where slick-haired arms-dealers in white linen suits rub shoulders with earnest NGO-workers with straggly blond beards nursing flat whites while frowning into their grubby MacBooks.

It was rush hour when we headed back for the seminar and if we wanted to be there on time, there was no option but for us to each take a boda boda, Uganda’s kamikaze motor-bike taxis. Our drivers seemed to have a death wish, and to assume the same of us, darting the wrong way around busy roundabouts, jumping red-lights, mounting pavements and even, in my case, hitting a pedestrian, who, typically of Uganda, just smiled; bemused but not angry. We arrived at the Xavier Project offices, on time, reeling from shock. We had flirted with death but she had rebuffed our advances. “Never again,” we said to each other, dazed. This was to become our primary mode of transport.

Toufique on a boda boda

After the compulsory technological kerfuffle we began the seminar. It quickly became clear that most of the attendees had as much to teach us as we did them. They were leaders and activists, drawn from the Congolese, Somali, Eritrean, Ethiopian, South Sudanese and Sudanese communities. While we discussed the theory of the Refugee Convention, and how it should be implemented in theory, they were able to enlighten us about the reality on the ground.

It was a privilege to meet these men and women, each with a unique story of what it means to be a refugee. It became clear that the 1951 Convention is not being fully implemented in Uganda, refugees are unable to enforce implementation, and the definition of a refugee found therein is too narrow and out of date. The Convention does not take into account the increasing roles of environmental disasters or life-threatening poverty in the displacement of people.

Seminar on 1951 Refugee Convention

Seminar on 1951 Refugee Convention

The next morning we left Kampala, heading to Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement, a seven hour trip to the north west of the country. Having both worked in the Calais ‘Jungle’, Toufique and I had been expecting tightly packed shacks, dust, and masked policemen bristling with batons.
The reality was more peaceful African village than District 9. We found ourselves meandering along narrow lanes, through fields of maize and small clusters of tukuls, the elegant mud-and-thatch houses typical of South Sudan.

The Xavier Project runs a peace programme in the settlement, bringing refugees from different communities and ethnicities together in group activities such as learning and singing. Children, whose fathers are killing each other in South Sudan, hold hands and sing together.

Xavier Project Peace Camp

Toufique showing off in Kiryandongo

Toufique and I took the opportunity to meet residents and get a sense of the conditions in which they live. Our guide was ‘Michael’, a gangly man with eager eyes and a ready smile. Impervious to the heavy heat, he sported pink trousers, a thick chord shirt and a garish red tie. Like the vast majority of the residents of Rwamwanja, Michael is from South Sudan, one of the million who have fled the raging civil war in the fledgling nation to seek refuge in Uganda. Like many, he originally came here in the 1990s, fleeing ‘the Arabs’, and had returned home only to be forced back to Uganda in 2013 after tensions flared up between the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

A cluster of Tukuls

Our first stop was to meet a women’s empowerment group, Rubanga Tweri, ‘God Is Able’. We gathered under the shade of a tukul and chatted as they prepared maize flour; scraping the dry white kernels off the cob before spreading them out on a ground-sheet. “We receive three kilograms of rations each a month, [scrape]” one of them told us, focusing all the while on her deft knife-work, “but we need at least four times more than this [scrape] because they don’t give us enough land [scrape].” Most of these women are widows, their husbands having been killed in the civil war, and are also victims of the sexual violence sweeping across South Sudan. These women are stronger together, but they still struggle to feed themselves, their own children, and the orphans in their care.

God Is Able Women’s Empowerment Group

Through the course of the day Michael introduced us to a number of families and empowerment groups; their message to us was clear and consistent: they do not have enough land, which means they do not have enough food to feed themselves let alone sell a surplus for cash, and consequently cannot afford to send their children to school or access healthcare.

Ed and his colleagues then took us to Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement, in far west Uganda, under the shadow of the Rwenzori Mountains which straddle the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was an epic 12-hour journey along mud tracks, battling torrential rain, back-shattering pot-holes, pool-sized puddles, and a flat tyre in the middle of a rainforest at midnight, only thirty minutes from our planned night-stop. It should be on record that Toufique and I did more than our fair share of driving, with my brother muttering something about poor night vision and his colleague John complaining of a crippling drowsiness after sunset. We limped quietly into the small town of Fort Portal at 1am, rewarding ourselves with a Rolex and chips, washed down with ‘Tusker’ lager.

We finally arrived in Rwamwanja the next morning, making our way through the settlement to the accompaniment of the squeals of children, “Mzungu! Muhindi!” (white man and Indian in Swahili), and the frank stares of baby-laden mothers, in all the colours of a butterfly, their little cargos swaddled up against the damp.

The vast majority of refugees in Rwamwanja have fled violence in Congo in the last three years. The Xavier Project is working in the settlement with Tomorrow Vijana (Tomorrow Youth) to build a community centre which will be a hub for internet access, English lessons and vocational training.

Again, Toufique and I took the opportunity to speak to the refugees who had gathered to meet my brother and his colleagues. In mist-muted voices, they told us of their hunger:

“In Congo we had enough to eat,” an elderly woman told us, skin taut over the contours of her skull, “we had plantain, cassava, avocadoes, groundnuts, rice, maize, fish; here we run out of food before the end of every month.” As in Kiryandongo, it was clear that these rural refugees are struggling to feed themselves and cannot access basic services.

Tomorrow Youth and Others in Rwamwanja

After Rwamwanja, we headed back to Kampala. We had been travelling for four days, averaging eight hours a day on the road. Everything was covered in a fine layer of red dust and we were shattered to the core. We shed ourselves of the road and slept deeply.

The next day was our last in Uganda and we were introduced to the other side of Uganda’s refugee story. At a Xavier Project hub in the cosmopolitan district of Kisenyi we met Ahmad, a young Somali man who helps run the centre. While giving us a tour, he told us of his hopes of going to university before setting up a business. Ahmad was optimistic about the future, he told us that the skills he was picking up at the hub would stand him in good stead for his career and he spoke positively about his experience as a refugee in Uganda. Despite terrorist attacks by the Somali group Al-Shabaab in the country, Ahmad says Somali refugees are made to feel welcome by Ugandans.

It was encouraging to meet Ahmad, a positive note on which to end our time in Uganda, but his opportunities and prospects also served to highlight the stark disparity between rural refugees who are stuck in a mire of poverty and abandoned by the international community, and urban refugees, who have access to education, vocational training, and business opportunities.

I left that evening with my brother and headed to Nairobi, Kenya, where my brother lives with his family. I had a 14 hour bus journey to reflect on the last 10 days. We left ‘Muhindi’ on the pavement; he had a 4am plane home from Kampala. He looked concerned as we rode off, our boda bodas wobbling under our luggage.

Paddy and Ed with Boda Boda drivers, heading to Kenya

It was a huge privilege to be sent by the firm to work on the frontline in Uganda. It was also inspirational to see the work the Xavier Project is doing to enable access to education for refugees and to bring communities together. I am grateful to my brother and his colleagues at the Xavier Project for hosting the seminar on the 1951 Refugee Convention, for introducing us to refugees in Kiryandongo and Rwamwanja and for being excellent companions of the road. Their endless good humour never faltered, even when, in a deep dark rainforest, we couldn’t find the spare wheel (it was eventually located under the boot).

Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect identity.

Author, Patrick Page, is a senior caseworker in the Immigration and Public Law department at Duncan Lewis.

The report on the refugee situation in Uganda compiled by Patrick and Toufique can be found here: