My Life in the Refugee Camp
My Life in the refugee camp is the sequel to The Return of the Sheep to the Fold. Gatare Venant left Rwanda at the age of 10. He and his parents were reunited in Uganda, eight years after the 1959 massacres. Having decided not to go back to Burundi, and stay on with his parents in Nshungyerezi Refugee camp, this is his own story of how, after the reunion in 1966, he managed to cope with refugee life against all odds.
Several months had quickly gone by after I met my parents. In the meantime, I had been trying hard to adapt to my new life and environment. On many occasions I had been to the farm where I had tried my hand on a hoe and many other agricultural implements, and on several occasions I had left my mother and younger brother and sister in the field, feigning back pain. On another occasion, I and a group of children had undertaken an expedition to invade the woods beyond the hill of our homestead, to gather firewood.
They were about ten boys, all in their teens. It was said that the woods haboured dangerous wild animals such as wild pigs, hyenas and even leopards, let alone snakes. But it was also equally known that wild animals hunt at night, and that many loud human voices easily scared them off during day time. So, on that day as it were, there was no mishap. We gathered our firewood which was plentiful in the area we had gone to, and, after some time of rest after play as was usually the case, we began to tie our loads up in order to start our journey back home. And this is when I noticed that my load was smaller than most, even smaller than my younger brother’s. I immediately made my intention clear that I was going to gather more wood, but my friends tried hard to dissuade me. Specifying that lateness in the wild was very unwise, my friends proposed that each of them give me a few sticks off their own loads instead. This arrangement suited me fine, and in no time, I had quite an impressive load, and that was what I
wanted. But…was it?
Soon enough, laden with the heavy bunches of firewood on our heads we began our long descending march on the way home. Earlier on, the way going up the hill was hard but lighter; but now, the way going down the hill was easy but heavier, and I was starting to doubt the wisdom of my decision to add more sticks to my load. Nimble-footed, the village boys made the descent down the hill an easy matter. The path on the way down was treacherous, but they knew every inch of it and they had experience. They knew each turn, each hole, each stone boulder and each dead tree stump to step over. But to me, all these were unknown and I had to avoid them with extra care. Soon enough, I was sweating profusely and every step on the way down was becoming unbearable. To add to my discomfort and something akin to fear, I could no longer hear the voices of my comrades, for they had outdistanced me. Inwardly, I swore that I would never go back to this godforsaken firewood gathering expedition. Never!
For what to me seemed an eternity, I caught sight at a short distance the roof-tops of the refugee camp down below and I urged myself to trudge on. I was almost there. It is in this spirit of hope and courage that my foot caught in a creeping grass. Tripped, I fell sprawling in the tall grass barely avoiding the wood load that almost fell on top of me. Cursing bitterly, I stood up, looked around and, craning my head glimpsed the last of my comrades, Kamana, as they made their triumphant entry into the camp.
“Kamaanaa! I shouted, feeling a deep sense of shame and mortification. “Please come and help, my load is down.”
A few minutes later, three of my friends (including my younger brother) came and divided up the wood load and carried it home. This story made the rounds of the refugee camp and I, the new boy from Bujumbura, soon became a hero of sorts.
Neither was this other incident less hilarious. This time I had gone with my friends to work for the natives in exchange of foodstuff. The work at hand consisted of fetching water for banana beer brewing from a stream half a mile away. We used clay pots to do the job. A fairly big bunch of banana cost six clay pots of water, which meant twelve trips or three miles to and from the stream. Together with my friends we fetched the water, making each trip in a gay mood, singing folk songs to boot our morale. On the last trip, however, just when we were about to receive our hard earned trophies (banana bunches), in an attempt to balance my pot on my head hands free like others, I tripped on a rotten banana peeling, and the pot went down crashing with a loud bang.
The incident was indeed greeted by hilarious guffaws and laughter from his friends, something that caused me a great deal of embarrassment. Moreover, I dreaded the unavoidable confrontation with the owners of the pot. Were they going to ask me to pay for it? Where was I to get the money from? I was imagining the worst of possible scenarios, but all these fears were due to inexperience, and of course, nothing came out of the incident apart from the Banyankole women, owners of the pot, laughing it off and telling me not to worry about the whole episode, and rewarding me with a huge bunch of banana.
And, of course, as part of the experience in the refugee camp, its activities and my interactions with the Banyankole natives, I acquired a new language on to my smattering Kinyarwanda, the Lunyankole.
Contact email: visathan[at]gmail.com