Mahama: A day in a refugee camp

A few kilometres from the town of Kirehe, a dusty road branches off to Mahama. This is the road that a Burundian refugee would have to take in search of what will be their permanent place of abode until peace comes back to their homeland.
White tents that the refugees stay in.
White tents that the refugees stay in.

A few kilometres from the town of Kirehe, a dusty road branches off to Mahama. This is the road that a Burundian refugee would have to take in search of what will be their permanent place of abode until peace comes back to their homeland.

On reaching the camp, the first sight that greets a person is of the hundreds of white tents scattered across the valley below. When a refugee finally make it to the camp, he/she will have joined 23,486 other Burundians who call Mahama Camp “home-for-now”, writes Solomon Asaba.
Beginning life in a camp

A new arrival at the camp is immediately registered in the official roster of the camp’s inhabitants.  It is this registration that entitles him to the services and amenities provided to each member of the camp. Information such as age, nationality, sex and family size (for those travelling as a family) is required for registration.

In addition to registration, new entrants are subjected to an obligatory medical check-up to determine if they have any ailments that will require special treatment.

Francisco Mendes, the Emergency Coordinator, United Nations World Food Programme, Kigali Rwanda explained that during the transition, children are mainly screened for disease and cases of malnutrition.

Malnourished children are rehabilitated through a series of nutritional therapy such as corn soy blend, CSB, plumpy nut and therapeutic milk until they have fully recovered.

“Some other refugees may also require immediate medical attention due to hunger after walking long distances, sometimes eating nothing for many days. It is also quite common for them to sustain serious wounds or other injuries on their way, and we make it a point to provide immediate relief. They are given nutrient-rich biscuits and fluids on arrival, and the injured are attended to with ‘First Aid’ care,” Mendez explains.

Serious cases might be admitted in the camp’s sickbay, while the rest become full residents with access to basic needs like food and water, adds Mendez.

After admission into the camp, the refugee will find in place an established rhythm of life that they will have to adjust to.

Finding water in the camp

Water is Life, says the old adage, and the search for that life-giving beverage will be one of the most important considerations for each camp dweller on a daily basis.

According to a camp official in Muhama, every member of the camp is entitled to a daily water ration of 10 litres.

As things stand at the camp, with the capacity of refugees being far higher than the camp was originally meant to accommodate, the water resources are strained.

Due to low supply of water, people form long queues to get water.

Camp dwellers who spoke to Sunday Times said they often wake up as early as 2-3am every morning to try and be among the first in the queue for water.

It was well past midday when we spoke to Ndikubwami Sarafina, a 17 year old refugee from Burundi, and the sun was burning mercilessly overhead. She told us that she had been in the line for water since 3am that morning, and did not expect to leave till 3pm that afternoon.

“The first people to come get served first,” she says, “and I found so many people had made it already before me.”

Ndikubwami says fetching water is the first thing on her daily routine, because all the other chores like cooking and cleaning depend on it.

“But we are much nearer now than we were “we shall get water soon!” she laughs hopefully, edging her jerry can closer as someone at the head of the line triumphantly carries off their now-full water container.

The authorities at the camp are acutely aware of the scarcity of water at the camp, but are optimistic that sooner than later, this insufficiency will soon be history.

Jean Damascene Musoni, the camp manager says that World Vision supplies water to the camp which is stored in tanks however large quantities are needed meaning that alternative sources of water have to be found.

He however points out the fact that the cheapest water source is 47 km away from the camp site is a hurdle because it is very difficult to have sufficient and timely supply although he adds that there are plans to establish water nearby.

“We plan to dig and build more wells and after completion, they will be enough to supply water to the people who will no longer have to struggle,” Musoni explains.

While on site, his statement was justified further by a couple of men south of the camp erecting a water source.
Jules Manishimwe, a technician at one of the wells explained that because the water comes from the tanks, construction of more wells will inevitably come along with setting up more tanks.

“Before the end of today, we are going to put up three wells and due to the scattered locations, very soon you will see relief in the long lines where people struggle for water,” Manishimwe explains.

Accessing food

Just like any society, after water, comes growing concerns over food and how to cook it. It is not any different from the Mahama camp.

24 year old Jean Claude Bazabose, a former resident of Kirundo, Burundi says that the other second important thing in a day is to visit the food store and collect food something he claims necessitates some bit of punctuality.

Firewood collection centres.

“The food you are given depends on family size hence bigger families usually receive more food than smaller ones,” Bazabose says.

When Sunday Times visited the food collection centers at the food stores, there was significant order and the lines were much shorter than all the other areas in the camp.

Mendez explains that order is usually maintained by adults in the line who are always tasked to control the movement. He also adds that the food provided is for a month and over 8,000 people are served daily although the first batch usually covers up to 40 days to give the new comers, an allowance of settling in.

“When a person serving food sees an old person, he immediately picks on them to take control of the queue and this is what maintains the order,” Mendez explains.

Although this is a camp, there is respect for the old and children who are always exempted from lining up as they are immediately taken upfront to access food.

Finding firewood

Still after picking the food, collecting firewood still remains crucial in the camp and all ages gather at the distribution points.

Jean Claude Irakoze 21, a refugee says that they usually give people firewood depending on the family size which of course reflects on the quantity of food obtained too.

“We collect firewood from here however some people who may need more supplement by picking a few pieces from the bush,” Irakoze explains.

Concerning scarcity of firewood, Musoni adds that if there was mismanagement of the cooking fuel, very few people would be able to prepare food although maintains that there are plans to increase the current fuel supply.

Treating illnesses

The health center is another area that people from the camp would not hesitate to visit in case sickness arises.

Jean Nepo Hakizamungu, the health coordinator says that with the help of the ministry of health, accessing health facilities in the camp is not at all a problem for any camp resident.

Although 22 people had been admitted at the centre, Hakizamungu explained that it usually serves between 250 and 300 patients on a daily basis.

“There are sections for different purposes; for children, men or women and our ambulances are always kept at standby all the time,” Hakizamungu says.

According to Cyuzuzo Emilien, a nutrition coordinator, cases of malnutrition are also attended to at the health centre.

And since the setting up of the camp, only 270 cases of severe malnutrition and 600 cases of moderate malnutrition in children have been discovered.

Only those with medical complications are transferred to Kirehe district hospital for further follow up and so far 25 cases graduated from severe to moderate,” Cyuzuzo says.

Cyuzuzo adds that there is a blanket feeding program for pregnant and lactating mothers to reduce the risk of giving birth to children with low birth weight.

Because the camp residents are occupied with a lot of work and activities, one can assume that life is all boring until evening sets in when it becomes clear that it is not all work without play. Most people will be seen joining their friends to play their favourite games downhill.

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