No Fear: Explorations of a Congolese Refugee Camp in Rwanda

As we twisted up the hills outside of Kibuye, the beautiful resort town on the edge of Lake Kivu, I started to formulate elaborate metaphors that matched our drive.  Our intentions felt a bit twisted as well. Mine were out of a slightly conniving effort to see an actual refugee camp, something I’d only been able to study from afar years. I felt a bit like I was getting giddy for going on a trip to the Louvre to see the actual Mona Lisa when I’d only seen photos of it in textbooks. I was in the Western Province of Rwanda to conduct an evaluation of my organization’s programming not to do my own observations on refugee culture. Every thought had a slight twinge of guilt.

Then again I shouldn’t have worried so much about my personal guilt, since I felt it was justified by the cult of academia. The pursuit of knowledge was worth the extra hour out of our way to get to the camp. I wasn’t so convinced my colleagues motives could fit in the same category. In the front seat of the organization’s truck were two Rwandans, my co-researcher and our driver. They both had a hankering for USA vegetable oil.

Apparently, if you like chips/frites/French fries, called alternately by those names depending on which colonial language the Rwandan you’re speaking with learned first British English/French/American English, USA vegetable oil is the best possible cooking lubricant. If I’d only know, I’d have stocked up with an extra suitcase of it.

My colleague asked me if ‘USA’ was a brand. I couldn’t say I recalled it on the selves next to Land o’ Lakes or Crisco. It turns out ‘USA Brand’ vegetable oil is a USAID donation through the World Food Programme. Since the camp residents have the status of ‘refugee’ they are given can after can of the liquid oily gold, yellow gold not black gold.  And gold it can become, at least in the monetary sense, to these forced migrants. Rwandan citizens such as my colleagues, will pay decent money for this rare resource which is quite a boon to the refugees who have had their  lives and livelihoods restricted and confined to a sprawling hillside tent city for thirteen years.

Our car rumbled up the peak climbing high enough that I started to wonder if we were actually going to run out of hill and have to go into some other world for this corn oil. This camp was so remote from the Rwandan town centres, it was like they were trying to play ‘out of site out mind’ with these people. One last turn and we could finally see our destination on the next mound over. It was like a snow capped mountain top but instead it was a snow of international-organization-issued ‘temporary’ housing.

We stopped at a thin rope across the road; it was the barrier between the outside world and the world of liminal life, always caught between the past home and the future.  A gatekeeper emerged from a small shed. He was a haggard looking man with deep creases on his face, a sprinkling of white hair on his head and chin, and a straw cowboy hat in his hand.

Rwandans and refugees were free to go in. Muzungus must stay out.

I, as the white person, was the hiccup in our plan. The camp is run by the American Refugee Committee  so I thought my citizenship might get me some pull.  We called the camp manager.

While we waited for the answer, women and children began streaming up the hill with firewood bundled on their backs and balanced on their heads.  A Rwandan woman stood in her garden, on her plot, next to the entrance to the camp, watching the caravan proceed back into the tent city. I wondered what she must think of them.

She has seen these Congolese refugees every day for over a decade. They are neighbours but they are set apart, given benefits she will never have, but living on a system that restricts who they meet and when they can come and go. Does she pity them? Does she envy them? Does she vacillate between extreme emotions?

My colleague’s mobile phone buzzed. It was the camp manager and the verdict was finally in. There was no way around it, since we didn’t getting the proper clearance to enter two days ahead of time, I would not be allowed in.  I was as much relieved as I was disappointed. We turned the car around without retrieving the precious oil. As we descended down the road again, we were stopped. Two of the camp residents wanted a ride. I assumed the ride was to Kibuye. It was an hour drive afterall. They meant Kigali, our three hour drive home.  So they hopped in and we chatted.

One was a teenage girl. She was a student in secondary school studying bio-chemistry and mathematics. I asked her what she wanted to do when she graduated.  “I have to go back to the camp. They let me go to school outside of Kigali because my aunt who was resettled in Canada
sponsors me but after that I have to return.”

I couldn’t fathom how she would use her education in the camp unless as a teacher in the primary school.  The Rwandan government allows refugees to work outside the camps as long as they return home for by curfew but even so the call for a bio-chemist in a lakeside resort seems to be low.

The Rwandan government’s relationship with the refugees has always been a bit shaky as can be said about many host countries.  Admittedly, the Rwandans have been more open than other host countries when it comes to the restrictions placed on those living in camps. Compared to those in the Kakuma Camp in Kenya the refugees here are living large. Still there are issues not the least of which is security. A few years back the State Department reported Congolese militias recruiting child soldiers from the camps.

My student friend didn’t seem too worry about that sort of thing now and said that for children, life in the camp was pretty nice. They had school and a basketball court and could goof off playing volleyball too if they felt like it. This made me think of my East German friends who said Communism was fun for kids. It was all organized sports, free time in line waiting for things, and kids expect a life of restrictions. It’s the adults who mind the things that tether them.

The other hitchhiker was a middle aged man who turned out to be a preacher. I asked him what the men had to do in the camps since the children had school and the women could run the household as they were accustomed to doing in Congo. “Nothing,” he replied, “They do nothing. I’m lucky I can preach wherever God sends me but you can’t farm without land.”

We talked about their hope for the future and the amenities in the camp. We talked about their families and their day to day life.  All of this was through the interpretation of my co-researcher because despite there being differences between the Congolese refugees and their Rwandan hosts, part of why the Congolese became threatened in their home was because their tribe spoke Kinyarwanda. The language is the main language of Rwanda and virtually no other country in the world. Yet there are pockets of tribes in Congo and other surrounding areas that share the speech.

These groups aren’t repatriated Rwandan refugees from 20th Century conflicts. No, there are many more of those groups all around the country vying for space on land that was given away in their absence. These are just tribes who hundreds of years ago settled on the other side of
Lake Kivu, long before the modern borderlines between Rwanda and her neighbours were drawn.  Now the other Congolese don’t want them in part because they are too Rwandan. The Rwandan government doesn’t really want them either because they have enough issues of recent
repatriation, to think about extending back seven generations is almost absurd. And the refugees don’t get much of a say either way.  They get the opportunity for a haven from violence and that’s it.

It’s true the Rwandan government is building a safe space for them to live. They allow NGOs to provide the Congolese refugees at least the basics of food, shelter, and education.  But those basics still don’t address the issues of personal identity. Refugees are restricted in even who they believe they are in what identity they want to build.

Most of the displaced probably wouldn’t choose to be Rwandan even if given that as a permanent option. Most, it seems, would want to return home if they thought Congo would be anything like the home they remember before the unrest.  Repatriation to the DRC can’t happen until the
dust settles from the bloodshed and upheaval.  They cling to who they were, who their family is, and who their tribe is. And they keep living. Keep building families and keep building lives; building them on memories and temporary housing.

I asked to take their photo when we pulled over at the halfway mark of our journey. The girl responded, “No fear.”  As in there’s no fear of her story being told. No fear of the future. No fear of the past. I admire that response, not a simple, “okay take my picture,” instead a defiant and accepting of challenges, “No fear.”

I snapped the photo and our driver returned, “I got it,” she giggled. Apparently, our quick rest was to pick up a bunch of bananas, a stack of plantains, two bags of charcoal, and five cans of that special USA vegetable oil. All in all it was a thoroughly successful trip.

Also posted on the blog Perspectives on Africa.