Andrew Kalema, PDC graduate from our 2016 Permaculture course, bamboo expert and ex journalist put it best in a recent Facebook post,
Someday we might all be refugees, how we treat them is how we wish to be treated.
Resource wars, climate change, collapse of the old economic order.. we would be foolish to think we are immune to catastrophic change. If displacement were to come to you then you could do a lot worse than arrive in Uganda. The Central African nation has accepted over a million displaced people in recent times, putting many other nations to shame.
International agencies have stepped in, UNHCR, Norwegian and Danish Refugee councils are visibly engaged, but it is the Ugandan government and people that has extended a welcoming hand by releasing land enabling the refugees to become settlers. I first became aware of the enormity of this situation in a BBC Radio broadcast ‘Crossing Continents’ maybe a year ago, highlighting the crisis. Congolese and South Sudanese people have been pouring across the border in search of refuge in huge numbers.
Experience shows these awful situations take time to resolve and by that I mean some years. Boredom, depression, loss of hope and human violation follows in the tracks of hopelessness, there is a great vulnerability and need for constructive action; so turning camps and places of containment into settlements and places of potential is a significant step forward.
Uganda is showing great compassion to its troubled neighbours, not only have the new settlers been given ID cards and land they are also being offered vocational training and that is where we come in.
AID agencies tend to work in departmental bunkers. Roads. Water and sanitation. Farming and enterprise. Education. Housing. Energy. There is little cross departmental strategy, so to even think about Permaculture in this context is an almost heretical departure from the norm.
Houses catch water, waste becomes compost, roads channel surface water in a way that can either accelerate or slow soil erosion. Tackling food and resource issues through community engagement is education, so to my mind Permaculture should be at the heart of resettlement and enterprise development, especially in these fragile spontaneous communities.
I heard that radio 4 program and realised the huge potential that was being overlooked but how was I to capture the attention of these huge NGO’S? I fired off a few emails to no response. After all Sector39 is a tiny training enterprise in a little Welsh village, hardly well placed to win the attention of international agencies or equipped to work at such scale.
Chance is a strange thing and it turns out the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s African operations did a Permaculture course in Wales 12 years ago. S39 began teaching PDC courses in Uganda after a 2014 study tour here visiting innovative farming projects with a local Welsh farmers support Charity, Dolen Ffermio. A course graduate and friend from our 2017 PDC attended a conference in Nairobi this January and whilst at lunch permaculture quickly came up in the conversation around the dinner table between my friend and the woman seated beside him. Turns out the lady concerned was operations director for the Norwegian Refugee Council Africa and they both knew me as their permaculture tutor. She announced that there was growing interest in permaculture as a strategy to develop community resilience in the settlements where they are working. She remembered me well and through my friend invited me to get in touch with the Uganda program director who was also keen on Permaculture.
I was coming to Kampala in February already to speak at the university and to prepare for our next PDC here in May, so I agreed to meet the Uganda project head and on arrival they immediately whisked me off to Bidi Bidi, currently the world s largest refugee settlement.
They couldn’t offer me the work directly as it had to go out for competitive tender but I drafted a training program and budget and in April was invited to submit a bid. I gather there were 100 applications from all over the world but we did win a 6 month opportunity to pilot a permaculture for refugees program that hopefully might become a template for future work. An amazing opportunity for Sector39 and permaculture in general.
We started training 40 participants from both refugee and host communities plus staff, whereby each participate would in turn be expected to train and support 5 family groups.
I write this as we speed home along bumpy roads, crossing the mighty Nile en route having completed 2 weeks of the phase 1 of the training. It has gone well. I am humbled and honoured to have worked with these people.
Everything I ever thought about refugees has changed. The dizzyingly huge numbers turn people into statistics. I couldn’t really imagine how to find common ground with cattle herders and subsistence farmers from Central Africa, Maadi, Dinka, Kakwa people speaking languages I hadn’t even heard of let alone had a grasp of. Through simultaneous translation, demonstration and the magic of permaculture we have found a common language. We have become friends. True connection has been made. I look forward to returning in September, we will give active support in the interim but as we part I can say my new friends and colleagues are inspired, empowered and ready to lead their communities. I will genuinely miss many of them and I know the same is true in return.
Through our own needs, food, soil, energy, enterprise and design we all have much more in common with each other than we realise and the differences are trivial and are what keeps life interesting. Permaculture unites us. Peace.
I have much more to say.. And will do so over coming days.