Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to interview women from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Canada and Uganda about their lives as farmers. The writing process has been a journey in itself; listening to the recordings of many women’s voices, over and over again, and hearing what I didn’t hear the first time I sat with them in their homes, gardens and communities. Writing has been like traveling, all over again.
I’ve spent many hours carefully listening, transcribing and transforming their stories into the first four chapters of my book. The collective result, thus far, travels far beyond a few seeds in the soil, or the woman holding a hand hoe. The book, rather, delves into a woman’s thoughts, her understanding of what it means to be human, to be a woman. Sometimes it seems as though it would be impossible to separate ‘farmer’ from her identity. Sowing seeds isn’t just an act of food security, or sustenance, but identity.
Today, four chapters deep into writing my book, Women Who Dig, I’m ready to refocus my attention on researching and collecting stories from three final destinations.
One of those places is not a designated country. Rather, it’s a refugee camp, it’s a makeshift country made up of people from many countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia and Ethiopia.
This year, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that they’ll need to provide services for upwards of 3.4 million people seeking refuge and asylum in sub-Saharan Africa, due to conflict, violence and human rights abuses.
The Nakivale Refugee Camp, located in southwestern Uganda, is one of the oldest camps in Africa (forming in 1960) and today is the eighth largest refugee camp in the world, with a population of around 70,000 people.
It spreads over 21,756 hectares and is located in a semi-arid zone with limited arable land. It borders with Ugandan cattle and goat herding and agricultural communities, and also with Lake Mburo National Park.
Due to the conflict in the North and South Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, hundreds of thousands of Congolese people, reaching even in the millions, have had to flee their homes and seek refuge in Internally Displaced Camps (IDPs) or cross the border into neighbouring countries, including Uganda. By 2010, over 1.8 million people had been internally displaced from the violence in the DRC — the fourth largest internal displacement in the world. As IDP camps in the DRC became targets for violence, people sought refugee beyond their country’s borders.
In Nakivale, 70% of the refugee and asylum seekers arrived in the last five years — most of these people from the DRC, where it became impossible to live, raise their children and dig and tend their gardens. When people arrive at Nakivale, they are given (in theory, anyways) land for housing and farming. The latter, I’ve learned, is somewhat unique in the context of a refugee camp. This provides households, and presumably many women, with the opportunity to sow seeds and grow some of the food for sustenance, and selling of surplus.
Of course, the land is not ideal for cultivation: it’s semi-arid with limited soil fertility, dry and drought-prone. It also borders herding communities and a protected national park. As the population of Nakivale camp has drastically increased as a result of the recent violence in the DRC, the demand for natural resources, including land for growing crops, has intensified.
In October, I plan to visit Nakivale with some friends who are working to mitigate land conflict between the Nakivale refugee settlements and surrounding Ugandan communities.
I am hopeful for the opportunity to meet some of the women who’ve come to live and dig at Nakivale, and learn more about the challenges they face as ‘refugee farmers’ and how they strategize to live, raise their families and cope with the loss of living away from the places where they were born.
No doubt, it will be a humbling, life changing experience.