SO I am alive! I have been here for just over two weeks now, and I can’t decide if time has gone slowly or quickly. Either way, writing about the past 17 days is a challenge. So many thoughts to process, senses to sort, and ideas to formulate. I thought I was going to start with something sappy about the beauty and hope of the African sunrise, but thought better of it mid-sentiment…
The deep orange sun here is striking mostly in its elegance and simplicity. The residents of Meheba refugee settlement, while equally fluorescent, are profoundly complex, in a way no metaphor can capture. Their lives are mixed with the weighty histories of their countries (Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, Angola): decolonialization, resource wars, despotic leaders, civil unrest, failed states, and genocides.
The microcosm of Africa in Meheba lends itself to observing the legacies from this narrative, which are extremely fascinating but also disturbing. Stereotypical ethnic antagonisms (Hutu v Tutsi, Katangese v Kasai, Western v African) actively continue to play out on the ground, obviously diminishing the degree of “refuge” many are able to seek. In some ways, that brings me full circle to believe that despite the abundant diversity between the people of the African states represented in Meheba, most of the refugees here now share one predominant struggle: SURVIVAL, which maybe is like the singularity of the African sun after all.
So much for organizing my thoughts. Since Africa has me talking in circles, I’ll scale the conversation down to Zambia and my immediate experience so far. I left SFO on July 10, flew to Heathrow, then to Lusaka (the capital of Zambia), where I arrived on the 12th. I spent fewer than 24 hours in the city, but my overall impression was that it is less urban, less developed, and smaller than I thought. 80% of the population (which is only about 3 million) lives in “compounds,” which are basically shantytowns on the outskirts of “town,” which consists of about 4 high rises and a few strip malls.
On the 13th we took a nine hour bus from Lusaka to Solwezi, the town nearest Meheba. The buses are Japanese, and as a result the seats are about ¾ the size of a seat on an American bus, so that was amusing. It was crowded, but enjoyable.
Solwezi has recently seen a boom in development because there are international copper mining operations here. It is the nearest town that has full cell phone reception, electricity, internet, more than 5 grocery ingredients, a gas station ($13/gallon!), etc. It is about a 90 minute drive from Meheba, though it is probably only about 40 miles away. The roads in the camp are unpaved and abundant with huge pot holes, which means driving 20 mph until you get reach the borders of the settlement. We will probably be coming here twice a month for project supply trips, so hopefully I can post blogs with the same frequency J
Meheba itself is huge, over 500 square miles. It is actually designated by UNHCR as a settlement as opposed to a camp. This means that each refugee head of household is given two acres of land to farm and is expected to survive without food rations after the first two years of residence in the settlement. The average Angolan has lived here for 17 years, some for over 30. Thousands of refugees were born here. Rwandans have been here since 1994, Somalis since 1992, and Congolese from the 1990’s as well. 60,000 refugees used to live here, which has dwindled to 17,000. As a result, in the past 10 years Meheba has seen an exodus of NGOs. MSF, Red Cross, LWF, AAR, and others have all left for newer crisis zones.
The main implementing partner of UNHCR in Meheba now is the Zambian government, which runs the schools, clinics, police, and all social and community development services. The relationship between us, UNHCR and the Zambian ministry is complicated, but basically I’ll save some nice words for them in emails to you all if you’re interested.
Since FORGE is the only remaining NGO in the settlement, and as a staff, we are the only non-refugees who have a physical presence in the camp itself, we have intimate knowledge of the discontents in the camp. Our projects here survey a wide variety of needs. In sum, we operate (and I co-manage):
- 3 Preschools
- 7 Libraries
- 1 Women’s Center (outreach on subjects of nutrition, reproductive health, childcare, sexual violence, and workshops on income generating skills like knitting and tailoring)
- 2 Forge Health Services (general health outreach, basic medical assessments and referral services to the clinics)
- 1 Micro-finance/agro-lending institute
- 1 Peace Education and Computer Training Center
- 1 Refugee Advocacy Initiative (a referral service to inform and direct refugees to appropriate resources/authorities depending on their problem, this year we have also been referring people for resettlement with over 90% of our referees being granted resettlement!)
- 1 Adult Education Center (English, Piano, and Guitar classes)
- 1 Reliable Seed and Market Program (creating this project currently)
- 1 Forge Education Fund (scholarship program supporting high school and university students)
These projects are fully staffed and coordinated by around 60 refugees, and we rely heavily on our strongest refugee coordinators to propel the projects. So, as you can see, your hugely generous contributions, for which I can’t THANK YOU all enough, are making a very real and significant impact here on the ground!
In addition to overseeing the operation, implementation, progress, and evaluation of these projects, we also work with UNHCR on higher level issues (ex: we just submitted project proposals for a Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) drop in center that may be funded by the Danish Embassy), attend inter-agency and task force meetings and act as liaisons between refugees and UNHCR and the Zambian ministry.
Overall the work so far has been hard- professionally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. But at the same time rewarding in a way that I expect will make this experience wholly phenomenal.
As cheesy as it sounds, the setting outside really is quintessential African bush. Some refugees claim that elephants used to live here. Tall grass, giant anthills, flat topped trees, mud brick one room houses with thatched roofs, red dust on everything, goats, bicycles, and a warm, calm breeze sum it up for now. More than any other word, mother nature might best capture the scene.
Inside though, life is comfortable. The daily challenges here will not be related to lighting coals and pumping water to bucket shower, eating beans for every meal every day, conserving solar power, or learning to transport everything (mattresses!) on a bicycle. Even my intense arachnophobia has started to subside (these huge armored looking spiders pretty much live on every wall). But if you want to help make life a little more familiar, please send me letters and love and packages and text messages!
My phone number (including international/zambia code): 011 260 976153560
You can buy reasonable calling cards to Zambia online at nobelcom.com
My mailing address: Meheba Friendly Library
Attn: Sabah Khan
P.O. Box 110299
U.S.P.S. has a worldwide flat rate envelope which is $12 that you can apparently pack a lot of stuff into, and a flat rate box for $35 that holds up to 20lbs. Packages take around 3 weeks to get here. Things like protein (packets of tuna, chicken, beef jerky, nuts, etc.), granola, dried fruit, chocolate, anything that can be cooked by adding just hot water, are hard to find here. Also, movies, music, magazines, and books are very welcome.
So, this posting ended up being much, much, longer than I thought it was going to be, but I hope it provides some insight into this adventure! Needless to say, I miss you all dearly and can’t wait to hear about what all is going on in your lives too, until then, hugs and goodbye for now! :)