The Nakivale settlement is located in the Isingiro district South West Uganda. With an area of 185 km2 consisting of three zones and 79 villages, Nakivale is the eighth largest refugee camp in the world and is the same geographical size as the Indian city of Kolkata. The settlement was established in 1958, officially recognised as a refugee settlement in 1960, and is now home to over 60 000 refugees, almost half of which are Congolese. There is also an estimated population of 35 000 nationals surrounding Nakivale who directly benefit from water, education, health and nutrition programmes in the settlement.
To better understand the end-user perspective of energy access in emergency situations, Karima Hirji speaks to Alima- a Ugandan refugee who serves as one of Nakivale’s Refugee Leaders and directly supports the Livelihoods and Environment programmes by UNHCR and implementing partners. Alima tells us more about the Nakivale settlement, the role of women in refugee camps, and the desperate need for energy access.
Alima, tell us about the Nakivale Ugandan Refugee Camp and what your role entails as a Refugee Leader?
Nakivale has more than 60 000 people who are children, elderly and the youth. They come from everywhere- Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan. Many different places and so the people are also different. Some live in houses and many others live in shacks made from plastic sheets. This is an old camp and many people have gone from here to the US, to Canada, to Australia. But people continue to arrive and the government keep sending refugees here.
I am a Refugee Leader and I work with the UNHCR Livelihoods Programme and with the American Refugee Committee. What I need to do is to help develop the people. I organise women’s groups so that women can do business together, like open shops and stalls and make clothes to sell. I can also interpret for them when they need to speak with people or go to court. When you give people guidance and counselling, you see them change. You can change the whole world by giving people advice and teaching them.
This issue of Boiling Point focuses on energy access in emergency settings. In your experience, why is energy access so important for refugee camps?
Sure yes, it’s very important. You can’t live without it. A woman in the camp can be sick and she can’t go to the hospital in the night because she can be raped. There is no light so you are scared to leave the house. When women go to get firewood, they will be raped. It happens a lot. The young women will sometimes sell their bodies for firewood because they cannot leave their babies to go find it. That is why we made a greenhouse here to grow vegetables so that the young mothers can work here and use the money to buy firewood or charcoal. The World Food Programme helps us with this.
There is not so much electricity here. Some people have power and generators, maybe about 30% of the people. The rest can have small solar lights but others have to cook at 4pm because after there is no light and so they have to use candles. Some people can’t even afford to have a torchlight.
As a Refugee Leader, are you a key decision maker with regards to the types of energy the camp has or the camp’s plans for improved access? Does being a woman help or inhibit your decision making capacities?
They respect me. Maybe they even fear me? If they see a person help the community, then they will love you. All over the world, men don’t do everything so women are saying that women need to have the power. Especially the refugee women. I work with UNHCR to show the women clean cookstoves and charcoal briquettes and we do demonstrations for them and they listen to us, so yes, women can make good decisions here.
How do most refugees cook at Nakivale and why is access to safe fuel so important for cooking in humanitarian settings?
Many women cook with firewood. It’s always the women who cook. If there is no rain and no wind then it will only take them 10 minutes to cook, but they have to collect firewood first. If there is wind and rain then they won’t cook and they won’t eat. They will just sleep. It’s not safe to cook inside the house because it makes too many fires. Briquettes and cookstoves exist but the majority still cannot access them economically (that is they cannot afford money to buy them). This is because the majority do not have income sources and this is worse for single mothers and the like. Because they can’t afford these, majority eat breakfast and supper only, young single mothers now sell their bodies to get better their lives by getting stoves and charcoal, and others have to move long distances into the host community to get firewood. Imagine women walking all these distances and so they get old quickly! It even becomes worse when the population increases.
What support do you have from the local community in the provision of basic needs such as food, energy and water?
The local people sometimes benefit from our programmes too and I think they also need help and they also need support. But other leaders from the community come to see me and we plan to go together to UNHCR and to the local government. You can’t decide everything on your own, you have to work with other people. They sometimes make the briquettes and bring it to Nakivale to sell.
What do you think local governments could do to work with leaders such as yourself and improve the energy access for refugees?
The local government do health treatments and help the refugee children join a school. But the children still have to walk for 20 kilometres to school everyday. When the older children come home, the sun is gone and there is no light for them to cook or eat or do their studies. They come home and go fetch water to wash. But the government provides security. If there are any problems they come and solve it. If there is a husband and wife fighting then I can call them and they will come. I have their number and they have my number. So you see we do work with each other but they need to help people do business and make money so we can afford energy. They should help with every aspect and work with us in every aspect.
They could give us light though solar. Or even just one generator and we would all contribute a little per month so that the community could buy oil. Light is so important. If I had light, then at night if there was any problems I could call an ambulance. Now, people are scared because when it is only dark then there is fear. You can’t see if someone has come into your home.
In the last year, there has been a large increase in global energy advocacy and policy. Do you feel this really affects people on the ground? Do you hear about these changes?
I have twitter and I communicate with the GACC and with other organisations. I read the emails and I can see the energy work in India and in other places. It’s amazing. I was very happy when I saw what was happening. If there are workshops in other countries, I would like to be invited so that I can improve my skills and see what others are doing. I used to tell the women’s group about what the governments are doing all over the world. I showed them what communities are doing in Burundi too and in different women’s groups. It gives people hope and then they try more.
One of the reasons we produced this issue of Boiling Point is to place emphasis on the importance of energy access in the humanitarian emergency response sector. What message would you want to send to the leaders of this sector?
You can tell them: I am Alima, I’m a woman and we cannot live without light here. If we get light, we can work and if we can work we can do anything. If you are a refugee you should get light. On the side of cookstoves, we can’t just get charcoal every month. We want to buy it. New stove technologies need to be localised and re-developed with us the end-users (we the refugees in this case). We got the SAVE80 cookstoves. They are good but complicated and not all people can use it very well. And even those who can use it very well, not all of them got it. Refugees need to be empowered to afford an income so that they can buy these stoves and fuels (briquettes, gas, etc) instead of being given these things year in year out and which are not even enough to survive. If e had money, we could buy it ourselves.
Do you think its helpful to receive knowledge on energy access in hard copy form through journals like Boiling Point? What could we do to improve the way we provide information to leaders on the ground like yourself?
Of course it is good to get knowledge. We need to be educated about energy. To help leaders, you can send us books and you can send us Boiling Point and I can read them in English. But we need to have training and workshops with other leaders. Another thing is that women need to be in power and so we need scholarships for women, the young mothers, so that we can educate our girls. Women should not waste their time finding firewood.