The Covid-19 Lockdown and the case for praxis research: The experience of urban refugees in Uganda

By Dr. Moses Okech

How do you account for this time when you only wake up every morning to look forward to the next news update about the same thing you went to bed last night thinking about? How do you account for this time when today seems exactly like yesterday? No one is calling you for work. No movements… This is a very hard time for me.

These were the words of a 28-year old South Sudanese refugee living in a Kampala suburb lamenting on the hardships meted by the recent government bans to curb the spread of the novel corona virus in Uganda. His access to casual work through which he ekes a living has been disrupted.

Ever since 18th of March 2020, the Government of Uganda has announced different sets of guidelines and measures to prevent the spread of Covid19 disease in the country. The measures, ranging from banning public gatherings and public transport, to closure of schools and markets meant life was not going to be normal for many ordinary Ugandans. This would be even more difficult for refugees and displaced persons whose lives were already compromised by the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Playing host to over 1.1 million refugees (UNHCR 2018), Uganda’s generosity as a destination to refugees from neighbouring countries that include South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, DRC and others has already been well-documented. This is accentuated by Uganda’s ‘open-door’ refugee policy that unlike the encampment policy practiced in other countries allows refugees to move freely. Those in receipt of targeted protection services are placed in settlements where each refugee family is given a piece of land ranging between 30 to 50 square meters by the Government. For a government that already grapples with budget constraints to meet socio-economic demands of its own citizens this is considered a more sustainable balance between practicing the African concept of ‘Ubuntu’ – i.e humanity towards others –  while meeting the needs of nationals. The other category, the urban refugees, mostly comprise individuals who by nature of their socio-economic profiles and other factors prefer to try their chances in urban centres. Some of these are people with family affinities and friends in these towns. Most of them are also young.

The Covid19 lockdowns affected these people differently; the following are testimonies from some refugees in Kampala.

Prior to these lockdowns, I was working as volunteer translator for NGOs working with the Congolese community. As you know, most of our people do not speak English or Luganda that are widely spoken in Kampala.  Although I would not say I had a full-time job, I would at least be engaged for something like 6 to 10 days each month as a language translator. I would be paid some compensation for each translation session which could help me pay my rent bills and buy some food. Since March when lockdowns began, these NGOs have not been engaging me in any activities and this has really affected me. I do not know what to do. A male Congolese refugee; 24 years old.

This was a typical story among many young refugees. It was clear that most were engaged in some kind of casual work that had been affected in one way or the other. The situation of one more elderly refugee is rather different. In her case, she has been an established self-employed artisan dealing in tailoring and fashion design through which she pays her rent, feeds the family and educates her 4 children. Previously, she operated from a busy part of Nsambya neighbourhood but when rumours began circulating about an impending lockdown she moved her machines to her home in a shanty part of town. Unfortunately, her usual clients can no longer access her premises and people in her neighbourhood are too poor to afford her services. All this happened at a time when she was meant to pay her house rent arears of 2 months that was due in March and has now accumulated to a four-month bill. Last week her landlord threw her out of the house despite the recent presidential guidance that no tenant should be thrown out for failure to pay rent accumulated during the lockdown. According to her, the landlord took advantage of her refugee status knowing well there was nothing she could do. It took the intervention of the area Local Council Chairman and a fellow refugee with social connections in the city to reverse the decision and she made a pledge to pay up as soon as lockdown eases.

These scenarios depict a stark reality; refugees are disproportionately affected by calamities such as the Covid19 pandemic due to the fragile nature of their livelihoods. Forging resilient livelihoods for urban displaced persons call for multipronged considerations, including social connections, neighbourhood engagements and having access to more than one source of income.

As we think about where RYVU fits into this scenario, and what role research can play, my thoughts are drawn to Paulo Freire’s concept of praxis. In his work, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, he defines praxis as reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. I find Freire’s emphasis on the need for people in distress to gain critical awareness of their own condition particularly relevant when contemplating the essence of social connections among refugees at such critical times,

Research projects such as Refugee Youth Volunteering in Uganda (RYVU) attempt to understand the intricate landscapes that young refugee volunteers have to manoeuvre. This collaborative study between two Ugandan universities (Uganda Martyrs University and Mbarara University of Science and Technology) and two British universities (Northumbria University and Loughborough University) attempts to address the issue of skills acquisition and employability through volunteering by young refugees in Uganda. It is hoped that through this study, new typologies and definitions of volunteering may be uncovered. To this end, the study has set up refugee Youth Advisory Boards as an infrastructure to promote interactions among young refugees, enriching their social networks and placing them at the forefront in articulating and participating in issues that affect their well-being. It is hoped that such networks would buttress their capabilities to collectively respond to future challenges that affect the entire community, such as those presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. To an extent, RYVU is a bringing together of theory and practice in a way which would easily fit in Freire’s concept of praxis.

Moses Okech is a post-doctoral researcher with RYVU project at Uganda Martyrs University

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