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Posted on 01/24/2024
Nakivale Refugee Settlement – Uthabiti
Making my way to Nakivale Refugee Settlement, a range of emotions flow through me. 30 years ago, in April 1994, my mother gave birth to me a few days after the Rwandan Genocide started. Many of my family’s friends and neighbors were not fortunate enough to make it out, but those who did found themselves in the very same settlement I was set to visit.
Nakivale Refugee Settlement sits on 71 square miles in the south of Uganda, bordering Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. As of December 2023, it houses 182,000 refugees. Nakivale was first opened in 1958 and is the oldest refugee settlement in Africa. It was created to host Rwandese refugees from the 1958 Rwandan Revolution between the Tutsi and Hutu, some 40 years prior to the genocide. Over time, it has hosted refugees from neighboring countries in turmoil and war and now includes people from the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Somali and Eritrea, with the largest population from DRC, making it one of the most unique settlement in the world because of its diversity.
Uganda’s refugee policy is one of the most progressive in the world. In Uganda, refugees are hosted in designated areas called ‘settlements’ where they are allocated pieces of land to put up shelters, grow food and start their own businesses. The settlement approach facilitates integration with the host community, promotes self-reliance and creates a conducive environment for pursuing development-oriented planning for refugees and host communities. The idea is that in five years the refugees will no longer need to depend on humanitarian aid.
Driving into the settlement, I was surprised by what I saw. It wasn’t filled with makeshift tents like I had seen on the news; it was a vibrant community and town, just like any other. There were children chasing each other around their homes, women chatting and laughing together, and a crowd gathered around a basketball court watching an invigorating game. For all the hardships this community had endured, Uganda had provided them a place to call home, to come together and build their own community away from their home countries.
Upon arrival, we first met with the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). In Uganda, the OPM is solely responsible for all refugee settlements and policies in the country. There, we learned the history of Nakivale Settlement, and its uniqueness, in that it hosts various nationalities. Its biggest current population is Congolese, followed by Rwandese, Burundians, and Somalis. It is divided into 3 zones that each have a commander that reports directly to the OPM.
Despite the flourishing sense of community, Nakivale has faced food insecurity over the years due to cuts in humanitarian aid funding and the drought the area is experiencing. Because of this, the settlement and its NGO partners have since moved to focusing on the livelihood of its occupants. Whereas they used to provide regular refugee kits that consisted of items like soaps and sanitary products, they are now only limited to new arrivals, leaving long-term residents to find other means to gain access to these necessary items.
Grameen Foundation, along with USAID realized a need to support refugees in the settlement, and thus, launched the Uthabiti Activity (Uthabiti). Uthabiti is a three-year, USAID/BHA funded activity running from April 1st, 2022, to March 31st, 2025, with a goal of enabling “refugee and refugee-hosting households, particularly youth and women, in the target districts [to] have diversified livelihood opportunities to meet their basic needs and participate in economic growth.” Uthabiti’s purpose is to increase opportunities for participation in market-led and diversified livelihood opportunities, improve access to financial services and productive assets, and build the evidence base for nexus programming in Uganda and globally.
Grameen Foundation partnered with UGAFODE Microfinance Limited, commonly known as UGAFODE, a microfinance institution in Uganda. It is registered and licensed as a microfinance deposit-accepting institution (MDI) by the Bank of Uganda, the central bank and national banking regulator. Grameen works with UGAFODE to digitalize the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), to record and create credit histories, to then allow its members to take out loans.
UGAFODE has community based trainers (CBTs) that each manage upwards of 10 VSLAs around the settlements. With 7 females and 7 males, each CBT is responsible for finding already existing groups and forming new ones.
Our next stop was to visit a VSLA group in the settlement. As we walked into the compound, we were greeted by a group of women who welcomed us with a cheerful song. The VSLA largely consisted of women from Rwanda with a few from Congo. This specific group (Akilimali) consisted of women and young mothers whose children were born with disabilities. Because of the extra work and taboo of having children with disabilities in Africa, many of these women felt like they had no place to gather, to be seen or heard or supported. These women never wanted to be left behind, and with the group and community they formed with the VSLA, for the first time, they felt as though they had a purpose.
The VSLA had been operating for the past 2 years. But when they first started, they were making crafts together and selling them, trying to make an income, no matter how little it was. Their mission was to ensure that every woman would at least have something to go home with. As time went on, they then thought of coming up with something that would help them save. They started with a basket they had woven together, and in there they kept the money they had saved, and used pass books to note their activities. Managing the money and trying to save would sometimes take them 12 hours just to complete because they had no education on how to make their group more efficient.
When Uthabiti came into the picture, they trained the group and showed them the advantages of using technology instead of a physical box, and the teachings were met with great appreciation. With UGAFODE, they were able to learn how to digitize and document their savings. I had the opportunity to speak to several women and learn their stories of how partnering with Grameen and UGAFODE created new pathways for them.
Tunga Marie is a member of Akilimali
She thanked UGAFODE for their training because the group now knows how to use banking services. Their savings are now digitized. They opened a group account and now most members also have their first bank accounts. UGAFODE helped them through all of it. They had major problems with their records but they gave them a tablet that they use to record their loans, savings, and activities.
She thanked Uthabiti for the many ways it has changed their lives. Through the digitalizing program, it has enabled them to reduce the time they had spent doing things manually. It also helped them to open up their groups. They do have small challenges at times, like in any other place, especially when it comes to the network. But when they have any issues with the tablets, they ask for support from the team and they are assisted immediately.
Uwamuhoza Afsa, secretary of Akilimali
She is also thankful for Uthabiti and UGAFODE. Without the lessons from UGAFODE and Uthabiti, they had no guidance on what to do. With them, they learned how to develop their savings for the future. They used to use the small box and books to keep their money and records, there were so many challenges to recall what was written, and with the low literacy rates, it made it even harder. But with the tablet, it has smoothed the process and made it accessible. UGAFODE also helped expose them to savings. Because Their money was kept in a box, they feared that people would break in and steal the money and thus, in turn, hurt them, ruining months and months of work and progress they had made. Whenever they sit and collect their savings, they first confirm if anyone in the group needs a loan, and if no one needs a loan, they take it to the bank and save it. If sometimes they’ve saved and the money a woman needs to borrow is not enough, UGAFODE helps them acquire more money. The tablet has also allowed them to record their meetings, their attendees and attendance. They hope that whatever challenges they face in the future, we will be there to help them.
Before Uthabiti, they used to collect savings after a period of 6 months or a year, then they would share it out and use it to buy food, clothes, meat, etc. and then it would be all gone. After partnering with Uthabiti, they came to find out that this strategy does not build resilience. They are now saving with an end goal in mind. They no longer share money just to eat, they are saving it for something specific. They have group and individual goals they all work towards.
Uthabiti has made a positive impact in our homes. Before, in their homes, they were told that women were vulnerable and that they can't do anything or provide anything. After having a disabled child, they would be confined to their homes, always taking care of the baby. With the lessons they learned, they now know that they can start small and build something from nothing. They are now equipped with the tools needed to start a small business and are able to have a big impact in the house. It has made their husbands, brothers, and fathers realize that they are now valuable. You can carry a child, take care of the family AND still provide for the family. They were told that with a disabled child, their lives were finished, that they had no purpose except to be a burden. But they have now proved them wrong. It has given them a purpose, they are not a burden, they are providers and they are resilient.
The end of our visit culminated in a dance that some of the women’s children had put together. Watching the dance had me reflecting on my experience. Meeting the women, talking to them, and seeing just how powerful they were changed my perspective on the work we’re doing. Many times we say “we want to enable these women…” But who are we to enable them? These women had gone through lifetimes of hardships many will never face. They were forced to flee their homes with nothing to their names except what they could carry. They didn’t have the support of families, governments, or NGOs. They were alone. But through all the adversity they had faced, the women of Akinimali VSLA fought their way to survival. Burdened with not just the patriarchal system they faced, they still had to find a way to take care of their families, themselves, and their children. And still, they rose.
To enable the refugee community in Nakivale Settlement, to give them agency and resilience, we need to do more. Uthabiti is a start, a step in the right direction. Grameen has learned that a loan alone is not enough. That’s why we build holistic systems of support such as Uthabiti. And with time, increased funding, and scalable projects, Grameen will take a generation out of poverty forever.