About 500 kilometers (km) north of Kampala, Uganda, our driver meanders through a dusty terrain, delicately navigating through narrow paths with overgrown bushes. Overbearing temperatures are on a high of 35 degrees Celsius, and just when we begin to wonder whether it is the natural elements making the journey seem too long, our destination beckons at the sight of several hut-shaped houses with thatched roofs and others covered in white tents simmering in the golden sun. As we descend on a hill leading to the homesteads, the midmorning silence is cracked by sounds of children playing as they collect fruits. On seeing an approaching vehicle, the children shyly hide behind scattered trees and shrubs as their curious wide eyes, jiggles, and smiles welcome us to the Imvepi refugee settlement, Arua district, Uganda.
Wooden makeshift seats are carefully arranged under one tree where we are ushered in by representatives of the refugee settlement. The shade and cool breeze from the swaying branches of the tree are a welcome contrast from the stuffed heat in a driving car. As we wait for the meeting to start, I look around and see the children staring from a distance, as they bite fruits from the Balanites tree. A woman approaches one of the homesteads with a stack of firewood carefully arranged on her back held with a rope tied to her head. I begin to wonder how much value trees hold for this community, and what I discover during the visit is staggering.
You see, these refugees from South Sudan have had a long relationship with trees. Trees form a significant part of their story from when they were fleeing from political war in South Sudan to their arrival in the current settlements where they now call home.
Before crossing into Uganda, they hide in the bushes or woodlands—to escape from potential captors. During their 60 km journey, they rested under shades of sparsely distributed trees. They were cutting the branches to use as walking sticks in the hot wilderness. Tree canopy shades served as resting points when they needed to shut their eyes if only for a moment. Some tree fruits sustained the refugees as food along the journey. Other trees provided traditional medicine.
Upon entry to Uganda, the refugee collection points are mainly set up under trees. Reception centers where they are settled are dominated by trees. Here, they go through the documentation process by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), after which they are provided their first hot meal prepared using trees from the nearby woodlands that have taken over a decade to grow. With the midday temperature in Imvepi settlement registering up to 35 degrees Celsius, the heat can be too much to bear and the tree shades provide much-needed relief.
Uganda has a very unique refugee settlement program. As soon as a family arrives, unlike in other countries, Uganda gives them plots of land measuring about 30 by 30 meters, 30 by 50 meters and, in some instances, up to 50 by 50 meters. This kind of strategy of welcoming refugees only exists in Uganda and is quite commendable.
Once a family is allocated its plot, the story of reconnecting with trees begins. The family puts all their belongings under the shade of the nearest tree. Children and the elderly sit under the shade until the plastic U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) hut is set up. The girls and women in the family get busy looking around for fuelwood and charcoal—the most common products of trees—to light fire for cooking the food rations provided by the UNHCR and the OPM.
While women cook, the men go around to look for wood to build a hanger for kitchen stuff—another tree product. If not doing such things, men stretch their mats under the shades of desert date (Balanites aegyptiaca) or Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana) trees as they wait for the meal to be served.
It is sometimes difficult to sit inside the plastic hut during the day especially when it is very hot. Trees are the solution to the scorching heat. Those whose plots fall in areas without a tree feel unlucky and, if possible, request for an alternative plot that has this incredible natural resource. Often, it is not possible to be reallocated and the best solution would be to plant their own, even though it might take some time to grow.
With time as the refugees begin to settle, the intention to transform kicks in. They want to build a better residential house moving away from the plastic tents. Again, back to the trees to get the poles they need to build the houses. Some who afford also construct their houses with soil bricks. The soil bricks need to be burnt to be strong and remain resistant to moisture and termite damage. The wood to burn the bricks comes from trees. Men go to the woodlands to bring wood sticks to make wooden chairs and other wooden utensils. Amazing generosity from trees. They serve almost everything—at no cost.
One of the refugees we were chatting with emphasized that if trees were not there, their thatched-roof houses would have already been blown away by the wind. Trees reduce wind speed and they serve as windbreaks. The group in one common voice said:
“If there were no trees, settling in this area would even be very difficult.”
As long as trees are around, there is a free meeting venue for the refugees – the shade of the big desert date (Balanites aegyptiaca) or Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana) trees. This free of charge venue provided by mother nature is crucial for social networking and information sharing among the different societal groups among the refugees—the youth who listen to their reggae music, the elderly who want to chat about the future of their children, the mothers who want to have an exchange on issues of gender inequality and scarcity of fuelwood, etc. The venue also serves as a gaming area where the youth and adults come together to engage in different games to forget the horror they left behind in South Sudan while running away from the stray bullets intentionally or unintentionally fired to kill them.
But the refugees in Imvepi are already feeling guilty about what is happening in their new home. The trees are gradually disappearing. The refugees feel they betrayed their most generous host – the trees. With the arrival of each refugee family, numerous trees are cut, because the family needs fuelwood, they need to build the kitchen utensil hangers, with time they also build their huts from wood. And some have even begun farming by clearing the bush (woodlands). Under their current living conditions, these refugees have little resources to reconcile with their generous host which they feel they have betrayed.
One refugee narrates his first view of the area he settled on with his family:
“When I came here a year ago there were lots of trees, but…. but we have to cut them down for fuelwood and for construction materials. Now I, at least, want to replant in place of the trees I have cut. I even want to do more. But we need help to do that – we do not have farm tools and we need the tree seedlings that we can plant.”
Another one picks up and says:
“We do not know how long we are going to stay in this place. It could be two years, five years, 10 years or even more. And as you see the wood is getting very scarce. If we plant trees now it will serve us in several ways and can even reduce the distance women travel to collect firewood. The problem is that since we have small plots, we cannot plant as many trees as we want. If the district or OPM gives us land to plant trees we are glad to do so besides those we plant in our yards.”
The notion is the same among the group members we were talking to. There are a great motivation and strong commitment to protect the remaining trees and also to plant more trees—the only way to reconcile with their generous host and to survive in the hostile surrounding.
The refugees cannot do this alone. They need support. That is why the World Agroforestry (ICRAF) together with GIZ partnered to devise strategies to bring back trees into the landscape so that the degradation happening due to wood and charcoal demands does not make the landscape unbearable. ICRAF in collaboration with OPM and other partners in the region established a nursery that has the capacity to raise about 150,000 seedlings, built a community learning center where refugees continue to learn how to plant and grow trees and gain other life skills in this new home, at least until they could be relocated. Both the refugees and host communities were quick to jump into action and get the preferred seedlings raised in the nursery. Today, seeing green neem trees in the plots of the refugees which they cheerily take care of and show to visitors is like a new dawn. A green hope in despair.
“Professionally there is nothing satisfying than seeing people feeling the results of your work. As an organization that is a pride to cherish.” chat Lalisa and Clement overlooking a refugee youth holding one fast-growing neem tree.