Food or Firewood to Cook It? The Dilemma Refugees Often Face in Uganda’s Rhino Camp

Article Highlights

  • • The influx of South Sudanese refugees to Uganda began in 2013, two years after South Sudan gained independence, and has continued since.
  • • Each family is given a plot of land to live on, and they can also use the land to build, farm or own small retail businesses.
Loyce Arete and her daughter, Judith Deng, sort beans outside their home in Rhino Camp, a refugee settlement in Uganda's northwestern Arua District. The beans are one of the monthly food items their family receives from World Vision Uganda and World Food Programme. At times, Arete says, she exchanges her food items with Ugandans for firewood. Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

South Sudanese refugees in Uganda's Rhino Camp are given monthly food rations, but they frequently have no way to cook the food. Often their only way to get firewood is to barter away some of their provisions with Ugandans living nearby.

ARUA, UGANDA — Margaret Gboya, a mother of five, sits outside her home. Next to her are a small mound of beans and a plastic container filled with a corn and soybean flour blend.

Gboya says she must use these ingredients to prepare lunch for her husband and children, but she has no way of cooking the meal.

“We have no firewood to prepare the food,” she says, holding in her arms her youngest daughter, who is 6 months old.

Gboya, who came from South Sudan in 2016, lives in the Rhino Camp, a refugee settlement managed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She receives monthly food rations from World Vision Uganda, one of the settlement administration’s partners. Despite the aid, she says there are times when her family eats just one meal a day.

Though refugees at Rhino Camp are given monthly food rations, they say they frequently miss meals because they have no firewood to cook. Other times, some are left with few ingredients for cooking, because they barter for firewood by exchanging most of their rations with Ugandans in neighboring communities.

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Bundles of firewood are sold by Ugandans for as much as 4,000 shillings (around $1) at a local market near Rhino Camp in the Arua District.

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Growing unrest in South Sudan has led to an influx of refugees to Uganda, which shares its northern border with the world’s youngest country. To date, there are more than 1 million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, with Rhino Camp in the northwestern Arua District hosting 103,678 of them.

Each refugee at the settlement receives a monthly ration of food items, including corn, maize flour, beans, oil and salt. Refugees rely heavily on wood as a source of domestic energy, as do many locals in this part of the country. Despite widespread household consumption of firewood, this source of energy, often considered affordable, comes at a high price for some.

William Malia, 19, has been living in Rhino Camp for a year. There are very few trees on the settlement, so it is hard to find firewood, Malia says. He cuts down on the number of meals he cooks per day, because that helps him save his food rations and firewood. He gets his firewood by exchanging his beans or corn with Ugandans who live close to the settlement, he says.

“If you cook supper today, then tomorrow no lunch,” he says.

Anne Sande, who has been a refugee at the settlement for more than a year, says there are times when Ugandans living nearby stop refugees from collecting firewood and say the refugees are trespassing on private property. Some refugees have been chased with pangas or machetes, she says. Exchanging food rations for firewood is usually the safest bet for many, she says.

Though Sande cites instances of violence committed by Ugandans, Felix Ade, chairman of the welfare council in the settlement, says locals do not engage in the trade with refugees out of spite. But refugees are often shortchanged, because monthly rations may not be enough in larger families, he says.

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Anne Sande, a South Sudanese refugee living at Rhino Camp, prepares a meal using firewood, which is hard to find on the settlement, she says.

Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Paulino Atobu, a Ugandan who owns a home close to the settlement, says refugees should pay for firewood or compensate members of the host community with food items, because locals also need money and food to survive.

“These are our resources, and they want to get it free? We don’t allow,” he says. Atobu says he usually collects six cups of beans or maize in exchange for a large bundle of firewood.

The settlement’s management staff say they are aware that there are few sources of energy available to refugees.

“As UNHCR, when refugees come, saving lives is the first priority – firewood comes last,” says Gordon Eneku Adima, assistant environment officer at the UNHCR office in Arua.

Starting in March, the UNHCR will provide locals in the host communities with tree seedlings and require refugees to plant at least two trees on the plots of land they are given, he says.

Peter Aule and Samuel Ede, refugees at Rhino Camp, translated some interviews from Lugbara and Bari.