On a muddy day in Uganda’s rainy season, Fred stands proudly in his kitchen garden, under the canopy of a jackfruit tree. He shows me green peppers, beetroot, and carrots, all growing together in his permaculture garden. Here, enough vegetables grow to feed his community, plus there are medicinal herbs to protect against illnesses. Fred is an organic farmer, and he is also a refugee.
Life for refugees in Uganda is very different from other countries. Those unable to ever return to their home countries are given a small plot of land, so that they can start rebuilding their lives from scratch. This might sound like a utopian idea of a refugee resettlement programme, but it comes with challenges.
Until recently, the Bukompe Refugee Camp - where Fred lives - was surrounded by rows and rows of maize and beans, fed with chemicals and drowned in pesticides. People simply didn’t believe they could grow vegetables around their houses, let alone organic produce.
As well as planting monocultures of crops, arriving refugees also deforested the area, cutting the indigenous hardwood trees to make charcoal, and earn a little income so they could support themselves. Looking around now, there is still an obvious lack of trees. As a result of all this, the land has become even more degraded, meaning what will grow is limited, and food security is seriously impacted.
Then along came Youth Initiative for Community Empowerment, otherwise known as YICE, an initiative in working just around the corner from the Bukompe camp, that supports women and young people in rural areas. One of the organisation’s projects is in the Bukompe Refugee Camp, where Fred lives. YICE has helped the refugees gain new skills in permaculture; a system of practical farming techniques that work with Nature rather than against it, which can help restore damaged ecosystems.
Refugee and women’s issues are very close to the heart of Noah Ssempijja, YICE’s programme director, as he spent the early years of his life in a refugee camp.
“My mum is a refugee from Rwanda. She came to Uganda in 1980 and got married to a national. We stayed in Kyaka, a refugee settlement, for a long period of time,” he explains.
He was there until he was five, when his father got them out of the camp. A few years later, his father passed away, and Noah’s mother brought him up alone. Seeing the challenges his mother faced determined what Noah would do with his life.
“I thought, when I grew up I should start something to support women,” he says. And he did. When Noah finished university, he set up YICE.
Empowering refugees to find solutions
Getting started wasn’t easy. Before being given land, many of these refugees spent time in transit centres, where they were given food. Noah explains that this can make people relient on handouts, and they often expect that level of help to continue.
“They are used to being given everything. When they are relocated here, all that support is cut and they have to survive on their own,” he says.
With support from Lush’s Re:Fund, YICE brought in Caleb Odondi Omolo, a permaculture expert, environmentalist, and mentor from Rongo, Kenya, so that he could teach a permaculture design course in the camp. Fred was one of the most engaged students, and his home is where the first demonstration garden was created.
On the first day of Caleb’s course, there were some confused faces as the terminology was explained, remembers Noah. But things soon changed when the 20 students on the course began the practical work.
“Other people got excited about what we were doing, seeing the different gardens we were setting up, and everyone wanted to know how it was going to work. It was really very exciting,” Noah says.
By the third day, they had 50 farmers joining in. Caleb initially only designed one kitchen garden - Fred’s plot. But when he returned to the site this summer, he counted 13 gardens. These are gardens which the refugee farmers have implemented themselves, with the support of YICE.
Everything here has a purpose
The gardens are designed with Nature firmly in mind. Corn is used for mulching, and once broken down by termites replenishes the soil. Banana trees draw in nutrients from the air and ground; spinach, cabbage, and climbing beans create a variety of layers, supporting the whole system as they grow. Everything here has a purpose.
Fred has taken on the role of leading the other refugee gardeners, encouraging and mobilising them. Forced from his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fred lived in this camp for two years before the YICE project started. Now, he’s happy to be producing organic crops.
“In the past, people did not use sprays and pesticides, and they used to earn a lot. I now realise these sprays are harmful, which is why I want to go back to the old way. We’re going back to our roots,” he tells me, through an interpreter and YICE project worker, Winnie Tushabe.
Now, the refugees in this settlement are growing enough to feed themselves, and will soon also be able to sell vegetables at the market.
“Eat the best, and sell the rest,” Caleb tells the farmers.
Better nutrition means fewer hospital visits, and the planting of more trees in the permaculture gardens means less soil erosion, and better opportunities for harvesting rainwater. The health of both people and planet is all the better for permaculture gardens.
But there are still challenges to overcome. Firstly, Noah and Caleb want to persuade people to stop cutting trees to make charcoal.
“They didn’t have food, they didn’t have any sources of income, and as protracted refugees they were just dropped here by the Government. So they had to resort to cutting trees to earn a living,” Noah says.
But even as we stand in the camp, Noah points out smoke a few hundred metres away, where someone is burning wood.
The trees being burnt are indigenous hardwood trees, which are very good for making charcoal, but which take a long time to grow back. Caleb wants to offer an alternative - different native trees which can have their branches cut for charcoal, and yet recover quickly.
There is another major challenge - water. To solve this, Caleb has designed the gardens with S-shaped contours to collect rainwater runoff, and he hopes they can soon implement water harvesting systems, which are being designed by Peter, YICE’s extension worker.
Beyond the practical challenges, Noah says another concern is how to sensitively work alongside people who have experienced trauma.
“You have to know what to communicate and how. You don’t talk about wars or death. You have to show you care about them, without making them feel bad or like a victim,” he says.
“Sometimes people say things like, ‘I’ve seen my parents die, so there’s nothing you can tell me here that I haven’t gone through.’”
Without the commitment of the farmers themselves - farmers like Mary who shows me her garden with a young baby strapped to her back - the gardens would not flourish as they have.
Connecting people through permaculture
There is another group of people being empowered through YICE’s project. According to Ugandan Government policy, 30% of the funding from projects for refugees must go towards host communities. Alongside supporting refugees with permaculture gardens, YICE has done the same for local residents, who also face the same food security challenges.
“It’s a good gesture from the Government to give refugees small pieces of land, because we don’t want a situation where we have new people in the community who don’t have anywhere to stay or have enough food. There would be a lot of crime,” Noah says.
However, there are sometimes nationals using the land already. Because these people don’t own the land, and are technically there illegally, they are not compensated when they are made to hand the land over to refugees. This has the potential to leave a feeling of resentment towards the new refugee neighbours.
Noah says: “On the whole it’s a good gesture, but it needs to be handled more fairly to make sure that the nationals are not affected by the new arrivals and the Government giving away land.”
Both the refugees in Bukompe, and the community surrounding the settlement, tell me they work well with each other, and get along. Through an interpreter, a local farmer, Joyce, says that before the YICE project, she and the rest of the community were doing their best to support the refugees by sharing the knowledge they had about farming. While the refugees have been empowered by the kitchen gardens, so too have Joyce and her neighbours, who have also received permaculture training and support from YICE.
“I used to spend lots of money on pesticides, but now I know that even without money or without spraying, you can eat something healthy, and even a person on the breadline can survive without incurring costs,” Joyce says.
Even more surprisingly, permaculture is a new idea for YICE. The group was using non-organic practices, until it was introduced to Caleb through Lush. Now, Noah is a complete permaculture convert, and dreams of turning all the farmers in the area into permaculturists.
Noah remembers the first time Fred handed him a bunch of vegetables, telling him that 50 households had benefited from his garden, and that he had produced enough to feed everyone. Noah wants to see this happen in communities all across the region.
It’s clear that food security is a serious issue in this region, not least for the refugees who arrive with no support network. But YICE’s work is making a real change, and has already supported over 700 households. The project is so impressive because it’s about more than supporting people in need. It’s about empowering people to take control of their own lives, and at the same time regenerating the land.
YICE has received funding and support from Re:Fund, Lush’s fund for regeneration projects around the world. Until recently, this was known as the SLush Fund.
Images from top: Caleb looks at a kitchen garden; Fred stands in his garden; Noah in the refugee settlement; Joyce and her friend Margaret in Margaret's garden.