Nyumanzi, Uganda – Streams of noisy motorcycles and cars charge down a busy, dusty market road lined with stalls and shops where South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan locals sell their wares. Nyumanzi is a northern rural hamlet close to the border with South Sudan. This area has received global attention because this transit centre in Uganda is frequently congested with thousands of new arrivals and is also home to more than 20,000 long-term refugees displaced by the conflict in South Sudan.
With little sign that hostile relations between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar will end soon, some refugees are trying to build new lives as small-scale entrepreneurs and foster stronger community relations with their Ugandan hosts.
The market, established in 2014, is divided between locals and those living in Nyumanzi Refugee Settlement, with hundreds of people selling traditional and modern commodities.
Emanuel Odede, is a settlement project officer for the Lutheran Foundation, which provides support grants to the refugees in partnership with UNHCR and other organisations. He told Al Jazeera that, despite periodic tensions and cultural differences, people have slowly begun to mix
“Initially the idea was to have locals and refugees on opposite sides of each street, but now they are slowly mixing. This interaction is a positive sign of engagement which shows that mixing can create good relations and build a peaceful coexistence that goes beyond language or cultural barriers,” Odede says.
At the top of the main street lies a small aluminium shelter housing a tea-room run by two young South Sudanese women. Mostly refugees gather here, morning, noon and dusk to discuss the country’s politics over a cup of hot sweet milk, coffee or spicy cinnamon tea.
Between sips of his afternoon tea, 65-year-old Paul Thon, a community leader in Nyumanzi Refugee Settlement, recalls his days in Ethiopia and Kenya as a soldier and a refugee during South Sudan’s war of independence. He laughs at how the South Sudanese have become the region’s most well travelled people due to the constant displacement of war.
“We South Sudanese know all our brothers around us, we have been running for a long time. I have gone to Ethiopia, Kenya, even Congo as a refugee, but this time I’m in Uganda and if there’s another fight we shall see where next to go,” he said.
But Akuol Ayiik, 20, is intent on staying put in her two-roomed tea-room.
Ayiik fled Bor when he was barely 18 years old. Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, changed hands several times between rebel and government soldiers when the civil war began in mid-December 2013.
With her mother, her older brother, his two wives and children, the family fled to Uganda in January 2014. As South Sudan’s conflict flared up in early July and sent more than 250,000 fleeing to safety across the border, Ayiik and a friend set up the tea-room.
Through a loan of 300,000 Ugandan shillings, roughly $85, Ayiik put in her share to start a business where they take turns to run the tea-room. After paying her half of the rent, on average Ayiik makes a net profit of $85 a month, as compared with Uganda’s average per capita income of $56 a month.
But Ayiik feels there has been a slowdown due to the continuing conflict and the high numbers of people leaving the country.
“People in Nyumanzi depend on money from South Sudan because their families are still working there. When I first started things were going well, because people would send money, but now the market is going down,” she says.
“The war has stopped many people from going to work and they are not getting their salaries. People can’t send money here so often so they the rate at which people are taking tea here has really reduced,” she told Al Jazeera.
Despite the slowdown, Ayiik says she’s still able to meet her financial needs and look after her baby.
Not far from the open-air market Florence Namatende, 34, makes ends meet for her children by selling traditional Ugandan and South Sudanese dried foods.
Originally from southern Uganda, Namatende, migrated northwards in 2015, and set up her mobile money business in Nyumanzi. She borrowed 3 million shillings ($870) from a local bank and repaid it within 18 months, becoming self-reliant and independent.
“I am here for the same reason as the refugees, I want money. I only know a few words of their language [Dinka and Madi] and it’s hard to speak it, but we all understand that we’re here because of money.”
People in northwestern Uganda and some South Sudanese speak Madi, this is one of the reasons why integration in this region has been easier, but those from the southern part of the country cannot speak Madi.
“I’m happy that I can get almost anything I want without requesting someone else’s help, I can help my parents and look after my family with the little I get from here,” Namatende said.
The Nyumanzi market offers more than just employment to both refugees and their host community as they can now contribute to the local economy through taxes and bring more development to the area.
The presence of refugees has also brought more development for the local community. A small hospital and school have been recently built.
More mobility, more self-reliance?
Research looking at the economic lives of refugees shows how they are slowly developing sustainable livelihoods for themselves, and offers an in-depth view of policy and aid challenges faced by displaced people in becoming more independent.
Lucy Hovil, a senior researcher with International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) which conducted a study in 2015 on South Sudanese refugee livelihoods in northwestern Uganda, says the Nyumanzi market is more in line with a UNHCR policy that encourages greater mobility as it allows reugees to mingle rather than be enclosed within a settlement.
“Nyumanzi is a very encouraging development because it’s pushing towards an approach more favourable to refugee policies and it enables people to become self-reliant which is what the Ugandan government wants,” Hovil said.
“For it to be a success there should be more engagement with local government structures on how to build on refugees being able to sustain themselves, but credit must go to the Ugandan government for what it’s done so far in ensuring people are more independent,” she told Al Jazeera.
However, LWF’s Odede pointed out that while free movement of refugees is a positive aspect of Uganda’s Refugee Act (2006), it also posed some risk to the success of donor-funded projects.
Odede told Al Jazeera that sometimes refugees move around Uganda and even between other countries such as Kenya and South Sudan, making it difficult to monitor the progress of the business start-ups.
While Hovil acknowledged this was a significant problem, she also said that the IRRI’s wider study had shown ease of mobility was essential for refugees.
“The challenge is that humanitarian assistance is fairly static, but mobility is key to refugees as a coping strategy and a way to set up their livelihoods. Refugees are more likely to be able to access markets more easily and people can move to wherever they need to be so as to sustain themselves because they are not isolated,” Hovil said.
“There’s a real challenge however, in balancing this need with the fairly static nature of humanitarian assistance and the securitised narrative of host governments that doesn’t want people to have greater movement for both good and bad reasons,” she said.
Research suggests that movement allows refugees to make a contribution to both Ugandan and broader transnational economic systems and refugees such as Ayiik depend on other cross-border refugees to bring supplies for her tea-room business.
“Powdered milk is very expensive in Uganda, so sometimes I swap my shillings for [South Sudanese] pounds and I ask those who are brave enough to go there to bring milk back for me,” Ayiik explained.
Few dare to go back to South Sudan, but for Nyumanzi’s displaced, mobility, even with risk, appears important in making moving from aid to self-sustenance.
As thousands more stream across the borders daily, leaving the world’s youngest country, life in Uganda remains difficult for more than a million externally displaced South Sudanese, but a small number of refugees are finding ways of making their dislocated lives work.
This report was made possible through a reporting fellowship to Uganda from the International Women’s Foundation.
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