Searching for a Solution in Uganda’s Refugee Camps

Last summer I was deployed for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) Uganda project and wanted to share an account of some of my time in the field.

My past two years working on global health and development in the epicenter of the field — Washington, D.C. — gave me a good understanding of the refugee crisis and the problems faced by displaced populations around the world. Or so I had thought.

There are currently estimated to be ~1.4 million refugees in Uganda. It is here that, after a 25 hour flight with two layovers and multiple anti-nausea tablets, I arrived, eager to work with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to promote the mapping of refugee environments for humanitarian purposes.

I spent my first few days getting oriented in the HOT office in Kampala, and thoroughly enjoying all the city has to offer (rolex stands need to make their way to the States, pronto!). We then headed north to Arua where the huge settlements of Rhino and Imvepi are located.

Shamillah and Allan, my amazing partners in crime

In Arua, our task was simple — we train refugee students and teachers on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) platform and mobile data collection in three secondary schools: Ofua Secondary School, Rhino High School, and Imvepi Secondary School. We set off from Kampala at 10 AM on Tuesday. Two car breakdowns, a driving ticket, a taxi, and 15 hours later, Shamillah, Allan, and I finally arrived.

Pushing our broken car out of the road!

Over time, I have come to value experience over theory. No amount of rote knowledge can replace the understanding your senses provide you. Read all the poetry in the world, but until you experience love, you do not know what it means to find home in another being. Study music theory all you want, but it can never invoke the feeling of transcendence that the sound of a sitar brings with it. The refugee crisis is no exception. Nothing prepared me for witnessing the aftermath of the mass migration of people fleeing war and conflict.

A bit more about HOT’s mission before I continue: HOT, through training local communities and authorities, promotes the utilization of OSM. This is a free ‘wiki’-style map, which can be used by anybody with a log-in to trace and tag satellite imagery from various sources to help identify important features of any area, contributing to a fully mapped globe. HOT also utilizes a mobile application called OpenDataKit (ODK), which surveyors use to collect GPS coordinates and attributes of various points of interests (i.e. schools, hospitals, water points, latrines, etc.) that are then fed into OpenStreetMap for public consumption. Introducing these tools to refugee schools was something I was particularly excited about because they not only exposed refugee communities to new technology, but also provided them with a sense of ownership and accountability of their living and work spaces.

Trying to explain GPS coordinates to students. I thought I was making sense…

Shamilah, Allan, and I spent the next three days visiting the schools and training both teachers and students on these two facets of our work. Our first training site, Afua Secondary School, presented the unique challenge of working (in ICT) without a power source. Since we were not able to project the website and guide the trainees as easily as we would’ve liked, Allan improvised, using his amazing drawing skills to replicate the web interface on the chalkboard and direct the students that way. Luckily, power was available at our next site, Rhino High School, so we were able to use the projector. I still remember the energy in the room when we searched for the students’ hometown in South Sudan, Yei, on OSM. Hope, pain, longing, and awe all pervaded through the class as we virtually walked through the streets of Yei. Re-energized by the enthusiasm, we returned to the camps the next day for our final training only to find that due to miscommunication amongst staff members of Imvepi Secondary School, time had not been allotted for our visit — we unfortunately had to leave without training the students at that location…

I gathered my thoughts during our twelve hour bus ride back to Kampala, the city that had now become home. What exactly was I feeling? It took some mental poking and prodding but I finally pinpointed it to be frustration. We had just spent three days introducing interesting, helpful, and hopeful technology to students who it seemed many times did not even have access to power, much less computer labs. A one-off training in these circumstances would be limited in its ability to leave a lasting impact. Ignorance is bliss they say. Would introducing laptops and cellphones and selfies, opening these students’ eyes to such resources without a means to access in the future be doing more damage than good? After conversing with my team members about some of my reservations, I realized how aware HOT is of these issues and all it is doing to increase the sustainability of its work and its impact on the global community. HOT spends every last penny to continue these trainings, get people mapping for their own purposes, introduce this system to the NGO world, and skill citizens for employment. Furthermore, there is greater accessibility to mobile phones amongst refugee populations than I originally assumed. But it is still a battle.

Selfie time! The students absolutely loved being able to take pictures

Integration of the various humanitarian efforts underway in Uganda is a big first step to creating more sustainable benefits to the refugee community. While all humanitarian coordination in Uganda goes, in theory, through one channel, UNHCR, an increase in collaboration within and between the humanitarian sectors is necessary to identify needs which are not being met, and to direct resources in a more strategic manner.

There must be a greater push to coordinate efforts if we truly want to make a difference in refugee communities. Some of HOT’s maps of ‘community-witnessed services’ are now on the UNHCR Coordination Web Portal. HOT’s mapping endeavors, if properly utilized, are very helpful in identifying problems in the settlements that need to be taken into consideration when planning resource distribution. If the humanitarian sector at large adapts HOT’s maps into its planning process, there is the potential to greatly reduce the inconsistencies in aid dispersal and increase the impact interventions have in refugee communities.

One last note: seeing and hearing Ugandans’ warm and welcoming attitude towards refugees was such a breath of fresh air. I found Uganda to be a far less antagonistic host country than America, both in policy and in practice, despite its greater limitation on resources. America could learn a thing or two from Uganda on how to approach displaced populations…

All smiles outside Rhino Camp High School

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