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Life in the Camp

By Anonymous

I am 25-years-old creative digital artist. I came to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in 2018 with hopes of finishing my studies in law or pursuing an acting career. However, since arriving here, many of my dreams have been put on hold. Instead, I have dedicated myself to helping my fellow refugees in the camp, volunteering my time and energy to ensure a better quality of life for everyone.

Life is very unfair when, not only are you not allowed to fish, you are deprived of having enough fish, and also when you are forbidden to go near the river where you can fish.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp was established in Malawi to host refugees especially those that come from Eastern and Central Africa. This camp was opened in 1994 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to accommodate refugees from nearby Africa countries who were fleeing from genocide, wars, and political persecution among other personal reasons. Dzaleka Refugee Camp is located in the central region of Malawi in the Dowa District, which is around 43 kilometers from the capital city of Malawi, Lilongwe.

In terms of the history of Dzaleka, before being declared a refugee camp, Dzaleka used to be a very dangerous prison for first degree criminals during the presidency of Hastings Kamuzu Banda (1964-1994). This prison could only keep 6000 inmates and had very harsh weather and other conditions.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp was meant to host only 10,000 refugees. However, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Dzaleka Refugee Camp hosts more than 52,000 refugees as of 2022, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and some from Ethiopia. Since 1994, the camp has been receiving refugees on a daily basis due to the increase of instability in the countries mentioned above. Hence, this population increase has caused the camp to be crowded creating challenges associated with this situation.

Like any place on the planet with such a large population compared to the available land resources, people living in Dzaleka face many challenges that impact the refugees’ lives negatively. These challenges are in a greater extent that only a few manage to live on, hence the famous saying, “living is an act of bravery.” Challenges include lack of adequate access to education, food, safe water, sanitation, and housing, along with frequent abuses, violations, and mental problems, among others.

Firstly, right to education is a universal right that was put in place because it has a certain degree of necessity for human life. However, many refugees do not have access to education, from formal to informal education. Only less than one third of the children aged 6 and below have access to preschool education, less than 50% of young people have access to primary education, only 27% of youths are enrolled in secondary school, and less than 4% have access to tertiary education. These numbers are according to the enrollment rate, however, those that manage to complete each of these levels are very few due to poor learning conditions inside the classrooms because of crowded classes as well as poor living conditions in their homes. Despite that there is not enough classroom infrastructure, teachers are also scarce and have to work a lot hence reducing their productivity in terms of delivering lessons. Because of this, many students drop out of school, do not bring satisfactory results, or fail to graduate due to the lack of other basic needs such as food, clothes, proper shelter as well as sanitary products such as soap.

In terms of education, many young refugees are not trained to discover their talents despite having them.

UNHCR partners with the World Food Program (WFP) to feed refugees as they are not allowed by the Malawian government to earn a living such as doing business and formal employment. The food provided to refugees is never close to enough. WFP, as with any other non-profit organization, was greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and had a shortfall in funding. This has resulted in the reduction by 75% of the food support for refugees. Hence, many refugees are starving. Women and children are in great danger; many women engage in prostitution in order to feed their children.

For these people, life continues with little motivation. There are also refugees who are farmers, but it is only a minority who have one or two plots of land to cultivate. Because of the severe overcrowding in the camp, there is not enough space for most to cultivate.

The daily routine of the majority of refugees here in Dzaleka Refugee Camp is quite monotonous. Most refugees wake up very early in the morning and go about their daily chores. After that, they either go to their small farms or do other odd jobs to eke out a living. By midday, they are usually back in their homes where they spend the rest of the day chatting with friends and relatives or taking a nap. Most of the families living in the camp rely on food support as their main source of sustenance, even though the food only lasts for two weeks and not the full month. The camp does not have any other form of support.

Living in the Dzaleka refugee camp can be a very difficult task, especially for those who arrive for the first time. However, with some luck, many refugees are able to find a temporary place to stay in one of the local churches when they first arrive. If they are not able to find a place to stay, they may have to find other means of shelter, such as living in tents or in the transit house, which is an unclean place. Even when some manage to find a place to live, many are still without access to proper sanitation and clean water.

For many refugees coming to Dzaleka, the most important thing is to have a place to call home. And a place to stay in the camp is supposed to be given to refugees without their having to pay money. However, with the limited resources and support, many refugees are forced to purchase land and makeshift homes from other refugees illegally. This has its own risks, as those selling the land are often not offering the right price or title of ownership, and the buyers have no legal protection. Camp officials also have been observed selling off what should be given as aid. Such activity is concerning as it not only deprives vulnerable people of the support they need, but also raises questions of corruption and exploitation. This means that refugees in Dzaleka are consistently taken advantage of, leading to unfair and often dangerous living conditions. This creates an environment of constant fear and instability, as they are unable to plan for the future and know their basic rights are not always protected. Additionally, the lack of resources and laws against working make it difficult for refugees to access employment and build ties in the local community.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp is home to thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes and countries. The houses in the camp are mostly built from mud that is made into bricks and are not equipped with modern amenities such as electricity and plumbing. There are several boreholes in the camp where people can fetch water, but these several boreholes can be counted with the fingers of both hands hence, people spend long days or nights waiting in long queues so that they can get water. There are taps too, but water from the taps comes only for one or two hours a day.

Although some residents are able to afford metal roofing, most rely on traditional thatched roofs, which are more vulnerable to the harsh weather in the area. The walls of the houses are mostly made of bricks created by mixing local soil and water. These makeshift homes are often not sturdy enough to withstand the harsh weather conditions. During the rainy season each year, many houses are destroyed by heavy rains, or roofs are taken away by violent winds, leaving the refugees with no choice but to start their life in the camp from scratch.

There are two markets in the camp. One opens every day and the other one, only on Tuesdays. The Tuesday market is the big one in the camp. That is where people go buy their provisions at a lower cost.

Most importantly, many refugees ran for their lives away from their homes; war and torture has impacted them psychologically. This poor mental health is something they have to live with each and every day. In addition to the traumas they have faced in their respective home countries, the poor living conditions within the refugee camp increases their mental health challenges. Hence, many people engage in behaviors that put their lives in danger such as alcohol abuse among even the young people. This condition also makes many refugees feel like they are living in a prison, and most of them have given up trying to move up in life. Hence dreams of a free life have been given up. This life is only about living for the day and no excitement for the future, hence low productivity and bad health.

Speaking on the other side of the story, mentioning refugees is not only about their troubled lives. There are good parts of refugees including their beliefs and talents. Despite all the challenges that many refugees have to cope with each and every day, they bravely put on a big smile and take each day as a chance and a blessing from God. Different cultures and languages are what bring all the people together instead of dividing them. The languages spoken in Dzaleka are numerous since we have refugees from different backgrounds. Even if Swahili is the most spoken language in the camp between people who speak different languages, some people communicate using Lingala, Somalian, Amharic, French, Tshiluba, Kikongo, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Kibembe, Kifuleru, Mashi, Kirega, English, Chichewa, Kitetela, and Portuguese.

The Dzaleka Refugee Camp is a place rich in spirituality and cultures that unite people from different walks of life and parts of the world. The music of hope is a song that is sung every day with a smile along with dances, praising the Lord for all the good and bad. Despite the windy and difficult paths of many refugees, churches are often their safe havens. Churches have become a beacon of hope for many refugees seeking a better life. Religion provides a sense of belonging and community, unifying people beyond differences and teaching love, patience, and resilience during difficult times. It also gives them a platform to express their beliefs, hopes, and dreams free from fear or judgement. This can be an invaluable source of strength and motivation for many refugees as they strive to overcome poverty and oppression. Through religion, refugees are also more likely to find solace and peace in the midst of the many challenges they face.

Apart from the amazing beliefs among the people in Dzaleka, talents flow like an endless spring at the center. Football is a universal language that can bridge the gaps between cultures and countries. On the weekends, refugees come together to watch young people playing football, encouraging them to play their hardest. This is a moment of joy and a chance to escape from the stresses of living in a refugee camp. Music may be played occasionally at festivals or concerts, but football is played every week, and it has won the hearts of many refugees.

It is a terrible situation to be in when you are not only not permitted to access the river and its resources, but also when you cannot even get your hands on the fish that you need. It is even worse when the fish that you do manage to find are of such poor quality that they are not fit for consumption. This lack of access to basic necessities of life can be very disheartening and can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. In such circumstances, it is important to remember that although the current situation may be unfair, it will not last forever and that it is possible to persevere through tough times and find a way out.