Reporter Podcast Uganda's Generous Treatment of Refugees
Maria Feck and Christoph Titz traveled to Uganda and were particularly impressed by the large numbers of refugees taken in by the small country. In an interview, the reporters talk about unusual refugee camps, corruption and the soundtrack of their trip.
Adventurous travel, unforgettable encounters, anecdotes and impressions from foreign countries: In the Hörweite podcast series SPIEGEL ONLINE reporters talk about their reporting trips around the globe (in German). In this edition, political editor Christoph Titz and freelance photo and video journalist Maria Feck talk about their research trip to refugee camps in Uganda. Here, you can read an abridged, English-language version of the interview.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Christoph, what was the idea behind your reporting trip?
Christoph Titz: We wanted to describe the apparatus which ensures that so many people in South Sudan and Uganda affected by the conflict in South Sudan are provided with enough food. This whole operation is very large, technically complex, very expensive and is operated for the most part by the World Food Program of the United Nations, or WFP.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You visited several refugee camps in northern Uganda. Do they look the way they are depicted in TV news stories about refugee camps around the world?
Maria Feck: The two camps we visited, Bidibidi and Imvepi, actually looked more like villages. Each refugee family is given 900 square meters, or 9,687 square feet, of land, where they can build a house. They can also grow vegetables and earn some extra money by selling them at a small stall in the camp. Everyone has a relatively large amount of space, and it is simply quite different from the images of refugee camps we are accustomed to seeing. But we also went to the registration center in Imvepi, where the buses arrive with large numbers of people. Things get backed up there and the atmosphere is a bit tense, because the new arrivals spend days or weeks in large communal tents before they are given their own piece of land. There were supply bottlenecks because food deliveries were arriving too late.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the fact that everyone gets a piece of land is a sign of a very generous refugee policy.
Christoph Titz: Uganda probably has the world's most generous refugee policy. The country's Refugee Act defines how Uganda treats refugees. People are allowed to work from day one, which would be unimaginable in Germany, for example. They are free to move around the country. People are not required to stay on the plot of land assigned to them at the beginning. They are also free to choose to settle in the capital or in a city of their choice. In Germany, on the other hand, there is a "residency obligation," meaning the authorities can stipulate where a refugee lives. Uganda leaves the border open, which has created considerable pressure on the country. A million South Sudanese have already fled to Uganda, because of the ongoing conflict in their country. This does create problems, because even the friendliest country and the greatest amount of international cooperation eventually reaches its limits when so many refugees are involved.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why does the Ugandan government still pursue this refugee policy?
Christoph Titz: Ugandans know all too well from their own history what it's like to have to flee civil war. Unfortunately, this is an experience that many people in the region have already had. In addition, the same ethnic groups live north and south of the border between South Sudan and Uganda. These borders were drawn arbitrarily in colonial times, dividing entire peoples. This means that cultural and social tensions are not as prevalent as in other refugee situations, where people come to completely foreign countries or the newcomers are foreign to the people in the host country.
Maria Feck: Northern Uganda is also a comparatively arid and sparsely populated region with relatively barren soil. And now there are a million refugees there. This has brought a lot of infrastructure into the region and has also opened up new industries. Cattle are also given to the refugees so that the land can be cultivated. There is definitely an economic revitalization in this region.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let's change the subject and talk about your journey through Uganda and your impressions of the country. What do you remember best?
Maria Feck: I had never been to Uganda before and I was really positively surprised. I thought it was beautiful there. It was very green, and the soil was bright red. It was visually very striking. In fact, people live very simply in most of the villages. There are mud huts with thatched roofs, and it all looks very idyllic. There's a lot of agriculture.
Christoph Titz: I went to Uganda for the first time in 2008, to attend a wedding. And I had exactly the same impression, namely that it is such an insanely green country. Due to its location on Lake Victoria, on the equator, along with the altitude and the heavy rainfall in the rainy season, the south of the country is definitely lush and green. In the north toward South Sudan, where most of the refugees live, it becomes very dry and extremely barren. But in the far west, for example, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, there are still primeval forests in the mountains. The region is home to the world's last remaining mountain gorillas, making it a very rich country in terms of nature. Nonetheless, poverty is certainly a big problem. Medical care is also not very good. A World Food Program employee told us that in many cases school meals still come from abroad or are paid for with foreign funds, because the Ugandan government is unable to manage on its own.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Christoph, as a political journalist, you report mainly from Africa. How did this come about? Do you have a personal connection to the continent?
Christoph Titz: I mentioned the wedding I traveled to Uganda for nine years ago. My cousin married a man from Uganda. She got to know him while she was studying in Kampala. There was a big Ugandan wedding in Jinja near Kampala and a wedding in Bonn, where she comes from. So, my first connection was indeed very much as a private individual. It was very nice at the time and of course people welcomed us very warmly, because we essentially became part of the family. And then there was this additional interest. I had been interested in the continent before and I've always found international politics exciting. But it was initial personal connection that led to the desire to know and learn more about the country.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you get around during your trip? What means of transport did you use?
Maria Feck: Our very first trip was with a small plane from Entebbe, an airport near Kampala. We flew north from there to Arua, where the refugee camps are located. Afterward, we flew back to Kampala and from there we traveled by car. We had a driver named Robinson, and we covered many kilometers with him. Even though we were sitting in a car, we learned a lot about Uganda from him on these trips. He told us about voodoo and the process of bribing the police. During the trip, he used various hand signals to communicate with other drivers on the road. We had no idea what they meant, but they signaled to him that the police were waiting behind the next bend, or that there were no police for the next hundred kilometers, for example. We were also in the car when he was stopped by a police officer. These stops are sometimes completely arbitrary and for very flimsy reasons. When it happens, it feels like a little play in which everyone has a fixed role. The driver then has to put on a big "please forgive me" show and, of course, give the policeman some money. Then he has to repeatedly promise the officer that he will never do it again, and the policeman ends up with a little extra money in his pocket.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You told us earlier that your driver gave you a farewell present. What exactly did you get?
Christoph Titz: We ended up sitting together at dinner on the last day and had our laptops on the table to do a little more work. He gave us his USB stick with all the music he plays in his car. There were hundreds, if not thousands of tracks of Ugandan and other African music. It was a very nice farewell gift.
Maria Feck: He was playing Ugandan music all the time while driving, and we thought we'd like to take some of it with us.
Christoph Titz: Maybe one more thing about what Maria was saying about bribes: When you see it, it's really like watching a performance, and it's quite amusing. But corruption also happens to be a huge problem in the country. It ranges from the small fake traffic checks like the one we experienced, where a tiny amount of money changes hands, to bribery at the highest levels of government. There are government officials who try to line their pockets whenever there is a decision to be made. This is a big problem, one that contributes to keeping the country in poverty. The country does not have a great deal of natural resources, but if there were a serious attempt to curb corruption, it would be of great benefit to Ugandans.