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Our visit to a refugee settlement in Uganda

September 2022

After Nourish All completed our school garden project in Kenya, we crossed into neighboring Uganda to visit a reknowned permaculturist serving refugee communities. Our visit with Bemeriki Bisimwa Dusabe in Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement was extraordinary, filled with learning and mutual exchange of knowledge and ideas. We departed reluctantly, but with inspiration for continued collaboration (and fresh oyster mushrooms!).

You won't want to miss these stories below.


Where did we go?

RWAMWANJA REFUGEE SETTLEMENT Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement is located in western Uganda and home to over 70,000 refugees. The vast majority originate from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and over 80% are women and children. Although operated by UNHCR for emergency relief, the settlement is different than the white-tented refugee camp you're likely imagining. Rwamwanja settlement is a small village meant for refugees to establish homes and integrate with their Ugandan host community. Despite the intent for semi-permanent refuge, challenges are still abundant -- poverty, malnutrition, lack of enough schools and vocational training, gender-based violence, absence of land rights, and difficult access to resources, including food and water.


We spent our time visiting with Rwamwanja Rural Foundation (RRF), a community-based organization based in Rwamwanja serving refugees across East Africa through permaculture education and livelihood building. RRF is led by an exceptional human -- Bemeriki Bisimwa -- a 15-year refugee himself who is constantly innovating on ways to serve his community. He has transformed his own space at the settlement into a demonstration farm showcasing dozens of varieties of plants, mushroom growing, rabbit husbandry, solar food drying, and water catchment.

His innovation is astounding -- fashioning old watering cans into rainwater gutters, growing food in sacks, cultivating mushrooms in a small mud hut, and creating cooking charcoal out of dried bean husks and cow dung. His talents are abundant -- proficient in atleast 10 languages, ability to cultivate deep trust amongst his community, and leadership of a network of Hub Leaders doing similar work at refugee camps across Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. His dedication to service is similarly awe-inspiring -- choosing to remain in the settlement to educate and uplift refugees, despite being able to move and live freely anywhere else in the country.

We are grateful to Morag Gamble of Permaculture Education Institute who forged this introduction and are eternally grateful to Bemeriki for hosting us and sharing his abundance of knowledge, ideas, and passion.


What did we learn?


For several days, we shadowed Bemeriki, watching and lending a helping hand wherever we could on his countless programs. We toured his demonstration garden, admiring his many plants like sesame, pumpkin, and cucumber. We learned traditional farming methods like burying a clay pot into the soil to aid with moisture retention. We scanned his library of books on not only agriculture, but physics, chemistry, and geography.

We visited a group of his permaculture trainees to check on kitchen gardens they created in their own backyards. Note: by"their own backyards," we mean the small patches of dirt behind their homes, of which they have absolutely no land rights and could be populated by new arrivals at a moment's notice. Even Bemeriki was impressed with what they had accomplished with only a shovel, watering can, and some seeds. We happily contributed some ideas, such as vertical trellises for maximizing grow space and growing luffah to complement their soap-making (also taught by Bemeriki).

We joined a practical training Bemeriki led on charcoal briquette making. Charcoal briquettes are an ingenious waste-to-value solution, creating cooking coals out of green waste. The process starts by charring dried bean husks (a garden byproduct typically discarded); sifting the biochar; mixing with cow dung, water, and sand; and compressing into a briquette to sun dry. The result is a cleaner-burning and regenerative alternative to firewood, which individuals can use for cooking or sell for income.

Last and certainly not least, we learned about mushroom cultivation. We indulged in fresh oyster mushrooms grown by Bemeriki and learned about their significant potential for nutrition, food security, and income generation. We also witnessed the construction of brand-new solar dryer, made only from wood, plastic sheeting, and mesh screens. Requiring no power, the dryer accelerates the natural power of the sun to preserve mushrooms (and more) to extend their shelf life.


What did we contribute?


The serendipity of witnessing the solar dryer's first successful run and noticing some low-hanging jackfruit, Nourish All proposed a collaborative workshop on food preparation and preservation for one of Bemeriki's youth groups. Samantha led a cooking class with young jackfruit, demonstrating how to process and cook both the flesh and seeds to maximize food security. Alongside Bemeriki, Samantha offered a practical training on processing and drying tropical fruits like banana and pineapple as a method to build livelihoods.


What's next?


#1: Solar-dried value-added products We have a vision for expanding trainings on solar drying and helping refugees create value-added products, using food from their gardens to generate livelihoods. These solar driers are extremely low-input and require nearly zero maintenance cost, and the opportunities to create products are endless -- dried bananas, jackfruit, pineapple, herbs, mushrooms.

#2: "Change the Paradigm" platform We aim to launch a new program called "Change the Paradigm" where we stream trainings about permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food cultivation, and eco-friendly livelihoods. We will spotlight educators and practitioners in the Global South (in under-resourced and often overlooked environments such as refugee settlements) and help spread their wisdom to the Global North (inviting attendees such as Nourish All's garden beneficiaries in Hawaii). We'll kick off this partnership with Bemeriki as he teaches in Rwamwanja refugee settlement.

#3: Capacity building for RRF Hub Leaders RRF has identified that their Hub Leaders need help improving their business, team management, and project management skills. Nourish All is preparing to teach online workshops for Hub Leaders in these areas.


How you can help


Nourish All and RRF's work are not possible without support from our communities. To expand our value-addition trainings, business workshops, and launch our "Change the Paradigm", we need support. Any amount is welcomed and is tax-deductible.


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