Training to be a builder and helping construct two innovation centres and four trading kiosks in Uganda’s – and Africa’s – largest refugee settlement, Bidi Bidi, was Cisco’s first proper job since he fled his home in South Sudan in September 2016.
Until the environmentally-friendly construction and training programme started last May, led by award winning NGO, HYT Uganda, Cisco helped distribute food to other refugees once a month, earning 10,000 shillings (£2) and sometimes a bar of soap. More usually, however, Cisco says he would sit with his aunt at his new home in the settlement, ‘waiting for food’, while other young refugees would spend their days ‘gambling or chewing miraa (khat),’.
Cisco fled Otogo Payam his South Sudanese village when word came of the imminent arrival of government soldiers, who accused men of being rebels, burned houses and killed many of Cisco’s friends. It took Cisco and his aunt five days to get to the Ugandan border. Two days after they had left, the government soldiers arrived in Otogo Payam, ‘chasing people away,’ burning more homes. Cisco had not been able to work in the nearest town as it was too dangerous, with government soldiers imprisoning or killing locals, stealing their possessions and animals. ‘We lost many friends,’ Cisco says. ‘Youths who were like me were killed.’
After being registered as a refugee at the Ugandan border, Cisco and his aunt were taken to Bidi Bidi, the sprawling settlement for 230,000 South Sudanese refugees, where they were given blankets and mats for sleeping and tarpaulins, food rations and a 30 by 30 metre plot, on which to build a home. There is still a regular monthly food distribution, as few refugees have sufficient land – or the means- to grow their own crops. Some of this food aid is sold to buy seeds, cooking oil or clothes from the new roadside market stalls.
Uganda’s progressive refugee policy has meant that refugees – there are 1.3 million, mainly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – can stay, settle and work. And many do stay: often for years, preferring the peace and stability of Uganda to the uncertainty of their own countries.
The local Ugandan population is poor, so interventions have to support the host community too. This aid helps integration between Ugandans and refugees and so Cisco worked alongside Ugandans as well as South Sudanese in the project, often translating instructions to and from English.
But there were enormous challenges in these emerging settlements. Infrastructure had rapidly to be developed in what had been empty bush just a few years before the refugees arrived. Water had to be located and distributed and sanitation needs met; roads, health centres and schools all had to be built, as well as the many thousands of homes. This has taken its toll on the fragile Ugandan landscape, with huge numbers of trees cut down for cooking but also to fuel the kilns that make the traditional local brick for building. The environmental damage caused by cooking and in making fired bricks is devastating.
Over the course of five months, Cisco has learned all aspects of construction, but in particular the use of an innovative building material, the Interlocking Stabilised Soil Block [ISSB] that is an environmentally-friendly alternative to the fired brick . The ISSB is a compressed earth block made from mixing soil with a little cement and sand, which is manually compressed and air cured. The blocks are not fired, saving hundreds of trees and tons of carbon emissions. The results are impressive: the blocks, made on site, are strong and durable and with their interlocking feature, require little or no mortar between courses, making them even more sustainable.
Cisco says the last five months has made him ‘somebody different.’ He is now a skilled mason and has already worked on another building site with HYT, again using the compressed earth block, the ISSB. He hopes to become a project manager himself one day (‘that it was I am hoping for’) and describes the trainers he learned from as ‘great men.’
Will Cisco go back to South Sudan one day? He smiles. ‘Of course. That is my homeland. Why not go back?’