James is a sculptor who fled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and sought refuge in neighbouring Uganda. When it’s not raining, he likes to work outside in front of his small mud and wood hut in Rwamwanja refugee camp. As soon as he starts working, he is surrounded by spectators who are also residents of this refugee camp.
After a moment of contemplation, he touches a large block of wood in front of him and takes up his chisel. He begins to carve the figure of an elegant woman carrying a basket.
This is perhaps not an image that comes to mind when you think of refugee camps. But on a recent visit to rural Western Uganda, I encountered striking examples of refugees using the artistic skills they had brought with them in exile. Artists, musicians, and dancers play an important role in livening camp life, and this is something that I feel isn’t considered often enough.
James the sculptor
James didn’t have any plans to leave his hometown in Eastern DRC until 2012 – the year in which the security situation acutely deteriorated due to a series of attacks by M23, a rebel group fighting against the DRC government. He, his wife and five children were forced to leave their familiar town behind.
During a break from his carving, I asked James a clumsy question: “Why are you doing sculpture?” After a pause, he gently answered: “I started this work at the age of 17. Since then, I have always been sculpting. This is my lifework.”
James had learned his skills from his father who was also a sculptor in the DRC. He now dedicates his new life in Rwamwanja camp – his tentative home in Uganda – to the same passion.
Despite a number of challenges in adapting to a new environment, James’s artistic spirit and motivation are endless. Since he came to Rwamwanja in 2012, he has produced eight sculptures. There’s a woman in a long dress holding a baby; a man drinking water; a woman plaiting her hair.
The next day in Rwamwanja, I was invited to attend a concert with a dance competition organised by a youth group of Congolese refugees in the camp. When I arrived, there were already more than 100 people in the audience waiting for the event to begin in the makeshift space.
A drum set was in the corner of the space, which was open to the air with a simple wooden roof. Soon after my arrival some boys and girls all in their mid-to-late teens entered. One thin boy sat on a plastic jerry can holding a pair of sticks in front of the drum set. After a few moments, he started playing. The sound was powerful, the boy passionate.
The leader of this youth group tells me that the drummer of this youth “orchestra” is called Francoise. He is 16 years old. He learned drumming at his church in the DRC. He occasionally plays music for events or ceremonies such as weddings, church prayers, concerts or other types of events in the settlement – he also makes an earning doing so.
Their musical instruments were all made from recycled items provided by aid agencies, such as UNHCR, originally given as humanitarian aid. Jerry cans and tins became drums. Used plates were converted into cymbals. Old saucepans turned into base drums. With a bashful smile, Francoise said to me: “This is the other use for aid items in the camp”.
Music, dance, and singing are all indispensable elements of refugee life in the camp. That evening, the concert and dance contest continued for hours, attracting a growing audience.
All is not lost
Conceptions of forced displacement are very often tied to the notion of “loss”. Once people are forcibly dislocated from their countries of origin, refugees are perceived to have lost their homes, land, jobs, family, friends, even identities. But certain things do remain. Skills and passions are brought along and liven life on the other side.
More than 52,000 Congolese refugees fled DRC in the last few years and arrived in the rural Rwamwamja camp. The vast majority of refugees are making a living on agriculture, using a plot given by the Ugandan government. While the environment is not conducive to artistic activities, some refugees have resumed their new life with their most familiar livelihoods. Sculpture and music are the lifetime vocations of James and Francoise. James and Francoise are not “refugee artists”; they are artists who happened to become refugees.
What struck me was that they are still making a living through their art. I was concerned that there was very little market demand for their work, but their fellow refugees recognise the value of their art and willingly pay for their artistic skills and products. This indicates that despite the challenging environment, refugees in the camp are not reduced to “bare life”: they cherish art and music as an important part of their communal life in the camp.