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Dzaleka series: a Visit to a Refugee Camp


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¬sp¬Foto tomada por la autora.

Living in Malawi means you are exposed to extreme poverty daily; Malawi is after all one of the poorest countries in the world. Over half of the population lives under the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. A quarter of the population is estimated to live in ‘extreme poverty’. After a year of living in Lilongwe, you think you have seen it all - and then you visit Dzaleka.

Not many people in Malawi know of Dzaleka, the refugee camp just 40 minutes north of the capital Lilongwe. However, the camp was established 20 years ago to offer shelter to the many refugees who were fleeing from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 20 years later, the camp offers shelter to over 18,000 refugees, mainly from the aforementioned countries, as well as Somalia and Ethiopia. In 2013, 600 new refugees arrived every month.

Menes la Plume (artist name of Trésor Nzengu) would like to change the relative unfamiliarity of Malawians with the camp by hosting a festival on Dzaleka’s grounds in October of this year, to help erase the divide between the refugees and the people of Malawi. He tells me that visitors only see the official side of Dzaleka; meaning the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and government buildings, the health clinic and the houses nearby. In line with his character, Menes shows me ‘the real Dzaleka’, as he always does with his personal guests.

Dzaleka was a political prison under former president Dr. Banda’s rule (1966-1994), built on a windy plain north of the capital Lilongwe, which is known for its extremely unattractive climate. In 1994 the prison was transformed to a refugee camp – meaning, not much was changed. Menes explains to me that when refugees finally arrive at Dzaleka, they have to rely on their own funds for everything but a very minimal monthly food ration. If they do not have funds left for buying bricks and building a house, they would have to find shelter with friends, family or in a church. However, Malawian law dictates that refugees cannot leave the camp, nor seek employment in Malawi.

Despite the law, refugees have to work to make ends meet. Some are selling goods in the market, some are working as tailors or hairdressers at the camp. Others perform manual labor in Lilongwe. For the children there is a primary and secondary school on the grounds. International organisations Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) partner in offering a liberal arts program at the camp for those who can and would like to pursue higher education, but can only offer limited placements each year. Many of the refugees at Dzaleka are dealing with psycho-social problems such as post-traumatic stress from both the conflict they were fleeing, as well as the journey to reach the camp. Fortunately, JRS has a department that provides trauma counselling.

Menes tells me that he was in tears when he saw the conditions at Dzaleka for the first time. He is from a relatively well-off family in the southern Congolese town of Lumbumbashi and his mother did not even allow him to work during his studies as she could provide for him. He has not seen her for over 5 years now. She and his brother still live in Lumbumbashi. When Menes had to flee the country, he was living with his sister and he fled with her and her family. With Menes I visit his sister and her family’s house in Dzaleka where I am being warmly greeted in French; “bonjour, enchantée, comment ca va?”. The house is a small shack with two rooms. Menes’ sister lives here with her husband, five children and a nephew. Of course there is no running water or electricity (over 80% of Malawian households do not have either). Menes explains to me that he is always welcome at his sister’s house, where he often has dinner – despite the fact that they do not have enough for themselves. That is what families do. Menes himself is “lucky” to live in one of the older buildings of the camp with electricity so that he can work on his poetry after the sun has set.

According to Menes, everyone at Dzaleka would like to leave the camp, but the three other options for them are either less attractive or (nearly) impossible. The first one is local assimilation. Unfortunately the Malawian government does not allow refugees to assimilate into the Malawian society as of yet. UNHCR is advocating for more rights for refugees within Malawi at the governmental level. The second option is repatriation. For many refugees repatriation is not an option due to the political situation in their home countries. The third and last option is resettlement. Unfortunately not many countries offer to resettle refugees to their respective countries, according to Menes you have to be extremely lucky to be resettled. In 2013, 537 people were resettled, a mere 3% of the total population. I spoke to a Burundian musician who fled twenty years ago and asked him if he thought he would ever be able to return home. With tears in his eyes he told me “we can only hope”. Menes hopes to be resettled. “There is no future here in Dzaleka”.

For more inside information on Dzaleka, please visit: