In Uganda, refugee programs struggle with social distancing norms

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Children from the Acholi Quarter in Kampala, Uganda, play soccer. Photo by: Katumba Badru

KAMPALA, Uganda — Daniel Omara was 7 years old when he watched his uncle get shot and killed by rebels right before his eyes in Lira, Uganda. The year was 2003 and northern Uganda had been plagued by the Christian rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army for 16 years.

Omara remembers that he passed out following the incident and woke up hours later in what he realized was a temporary camp for displaced persons.

Shortly after that, he and his family joined the thousands fleeing the war to Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

They first lived on the outskirts of the city before moving to the Acholi Quarter, the urban slum that Omara, now 23, has called home for the past 12 years.

Now studying to be a lawyer, Omara is one of the estimated 250 people, including women and girls, in the Acholi Quarter using soccer as therapy to confront their traumatic past. Run by The Aliguma Foundation, a local NGO, the soccer program aides in peace building and uniting people torn apart by war. However, it’s a tool that has been near impossible to employ during the pandemic due to social distancing guidelines.

“When you engage in sports, you forget about other things that are not going well, at least at that particular time.”

— Ritah Aliguma, founder, The Aliguma Foundation

“It’s a double-sided thing,” Omara told Devex. “We already had trauma before and this pandemic has brought its own kind of trauma.”

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Even as lockdowns ease, social distancing is set to become a norm across the world, putting the efforts made by refugee organizations to create a safe space for marginalized groups through outdoor activities in permanent limbo.

Fear of escalation

The soccer program was spearheaded as a way of addressing trauma by Ritah Aliguma, sports journalist and founder of The Aliguma Foundation.

Aliguma picked interest in the Acholi quarters, so named because the majority of its occupants come from Acholiland in northern Uganda, in 2017. The slum has an estimated official population of 10,000 people — even though residents believe that number to be higher — and is to date characterized by high HIV rates, poor sanitation facilities, decreased access to education, high unemployment rates, and many people like Omara living with unaddressed psychological trauma.

Aliguma realized that as a journalist, she could be an eye for the community and help meet some of their needs. Although most of these needs were at first monetary, it occurred to her that there was a psychological need to be met too, which gave rise to slum soccer. The games began in 2017, first with children and women, before broadening to include youth.

“When you engage in sports, you forget about other things that are not going well, at least at that particular time,” Aliguma said. “It is a tool to bring people together.”

Years of effort now hang in the balance as COVID-19 induced restrictions have put a limit on outdoor activities, and organizations like the Aliguma Foundation are struggling to find alternatives.

Anthony Tumuhimbisebwe, senior protection assistant at The UN Refugee Agency and part of the team that organizes Bidibidi Got Talent — a music, dance, drama, and art talent hunt show in Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee settlement — said COVID-19 has changed the program’s course.

Through its psychosocial partners, UNHCR is now working with refugees to ensure the mental health issues triggered in the absence of routine programs, “do not escalate to another pandemic.”

The competition was started as a way to foster peace building and address war trauma in the settlement, which is home to an estimated 227,000 refugees, the majority of whom are from South Sudan.

Due to the lockdown, the grand finale originally slated for March was postponed indefinitely, an action Tumuhimbisebwe says appears to have greatly impacted the mental health of participants.

Staying indoors increases the risk of teenage pregnancies and early marriage especially among girls, Tumuhimbisebwe told Devex.

What should the COVID 19 response look like in refugee camps? Via YouTube.

Challenges in online access  

For Bidibidi Got Talent, the organizing committee might eventually have to explore ways to move the competition online and have participants audition through video conferencing,  Tumuhimbisebwe said.

“If the situation does not normalize, we are looking at making the participants write scripts and judging according to the scripts,” he said. “We can pick two dancers who will dance, and get videos from these dancers then judge through these videos rather than calling them in one group.”  

Tumuhimbisebwe clarified that this proposal hasn’t been officially tabled to the organization but is an alternative the organizing committee is considering. Participants are in groups scattered across various places in the settlement, making online auditions and a virtual event harder to implement.

But does gathering in person and physical touch have benefits on the brain that an online event cannot? Yes, said Yema Ferreira, an Angolan psychotherapist based in Denmark, adding that social isolation is a two-sided thing that can be both an advantage and disadvantage to people living with trauma.

“When there isn’t any help and there are no handouts, all we are left with is ourselves,” Ferreira told Devex. “It can kind of force people to find ways to cope.”

Physical touch is essential to healing trauma, a method that cannot be explored in programs as they move online, she explained.

“In order to release the trauma, we kind of have to revisit the pain,” she said. “In testimonies of women recounting their experience of being raped, for example, often what is described is ‘this person was doing this thing to me and I left my body.’ Touch can help bring them back to their bodies.”

While The Aliguma Foundation says that the social aspect of the slum soccer program has been moved online, in-person games cannot be held.

A lot of the people involved in slum soccer are not on social media or do not have phones so these check-ins are not always possible, Aliguma said.

Omara, a captain of one such team, has been unable to meet his teammates in person and social media has become an alternative for them to keep in touch. The team has, despite high costs of data, participated in many viral soccer challenges sharing the videos on Whatsapp groups.

Omara is nevertheless inspired by the news of sporting events opening across the world and believes his team will be able to play soon.

“What is most important now is being safe and following the guidelines,” he said.    

About the author

  • Caleb Okereke

    Caleb Okereke is a Nigerian journalist based in Kampala, Uganda and the managing editor at Minority Africa.