Art, music and life in refugee camps

JAMES is a sculptor who fled the 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, the camp's other residents start gathering around him.

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.

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. James, 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 learnt 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' 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, I was invited to 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 the drummer of this youth "orchestra" is called Francoise. He is 16 years old. He learned drumming at his church in the DRC. He plays music for events or ceremonies such as weddings and church prayers and makes a living doing so.

Their musical instruments were all made of recycled items provided by aid agencies, such as the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR, originally given as humanitarian aid. Jerry cans and tins became drums. Used plates were turned into cymbals. Old saucepans turned into base drums.

Forced displacement is often tied to the notion of "loss". 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.

Sculpture and music are the lifetime vocations of James and Francoise. They are not "refugee artists" but artists who happened to become refugees.

Their fellow refugees recognise the value of their art and willingly pay for their artistic skills and products. Despite the challenging environment, refugees are not reduced to "bare life": they cherish art and music as an important part of their communal life in the camp.

The writer is senior research officer at the University of Oxford.


This article was first published on June 24, 2015.
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