Uganda, August 2018
On World Humanitarian Day, Relief International’s (RI) Country Director for Uganda, Matthew Nviiri, recounts his recent trip to the northeast where his team of 81 staff help to provide healthcare for some of the 1 million refugees forced to flee the brutal civil war in South Sudan. To receive live updates from Matthew, follow him on Twitter at @MatthewNviiri.
I rise before the sun. At 4 am, I quietly gather my things and pack a lunch for my 4 year old daughter Manuela to take with her to school. I try to let her sleep for as long as possible, waking her around 5:30 am.
A half-hour later, we’re on our way to drop her off at school, navigating through the congested traffic in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, where RI’s country office is located. But today is not one of my office days. Instead, I head to a tiny airfield to board a small fixed wing aircraft for a flight to Moyo, Uganda. I am spending the day with our program staff serving refugees in the north. As I pull into the dusty airfield, the sun still is not up.
I join my other sleepy-eyed colleagues from RI Uganda on the tarmac, including my close friend Dr. Willy, our lead physician and Medical Coordinator. Dr. Willy used to work with me for another international nonprofit in Liberia during the country’s civil war and subsequent Ebola outbreak. But in the chaos of it all, we never met until we both started working for Relief International. As native Ugandans, we both feel a great sense of self-fulfillment from being able to contribute to the health of our own country by joining RI.
Around 7:00 am, we board the idling plane waiting at the end of the dirt runway. We duck our heads as we clamber on and squeeze into our narrow seats. The only other way to get to our program sites in Moyo is by car, which takes roughly nine hours on unpaved, pitted roads. The plane is our best option.
The only flight to Moyo is operated by another nonprofit, the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). It is an air shuttle service run by Christian missionaries that transports humanitarian workers to field sites that are dangerous, exhausting or simply impossible to access any other way. Before every take-off, the MAF pilots always say a prayer, blessing RI and its staff so that we can continue to provide quality care to the refugees we serve. This ritual stays with me as we take off, serving as a meaningful reminder of why I continue to board this tiny plane and leave my wife and daughter behind in Kampala. Dr. Willy tells me he feels the same.
Each bump and tremble of the engine feels significant during this two and a half hour flight. As we near our destination, the White Nile river comes into view and I try to lighten the mood in the cabin by reminding my colleagues that the true source of the Nile river starts in Uganda, not Egypt.
Twenty minutes later, the plane’s wheels dig into the soft, green earth of Moyo’s makeshift airstrip. A group of school children, who somehow always hear rumors about inbound planes, gather to the side of the airstrip and watch us disembark. Every time I step out of this tiny plane, I am overcome with a sense of relief and gratitude for our safe arrival. Though I know the MAF pilots are very good, when the weather is bad the small plane ride can be a little bumpy! From here, the team and I take the RI van an hour north to Palorinya settlement, which hosts more than 180,000 South Sudanese refugees who have poured over the border fleeing the country’s six year civil war. I talk with our driver and ask what is new in the settlements as we careen around motorbikes carrying people on their way to the market.
“Working with refugees is not just a calling, it’s my passion.” - RI Uganda Country Director, Matthew Nviiri.
When Uganda’s refugee population swelled to 1.4 million people fleeing neighboring conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country remained committed to its progressive refugee policies, giving the displaced access to the same schools and employment opportunities as native Ugandans. Despite the country’s own economic challenges especially in resource-poor areas where refugees often settle, Ugandans staunchly believe that when everyone is given basic human rights, both refugees and host communities have the best chance to thrive.
My team and I drive down the bright orange dirt road that leads to Palorinya. Unlike many of the refugee camps where my RI colleagues work in parts of the Middle East, refugees in Uganda live in open air settlements without fences or barbed wire. At times, the area seems almost peaceful. But, I know the settlement’s verdant surroundings mask the hardships that its residents face day-to-day.
We arrive to Palorinya a little after noon, pulling up to one of RI’s three health clinics inside the settlement. RI took over these clinics last year when another international nonprofit pulled out of the area, taking with them families’ only source of healthcare. When RI teams arrived, the situation inside the settlement was dire and we knew we had to take over the operations and keep this source of support going.
As RI Country Director, I meet all sorts of people affected by the conflict in South Sudan. People like Anit, a thirty-year-old mother of six who was an accountant at a doctor’s office in the South Sudanese town of Kajo Keji before the war. She has been to Uganda before, as a university student on a prestigious government scholarship to get her Master’s Degree in financial administration. Now she has returned under entirely different circumstances, walking with her young family in tow for four days before crossing the border into Uganda. Now, she relies on our RI clinic to look after her children’s health until the war ends and they can return home.
As Dr. Willy and I meet with her in her home, she tells us that sanitary napkins are desperately needed by her and the tens of thousands of women and girls in the settlement. When they are menstruating without adequate supplies, they are homebound. Moreover, girls cannot go to school because they have no sanitary pads and the latrines are not equipped for them to have privacy during their cycles. This priority is something my team and I in Uganda are working to resolve in the next phase of our operations. Anit’s incredible resilience and our visit with her children remind me of all the reasons why Dr. Willy and I do this work. For us, working to support refugees like Anit is not just a calling, it’s our passion.
RI’s three clinics inside Palorinya have restored families’ access to life-saving treatments for illnesses like malaria, malnutrition and HIV, among many others. We also run a 24/7 ambulance referral system that transports patients with severe medical issues or women in labor to Moyo for treatment. No matter where refugees are in the sprawling settlement, RI ensures that they have equitable access to quality health services.
At the end of a long field trip, I climb onto the same tiny plane and return to my family in Kampala. At this point in the day, I’m too tired to worry about the possibility of turbulence, resting my head against the side of the plane as I doze off. I wake up as we touchdown. From here, I drive to my parent’s house to pick up my daughter Manuela and prepare to do it all again tomorrow.