Evictions and hunger: life in Kampala as Covid cases surge

They came to Uganda in search of a new life. Now, they’re facing eviction and destitution

Congolese refugee Riziki Kwabo, 36, says it’s been hard taking care of five young children who are all out of school. Now, they also risk eviction. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Congolese refugee Riziki Kwabo, 36, says it’s been hard taking care of five young children who are all out of school. Now, they also risk eviction. Photograph: Sally Hayden

 

Past bumpy dirt roads packed with hustling traders and election posters, down a side street in the Kampala neighbourhood of Kibuye, is an area refugees call the “Congo Quarter”.

Along with the nearby Katwe slum – famous from Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” movie, which details the life of a chess prodigy rising from poverty – many of the city’s tens of thousands of Congolese refugees live here. Extended families share one or two rooms, cut from what may have once been comfortable houses, but are now in effect tenements.

These are people who have already fled war and extreme violence in the east of neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. They came to Uganda in search of a new life. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed any hope they had. They’re facing eviction and destitution.

Living in close quarters makes it impossible to socially distance, but residents couldn’t afford to anyway. They need to go out each day, searching for food for themselves and their families.

Nyongonye Bridget (50) isn’t able to venture far. She sits in a wheelchair in front of the two rooms she shares with five relatives, selling cassava leaves. Business has all but disappeared since the pandemic started. When we spoke in late afternoon, she had sold 2,000 shillings (46 cent) worth that day.

Uganda’s lockdown was one of the strictest in Africa. It began in March and included a nationwide transport ban. During that time, Bridget’s husband died of a heart attack. Attempts to get him treatment failed because there was no vehicle to bring him to hospital. When he finally got there, she says, he was turned away because he was a refugee, and died at home.

Nyongonye Bridget, 50, with her daughter-in-law and grandchild at their two-room home in ‘Congo Quarter’, Kampala, Uganda. They have been given one week to move out, after failing to pay rent during the coronavirus lockdown. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Nyongonye Bridget, 50, with her daughter-in-law and grandchild at their two-room home in ‘Congo Quarter’, Kampala, Uganda. They have been given one week to move out, after failing to pay rent during the coronavirus lockdown. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Her husband supported the family, including three young children, and the couple’s son and daughter-in-law – who can’t find work. After his death, Bridget fell behind on rent. She is due to be evicted on Wednesday.

“You can see the situation I’m in...I have a problem with my spine. I can’t walk, I can’t stand,” she said. “I’m just suffering.”

The pandemic has exposed the ruthlessness of societies around the world, forcing many into greater hardship than they have ever known. Particularly vulnerable are poor people living in cities and slums. Refugees are not the only ones struggling, especially in developing countries, where there are few or no social protections.

Uganda shut its borders early, an action credited with slowing the spread of the disease, but the east African country is finally experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases. At least 6,468 confirmed cases have been reported, and there have been more than 60 deaths since the first fatality in July.

In the early months of the outbreak, more people were killed by security forces enforcing restrictions than the virus itself, as the crackdown forced people to stay off the streets or to pay bribes to avoid arrest. That meant millions of people across the country of more than 40 million, who were already living hand-to-mouth, used up savings or accumulated debts.

Compounding problems, president Yoweri Museveni threatened to arrest anyone who carried out food distributions for those in need, saying he would charge them with attempted murder. Many international charities moved staff out of the country or ordered them to stay at home.

Local aid organisations picked up some of the slack, but most lack adequate funding.

“We’ve been moving throughout this lockdown and we saw how people were surviving,” said Joyeux Mugisho, executive director of People for Peace and Defence of Rights (PPDR). The refugee-led organisation, which has been operating in Kampala since 2012, offers legal support and counselling, and has been distributing masks and small amounts of money to help with foodstuffs.

Some families were subsisting on a diet of watery porridge for weeks at the beginning of the lockdown, Mugisho said. Difficulties understanding restrictions were also problematic.

Most Congolese refugees speak French or Lingala, so they can’t comprehend instructions from the government, Mugisho added. This placed them at greater risk of getting into trouble with the police.

Then, there are the landlords. “Eviction is one of the major issues refugees are facing right now. We have many who have been evicted already,” Mugisho said. After being turfed out of rented properties, some Congolese refugees are sleeping in churches, which are empty because communal praying has been banned. Others go to friends’ houses.

In July, a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that more than 70,000 people were evicted in east Africa during national lockdowns.

“Evictions expose vulnerable people to greater risk of infection as they are forced into more crowded and unsanitary conditions,” said the council’s legal assistance regional adviser, Evelyn Aero.

“Furthermore, evicted people do not have a financial safety net. Many have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic and find themselves homeless, hungry and at risk of ill health at a time when we should be working together to protect all populations,” she said.

Also in July, a report by Philip Alston, the then-United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, called coronavirus “a pandemic of poverty”, saying poor people were “more likely to be exposed to, and least likely to be protected from, the virus”.

Rather a great leveller, he said, we are seeing “the parlous state of social safety nets for those on lower incomes or in poverty around the world”.

The pandemic is expected to push hundreds of millions more people into poverty and unemployment, while at least 250 million are at risk of acute hunger, he said.

“The world is at an existential crossroads involving a pandemic, a deep economic recession, devastating climate change, extreme inequality, and a movement challenging the prevalence of racism in many countries,” Alston wrote.

In Kampala’s Congo Quarter, a group of 16 Congolese tailors use two rooms to run a small business. They used to make enough to survive, but now they are six months behind on the 250,000 shilling (€57.20) a month rent and face eviction. The sewing machines were hired too, so they will leave with nothing.

“There’s no money,” says Achiza Bora Daniella (28). “[If] people get money, they don’t buy clothes, they buy food.”

Her colleague, Grace Masika – an elegant woman with a red measuring tape around her neck – was the only one employed in a family of 12. “The lockdown found us in rented houses. Getting food is very hard, getting medication for sicknesses,” she says.

When asked how many of them have gone without medicine for other illnesses since the pandemic began, almost all the tailors raise their hands. They start shouting. One has an eye problem but can’t get treatment. Others have had severe malaria or headaches.

In a nearby room, Riziki Kwabo watches her five children. “We are really suffering as mothers too,” the 36-year-old says. “This has been a very hard period, everything seemed to not be working well. We’re having [a] problem with the landlord, it’s giving us stress, we can’t sleep.”

She was selling green vegetables before the pandemic began, but sales are bad and she’s also in rent arrears. She goes to charities to beg for assistance. “I can’t help myself. We don’t know when this pandemic will end,” she says. “We’ve seen people having fear of life, people lost hope.”

Soki Mbugheki, a Congolese refugee with three children, says everyone in Kampala’s ‘Congo Quarter’ is struggling to get food, and work has dried up. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Soki Mbugheki, a Congolese refugee with three children, says everyone in Kampala’s ‘Congo Quarter’ is struggling to get food, and work has dried up. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Things are likely to get worse across the region, as the virus has caused sub-Saharan Africa to enter its first recession in 25 years. The pandemic has also revealed how ill-equipped rapidly growing cities are for future crises. And urbanisation means they’re increasingly cramped – two billion people globally will reside in slums by 2030, according to the World Bank.

More than 80,000 of Uganda’s 1.4 million refugees live in Kampala, of whom about 25,000 are Congolese. Those I spoke to came to the city with a vision of working hard, but now they’re seeing any chance at a secure future slipping away from them.

Ali Kasayi (19) says his greatest fear is his young brothers not returning to school. “I think people are not really scared about corona, it’s more about food, the daily life, parents are worried about their children.” Like his neighbours, he can’t get a job.

His mother, Soki Mbugheki (35), has started sleeping during the day. Some friends send her food, which helps a bit, but her children are constantly hungry.

She puts her eyes to the sky when asked if she’s worried about getting Covid-19. It’s everything accompanying the pandemic that scares her more than the actual disease, she says.

“We fear corona because we don’t know when this will end. It’s life, life is hard.”

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