All this year, I've been wondering about the first six years of Bill's life, in Mkugwa refugee camp.I've asked him about the place countless times, and he remembers a few things about it: making his own soccer balls, a time he fell in scalding water. His brother Igey remembers a few more details: the perils of pit toilets, the ubiquitous chickens. Their sister Neema, of course, has the most searing memories of the camp's dangers. Their parents don't like talking about all the illness and unhappiness that marked their camp life, but a few funny stories about life there are starting to emerge.I hoped to leave Tanzania with more insight about the former life of the little boy I've gotten to know across an ocean. A transportation mixup kept me from visiting the former site of Mkugwa camp; many of its refugee dwellings, I heard, are now decayed, while certain main buildings have been overhauled, one as a newly opened school.But during my trip, I met many people who remembered Mkugwa as it had been. Former inhabitants and aid workers all helped to fill in the picture. As we've heard in previous posts, refugee girls and women say they felt particularly unsafe there, and rapes like Neema's were common.Desderius Mbekenga, Programme Manager for the Tanzanian nonprofit REDESO (Relief to Development Society), which managed Mkugwa camp until it closed in 2007, agrees that sexual violence was a major problem in the camp: "especially in the forest, when women were getting firewood or fetching water."Desderius hadn't worked in Mkugwa himself, but he had visited there. It was the smallest of four camps surrounding the town of Kibondo, in Northwestern Tanzania: just 2,000 inhabitants, as opposed to the 52,000 in nearby Nduta. It was cleaner too, he felt.The small size was deliberate: Mkugwa was conceived as a protection camp for mixed-ethnicity couples and other vulnerable people. Desderius says he felt they gave the place a different feel than other camps he visited.
"Even when you looked at them, they were different from the others," he says.
International Rescue Committee country director Richard Crothers, whose organization ran health and educational programs in the camp, agrees there was something that set the place apart."The vibe was different in Mkugwa than the other three," he says. "Mkugwa was more rebellious."Families living there had fled not only the horrors of war, but often further threats and attacks from fellow refugees. Interactions there often had an edge to them."The staff was more outspoken; they'd say, We don't believe you.' There was a lot of theft toward the end," Richard remembers. "I think it just was a rougher, more of a wild place."How has that place made its mark on Bill? At the end of two weeks, I had more questions than I started with.Travel for this project's Africa reporting was funded in part by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.