From Congo to Uganda: Why the war left me no choice 2/3

Slum of Kampala, Uganda, Africa

Elias Nagwano fled his native Congo in 2013. Directly affected by the war, he had to leave everything behind to seek safety in Uganda. In exile, with no money and no family, he has to start over from nothing.


I was on the other side of the border, haggard but relieved to be safe. I didn’t have one cent to my name and I had no idea what on earth I would do in Uganda. I was sure of only one thing: If God had kept me alive until then, it meant that this uncertainty was worth living through.


The Ugandans were not slamming the door in the faces of their Congolese neighbours; that was already a good sign. The Ugandans were not slamming the door in the faces of their Congolese neighbours; that was already a good sign. Our new host country even tried to orient us, and housed us in camps where we received humanitarian aid.


That wasn’t an option for me. I knew what camps were like. We had plenty of camps in Congo. Kashusha Camp, 50 kilometres from my home, was nothing but a few acres of bare poverty sticking out of the earth.  It was as if whole Rwandan cities had been uprooted with all their people, chased by fear and genocide. Nearly 20 years after they settled there, they were still living in squalid conditions in clusters of tents. I didn’t have the courage to subject myself to that, even if deciding not to live in a camp meant giving up humanitarian assistance.


Refugee camp in Uganda; located near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Following a group of people who had crossed the border like me, I headed toward the capital, Kampala. Some of the others were meeting relatives who had already settled there, and even already knew the names of the neighbourhoods where they might start their new lives.


Our bus was full of exiled Congolese. The conversations were animated, the ambiance tense, somewhere between excitement about what the next day would bring, fear of the unknown and the sadness of realizing what we had to leave behind. I listened closely for any tiny nugget of information that would help me find my way through the maze that would be waiting for me when I arrived.


But I wasn’t entirely alone after all. Nowhere are the connections you make so immediate, so familial, as inside a bus rolling from hell to hope. No one could really afford to feed an extra mouth, and no one had the space to squeeze strangers into their tiny house in the middle of a slum. But after a few phone calls, someone had found me a place to stay and a host family. I already almost had an address — Kibuye, Makindye Division, Kampala.


People living in a slum in Kampala, photo Louise Thaller


A few months after I’d presented myself to the Ugandan authorities as an asylum seeker, my request for refugee status was granted. I had the right to work, to move around within the country and even to travel outside the country and come back. It was time to start a new life.


But the cost of living was high, and it was hard to get ahead. I had never lived like this before, without my family, without a job, without status, surrounded by people whose language I didn’t speak. I hadn’t entirely realized the impact that the trauma and torture I’d endured had on my mental health. An NGO that specialized in psychosocial support helped me talk about it, helped me treat my wounds and accept the scars.


But the hardest thing of all was not knowing what happened to my family. At one point I thought of asking for help from the Red Cross, but soon, thanks to Facebook, I managed to locate most of my nine brothers and sisters. The war had completely scattered my family. We were all safe, far from home, but we were scattered throughout the region. Finding my mother, however, was much more difficult. For months I had no news; I didn’t know if she was alive, if she got away…and this  was very hard for me. When I finally learned that she was safe, I got my confidence back and things began to move faster.


marché kampala-mediafugees
At the central market in Kampala, one can buy lots of second-hand clothes for sale throughout the country. Here, a sewing workshop picks up the falls and recreates custom made from second-hand clothes sent from Europe.


It started with a few chance encounters. A former high school classmate of mine, Rodrigues, who I ran into by accident in Kampala, introduced me to some of his friends. One of them was Grace, a businesswoman, a real pro. When Grace heard how much I had been making with my shop in the Congo, immediately proposed that I become her associate. “You need to start by buying a few bales of clothes wholesale,” she said.


But I didn’t have any savings. She lent me $150, and we went into town to buy lots of used clothes. We resold our clothes to shops across the country. From Kampala, we could travel the roads of Uganda for weeks; we only went back when we knew we had made a profit, and we started over. In a short time, I had saved $2000. I got my own place and I felt ready to travel and work internationally. A few contacts made it possible for me to start doing business in Tanzania.


Nakasero Market in Kampala#
Kampala, Uganda, 2016: Nakasero Market square


Tanzania was nothing like Uganda. Here, the Congolese and Burundian refugees were unable to move or work. I congratulated myself for having left the Congo over land and not via Lake Tanganyika; I could just as easily have ended up parked in a camp for years on end, like other Congolese refugees, forced to live a marginal existence under the constant threat of being sent back where we came from.


The Tanzanian government, at that time, was looking for ways to close the camps and send people “back home.” Because the refugees had been forced to stay in one place, among themselves, the opportunities they had to integrate into the local community were severely limited, and very few of them had mastered Tanzanian Swahili or English. The government and the NGOs that managed the camps needed interpreters to speak with the residents.


In Nyarugusu camp, Tanzania, Congolese and Burundian refugees live in isolation in camps, as the government seeks to force its closure and repatriate its residents. Who have nowhere to go.


That’s how I was hired as a survey administrator; I sat in the entrance of a tent shared by a family of my compatriots, and once I’d finished checking off the boxes next to the questions on the survey that we filled out with every household, we chatted a bit. Some had been there since 1996, and very few trusted that they could go back to the Congo or to Burundi. Oh, I could understand them. I had been lucky, lucky enough to be not a burden to society but an actor in it. Why not them? Even in Uganda, most of my compatriots were still stuck in camps.


It had always been my dream to work in development, but with a degree in theology and experience as a businessman, I wasn’t the best candidate to do humanitarian work. I’d made my decision, though; I was going to work in refugee assistance, professionally. I needed to give up my business and get a degree. I took all my savings and made my calculations — it was just enough to get me through the three years I needed to get my degree in Uganda. I was going to need to tighten my belt a bit, but I couldn’t wait to finally be a real aid worker.


In collaboration with Lou Thaller

Translation Ruby Pratka


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  • Elias Nagwano

    Elias Nagwano (who uses a pseudonym) is from a prosperous family of traders, in Congo. In 2013, the 25 year old had to flee his country and take shelter une Uganda. There, he rebuilt his life and is now engaged in an NGO where he works with others exiles in Kampala.

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