Zambia: We are the ones to build the community! ---Until the “former refugees” stand up again

The policy gathers global attention, but how is the situation on the ground?

 “I’m old now. I’ve been living in a refugee settlement for decades as a refugee. Suddenly, I was told ‘you are no longer a refugee and there’s no support available’, but how can I live without any aid?”

In April 2017, AAR Japan was in the Meheba Local Integration Area visiting residents and hearing about their living conditions. Meheba Local Integration Area is a target region of the local integration policy by the Zambian government, which is aimed at helping the “former refugees” and local Zambians that cohabit there. The former refugees are people who escaped from Angola, where there was a long civil war from 1975 to 2002, or the Rwandan Genocide, to Zambia, and have lived in the country for several decades.

Tomomi AWAMURA from AAR japan (showing her back) observing the Local Integration Area provided for the “former refugees”. They will have to cultivate the land of endless grass by their own hands. (Zambia Meheba, April 13th, 2017)

The policy attracted global attention as an epoch-making policy offering the former refugees residence permits and grants of land from 5 to 10 hectares per household. The policy also offers the same allotments of land in the territory to the same numbers of native Zambian households.

However, despite the local integration policy, it was mainly the anxiety that we could read from the expressions of the former refugees we had talked to during our visit. Some even showed their anger. Most of the former refugees currently living in the Local Integration Area have lived in the Meheba refugee settlement for several decades after they had escaped to Zambia.

The scenery of the Meheba refugee settlements, created with the long-term support by International Organizations, is no longer different from that of the ordinary farming village now inhabited by the former refugees. Refugees who have lived in the settlement for a long time live not in temporally housing like tents, but in the brick-made houses to which they had built necessary additions by their own hands. They have also cultivated fields. In 2012 and 2013, however, the refugee status of Angolans and Rwandans had been suspended, and those who had lived in Zambia for a long time became “former” refugees and were unable to stay in the refugee settlement any longer.

In 2014, the local integration policy was instituted and the Local Integration Area, which was the southern half of the Meheba refugee settlement, was provided for the former refugees as a new area of residence. The Local Integration Area, however, was an uncultivated area that had been barely inhabited previously. Former refugees moved to the Local Integration Area had no choice but to leave their residences in the Meheba settlement, where they had built their homes over the past decades. In the Local Integration Area, former refugees had to build houses, cultivate fields and arrange their living environment from scratch once again. They had to do so on land where the standards of sanitation, education and public healthcare were much lower than those of the refugee settlement side.

AAR Japan has supported Angolan refugees in Meheba since 1984. Since the early 2000’s, most of the Angolan refugees have returned to their homeland, so AAR Japan put an end to the activity in Meheba and re-focused on support around Lusaka, the capital. However, around 2015, the difficult situation concerning former refugees had come to light and, after researching the matter, AAR Japan started a community-building support system for the residents of the Meheba Local Integration Area in 2017.

Became a non-refugee and starting everything from scratch

It is worth repeating that the Meheba Local Integration Area was initially a barely inhabited land, where plants were overgrown and the roads, boreholes, schools and clinics were not borehole-maintained. To such a land, former refugees and native Zambians alike emigrated from various places inside or outside Meheba rather inconsistently. Therefore, even those who had moved to the neighboring sections of the area knew nothing about each other, and there was no opportunity to meet. In most cases of traditional African farming village society, there is a regional and customary leader called the chief (the head) who plays a central role to organize the community and people live in a system of mutual support. When there is no money to buy food or to pay for transportation to go to hospital, the neighbors supplement each other in such a traditional system and make the best of their situation.

Jelita has been living in a tent since she moved to Meheba Local Integration Area. She said she couldn’t afford to build a house. (August 19th, 2015)

Though such is the case, people moved to the Local Integration Area were separated from the community to which they had previously belonged, and were unable to use such a safety net. While we were visiting from a household to another for our research, we were surprised to see so many families were isolated from each other, with residents saying “It’s okay we moved here (to the Local Integration Area), but I have no idea what kind of people are living next door” or “I couldn’t call for a help when I got sick because I didn’t know anyone around.”

In Zambian farming villages, it is common to have a mutual support system as described above, although it depends on the region as to how borehole the system is functioning. When a water borehole breaks, for example, the members of the community who use the borehole contribute some money collectively to repair it. In other cases, where there is no school in a village, residents cooperate to start up a community school by baking bricks, building a schoolhouse and gathering money to pay for their teacher. Such regional self-help efforts are often based on the “neighborly bonding” that has been passed down from their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and even generations before them.

In contrast to this traditional approach, there was no such bonding in the Local Integration Area where emigration had just begun. However, such bonds are needed for former refugees who have previously been supported for decades at Meheba to start making their way on their own. For those reasons, AAR Japan began a project to unite the different community members and create a social relationship that could be the basis for the regional effort to improve their living Conditions.

Who is the one to act for the community building?

Not so long after AAR Japan had begun the community building project, we hosted a meeting with residents to exchange opinions after an earlier regional communication event, which was also a part of our local activity. At the meeting, we heard opinions from many residents saying “Why doesn’t AAR give us anything? There is no merit to in participating in AAR’s events.”, “There is no meal provided during the event, not even a T-shirt. People won’t come for such an event.”

It is true that our project doesn’t provide anything for the residents on the spot. Our project aims to form local self-help groups similar to neighborhood associations in Japan, and encourage each group to discuss the difficulties that the member families of the group are facing, or to talk about problems of the group as a whole and  encourage each group to collect money, like regional membership fees, to collectively solve regional problems.

We also ask each group to set up managerial positions such as committees to inspect their local boreholes, a hygiene promotion committee to improve the regional sanitation and trades such as repairmen. We ask each managerial member to cooperate daily to improve regional water hygiene. Our project is to promote communication between members of the region and to aim at creating mutual trust.

Monthly meeting of a self-help group. Member families of the group are discussing local problems. (October 1st, 2018)

For the residents, especially for those who have lived as refugees for a long time, it might have felt strange to see the way of support in which they were the ones to act, not AAR Japan or a support organization. In addition, many other aid organizations apart from AAR Japan, had made concluded their support projects were decamping at the time. The residents must have been worried about being left without means of support and, not having any chance to express their worry, accumulated emotion that had no other place to go, leading up to the voices of complaint as mentioned earlier.

It must have been hard to accept the severe situation in which they could no longer receive any support as refugees, and had to construct their living situation from scratch again by themselves. Even though it was impossible for us to be understood fully on the spot in our initial meetings, we felt we could eventually reach the former refugees by talking to them little by little over time.

Gradually growing mutual trust and support system 

It was a little more than a year had passed since the beginning of our project that we noticed the mindset of the residents was changing. We had been conveying the message, through seminars and other occasions, that members of the self-help group themselves were able to cooperate and make their life better. We had encouraged the residents to hold group meetings regularly, made sure AAR staff participated in every meeting, and continually conveyed the message of “it is very important to hold meetings by themselves” by words and by attitude (though we always participated in the meetings, we tried not to actively put in ideas; just proposing a different point of view or giving advice when the discussion reached a deadlock.)

Members of water management committee following up the check points of the borehole inspection. (June 22nd, 2018)

While we were continuing the effort, members of self-help group, who had thought AAR Japan should lead the meeting at first, began to set the dates of the meeting on their own, called for participation from house to house, and actively proposed the topics to discuss at meetings. A member of the water management committee started to ride on a bicycle, under the glaring midday sunshine, to inspect boreholes that stood more than 20mins apart from each other and, if there was any trouble found, immediately report to the group leader to deal with the situation.

The hygiene committee, on the other hand, started to visit each house to tell the importance of using toilets for the prevention of any infectious disease, and voluntarily set up fences around boreholes to keep farm animals away. One of the groups decided to cooperate in constructing a toilet for an elderly family who had difficulty in building one for themselves. Though they didn’t have much cash income, every group had become able to pool their money and, when a borehole broke, were able to buy some parts with the money and repair the borehole.

I was so surprised, but pleased, to know as many as 20 boreholes had been repaired solely with the money gathered collectively by the groups, and that repairs were done by the borehole repairmen of each group. I can never forget the triumphant face of the local staff who was in charge of the monitoring of community borehole pump menders.There are so many episodes about how the residents gradually built mutual trust and support system that I can’t describe them all here.

At an event for promoting local communication. Members of self-help groups cooperating in a tug of war. (March 7th, 2019)

Needless to say, where there is a human relationship, there is not only the base of cooperation but also quarrels. Even in Japan, there will be one or two disputes in any neighborhood association. In one of the Local Integration Area groups, such trouble happened when one of the member families took a tire off from the communal bicycle trailer used for carrying water and put it on their own bicycle. The other members of the group came all the way to AAR Japan’s office to consult for they were afraid of having disputes and asked us to mediate between them and the family using the tire. However, if AAR gave them a hand, it would go against the spirit of self-help group to solve every difficulty by themselves. I steeled myself against pity and answered them firmly, though with a smile on my face, let’s think together to find a way to solve the problem by themselves. Their expression showed their feelings such as “Oh, I knew it… But I thought if we come here and talk face to face, she might change her mind...” Nevertheless, it was impressive to see how they searched for a solution by spirited discussions within the group.

“Let’s make our life better by ourselves”

Just before AAR Japan ended our community forming project, we held a meeting with the leaders of the self-help groups. We wanted to convey the message over again that the activities of their self-help groups were wonderful and that we wanted them to remember that continuing their activities would enable them to make their lives better even in harsh situations. In the meeting, some of the leaders spoke up saying “Is AAR truly leaving? I’m nervous. I can’t believe you’re leaving just like other support organizations…” When such voices echoed and the meeting was about to be a total chaos, one of the leaders, Noah, raised his hand and talked to the other leaders.

“Before AAR had come, we didn’t know each other at all, though we were all residents of the same Integration Area. Now, we know the faces and the names of each other, and we can cooperate when there is any trouble. AAR is leaving, but all the knowledge AAR has told us through the seminars and other occasions remain in ourselves. Let’s keep on making our life here better by ourselves.”

Residents sang gratitude to AAR Japan at an event when our first project was coming to an end. (March 7th, 2019)

That was just the same message we had in mind throughout the project, but it was also the message that we had refrained from conveying explicitly by words. We had never imagined that someone would put the message into words so precisely. I recalled the angry expressions of the former refugee residents when we began our project in 2017. What a happy surprise to hear such words in only two years. Especially during the last half of the project, we had been impressed and encouraged by the residents of the Local Integration Area all the time.

What comes next is supporting the livelihood activities

We have completed the community forming project in April 2019, and then in September 2019, AAR Japan started a new project in the Meheba Local Integration Area. It is a project to utilize the community bonding which was built by the self- help groups and to now carry out livelihood activities such as agriculture. The residents made one step forward to make their own life better by creating mutual relationship in the community. However, their cash income is still scarce, and they are still striving to make their living. To make the situation better even just a little bit, we are going to support to maximize the power of the groups. We appreciate your kind cheer and support.


Tomomi AWAMURA (Tokyo office)
After graduating from university, AWAMURA worked for an NGO supporting the small-scale farmers in Malawi as an intern. After she returned to Japan, she had worked for a private company and others before entering AAR Japan. From May 2013 she had served for projects in Haiti, Tohoku (Japan) and Zambia, and she was stationed in Zambia from May 2014 till September 2016. Currently, she is serving in the Tokyo office to deal with the projects in Africa. She is from Ishikawa Prefecture. (Profile as of the date of the article)

Japanese-English translation by Ms. Saeko Ikeda
English editing by Mr. Allan Richarz
This article has been translated by volunteers as part of the AAR Japan's Volunteer Programme. Their generous contributions allow us to spread our activities and ideas globally, through an ever-growing selection of our reports from the field.