On Friday afternoon (the day before I left Kampala for the second time) I visited Agape House, a half-way house for Asylum Seekers (just outside Kampala) that I helped set up in 2002 (originally in rented accommodation). At that time many were coming into Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), from Rwanda and in lesser numbers from several other countries. This was before the Sudanese peace agreement was signed, but most Sudanese asylum seekers were dealt with in the north, never reaching Kampala. There were about 175,000 Sudanese refugees in camps in the north, many of whom had been there for a number of years. We only saw a few Sudanese in Agape, most of whom would have been in danger in one way or another had they remained in the north.
Agape Pendo la Mungu (love of God in Greek and ki-Swahili) began when a Roman Catholic priest, a friend of mine, was at a church restaurant in Kampala and was asked for a meal by a man who said he was an asylum seeker. Father Anthony asked where he lived and was told “in a bus at Old Kampala Police Station”. He then asked the man to show him and after their meal they went there. This Police Station has long been the first stop in Kampala for asylum seekers and it happened that there was an accident-damaged bus parked outside. Whilst they waited for their applications for refugee status to be cleared they received no help, and of late the numbers of asylum seekers had been growing. So it was that about 25 people, mostly from Rwanda, and including families with young children were living in the bus, dependent on anything they could scrounge, or sometimes the young men earned a little by portering work in the local market. With help from his parishioners, one in particular, Father A began to give them a little food or a little money each day. One day, on arriving to see them, they saw the bus being towed away. The story of how, in less than 24 hours, a disused school building came available, is truly amazing, and thus Agape was born. I became involved shortly thereafter and it was a very hand-to-mouth affair for quite some time. However, from the beginning we were supported by the Jesuit Refugee Service who, as often as they could, provided a basic measured food allowance to each resident, which was pooled and cooked communally. Agape still had to find fuel for cooking, some variation of diet where possible, and other overheads.
Later, by means of loans and gifts from friends in Uganda and the United Kingdom, we managed to buy a property off the Entebbe road. The house, with out-buildings and a sizeable compound was gradually improved and made fit for up to 35 clients, by then receiving food regularly through the Jesuit Refugee Service. There was also space for up to five live-in members of staff. Over the last few years, hundreds of people have passed through, some staying a few days, others for up to six months, though three months has been the preferred maximum, by which time refugee status should have been sorted.
For various reasons, including legal issues over the final ownership of the building, the three founders decided at the beginning of 2008 that the building should be handed over to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The three of us have waived any claim we might have to the ownership – it seems that inadvertently we did own it as it was bought before the completion of the formal registration of the organisation. The legal processes were still pending due to the previous owner having failed over a number of years to pay ground-rent – to the Buganda Kingdom.
The Archdiocese allowed the then-current incarnation of Agape (a registered community development association) to continue managing the house for its original purpose. I was told that the numbers of residential clients were restricted to 20 for ease of administration (there are 20 beds and mattresses), and there were 17 in residence the day I went there, of which I met about 10. Two were minors and only one was female. I sat and talked with them for a while, in a mixture of English, French and ki-Swahili, translations taking place as necessary. I can get by in the last two languages but tend to stumble over the more complicated structures.
Countries represented were Congo (the minor boys and, I think, the young woman), Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan (Darfur). It is alleged that there is quite a lot of nasty stuff going on in Ethiopia that we don’t hear about – aimed at people who disagree with the government or the system. The Kenyans had fled from the ethnic violence which happened at the time of the elections in early 2008 and which, I am given to understand, continues at a low rate. Apart from the fact that a genocide has been taking place, I find understanding Darfur very difficult, but the guy I talked to was very interesting, his tribe and language are related to the Karimojong though separated by about 1000 miles.
Basic but adequate food was still provided by the Jesuit Refugee Services who now contributed to the decisions about who is accepted for residence. These were usually the unusual or (more) vulnerable cases, or those with some complications which could delay the granting of their Refugee Status. The Uganda government and United Nations High Commission for Refugees claim to have speeded up this process. The truth is that it is very variable.
At the time of my visit there was little variation in diet so, being a softie, I presented the house manager, Muwamba Joel, with a little money to buy some extras; this was greeted with cheers by the residents. It was so little, roughly equivalent to £6 Sterling, but would buy a reasonable quantity of fresh greens, with some tomatoes, a couple of kilos of sugar and some tea leaves.
I have to confess that I deliberately did not announce my arrival so I could be sure of seeing life as it is, and not spruced up for me. But the place was clean, tidy and well kept, though as basic as ever.
The out-buildings, where most of the clients’ rooms are, have been re-roofed. There were water tanks installed under my supervision in 2003/4: the one for the mains supply was still only getting sporadic filling (because of lack of pressure), and the one for rain water was empty because there had been no rain for many weeks. So they were back to carrying water from the river in jerricans. However, the clients were happy to have this temporary roof over their heads. The biggest significant need is that the two-stall pit latrines are full and urgently need replacing. Some fund-raising needed I noted.
I had first met John Kirkwood (see chapter 2) when Agape was suddenly to be without accommodation and he found a temporary (though unfinished) house for us through his Rotary contacts. He also encouraged us greatly in our vision to buy a house.
I visited Agape Office the next day, and met with Ivan the Administrator as well as Fr Francis Semuddu, Fr Anthony’s Parish Priest at Old Kampala. Fr Francis is now a part of the non-executive management team of Agape, and Fr Anthony was not in Kampala at the time. Agape continues to run an outreach day every Tuesday involving the many Asylum Seekers living locally, some of them still on the streets or in very temporary or inadequate accommodation. They are provided with some food and / or healthcare as appropriate and as available.
[Note: At the time of finalising this text, August 2010, the news is that the house is not functioning for reasons which I have not yet been informed.]
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