Rwanda: Safe water for thousands of Congolese refugees

Rwanda is famous as the country of a thousand hills, but arriving in Kigeme I wasn’t quite prepared for what that meant for a refugee camp hosting more than 14,000 people. To say the camp is striking is no understatement – thousands of shelters lie in neat rows on ridges dug into two hills, one of which is so steep it can only house shelters on three quarters of its slopes.

Thousands of shelters, in neat rows on ridges dug into two hills: Kigeme camp. Photo: Laura Eldon/Oxfam

Home to Congolese refugees who have fled an upsurge in fighting in DRC’s troubled North Kivu region, Oxfam has been managing water and sanitation facilities across the camp, including running hygiene sessions to help prevent the spread of disease. In such a challenging terrain, this is no mean logistical feat.

Entrepreneurial spirit is high

Walking around the camp is a heartening experience. Despite having fled terrible conflict, life goes on. Numerous children line the pathways playing with homemade footballs constructed from plastic bags, while others pull toy cars made out of bottle caps, or take part in elaborate games involving flicking stones at different targets. Entrepreneurial spirit is high – makeshift stalls have sprung up selling charcoal and other essentials. And in perhaps my favorite spot, there’s even a ‘guest house’ selling tea.

In such a densely populated area, the risk of disease can be high. Yet, there have been no recorded outbreaks of illness since the camp opened.

“Kigeme camp has been very clean from the beginning,” Florence Uwineza, Oxfam’s Public Health Promotion Team Leader, explained when I asked how facilities were being managed. “Our team was at the camp when the first people began being transferred from the transit camp near the border. We greeted them at the entrance and handed out key messages about hygiene so they knew about the importance of keeping toilets clean and washing hands from the start.”

Keeping the camp clean

Hygiene club: These games help kids learn about hand washing. Photo: Laura Eldon/Oxfam

This work has since been supplemented through training 40 Community Leaders to teach different areas of the camp about public health. They also help run a number of hygiene clubs for men, women, youth and children involving games and putting on plays to get important messages across.

Our staff also set up a series of water points serviced by large water tanks sitting at the top of each hill. Water is piped to the camp from the city pipeline in Nyamagabe, five kilometers away to a large tank in the Oxfam compound using gravity. From here a diesel pump pumps water up to the top of one hill at a time from where it is distributed down to a number of tap stands, staggered across the steep terrain so that no one has to carry water too far up the hilly pathways. Signs at each water point indicate specific opening hours and display hygiene messages about keeping containers clean.

Unlikely to return soon

Jeanette, an attendant at an Oxfam tap stand. Photo: Laura Eldon/Oxfam

We met Jeanette visiting a water point on one of the steeper sides of the hills at Kigeme. Trained by Oxfam in safe hygiene matters, Jeanette now acts as a ‘tap stand attendant’, manning the water point at fixed times when the supply has been turned on. “I think the most important part of my job is making sure that people don’t play around at the water point and also keeping the area clean. Before people used to come here with dirty jerrycans, but now I make sure they clean them before they collect water – I think that’s the biggest achievement of my job.”

It’s a small operation here compared to some of the larger emergencies Oxfam responds to, but it’s also a unique one in a country not used to dealing with humanitarian programs. While fighting and instability continues in DRC it’s unlikely that these refugees will be returning home anytime soon. As our team prepares to hand over its work to a local partner to maintain the systems they’ve set up, they’re justly proud of the work they’ve done.

Related links

Photos: Helping internally displaced people, near Goma, eastern DRC

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Oxfam's work in Rwanda

Oxfam's work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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