The 6 week Meheba UNHCR settlement project is a special Book Bus experience and one that proved to be an unforgetable time for the volunteer crew. The camp is enormous and comprises of many small well kept ‘villages’, far from the perceived image of a refugee camp on newsreels. The people there are a mix of Congalese, Angolans, Rwandans, Burundians, Somalis and Zimbabweans, and we were fortunate to spend time with all these communities, some of them even put on dances for us which we were honoured to experience!
Time flew and everything went remarkably smoothly as we visited different schools every week day, reading with children and interpreting the books with art materials afterwards which was always fun. The kids just don’t get other opportunities to enjoy books like that or be creative using their imagination there, partly because of the large numbers of children per teacher. Many of them have sad personal stories to tell and yet as one of the volunteers, Sophie, said “it’s the happiest place I’ve ever been.” Incredible but true, as every day is something to celebrate in Meheba.
Afternoons were spent planning classes, playing with the kids at School C opposite our camp site, doing yoga taught by me, going for walks, making bracelets! and even teaching extra English classes to adults as they’d requested them. Those classes were initiated by the volunteers which is fantastic.
In the evenings we did several quizes, played games, helped ‘mama Julia’ cook delicious meals, toasted marsh mallows over the fire or went to sit on a nearby hill to star gaze and ponder on the wonders of Meheba.
Camp life there is basic with a long drop latrine and bucket shower but everyone felt comfortable and had the time of their lives. All of us were deeply moved by the people we met and saying goodbye was the hardest part of all. They are so friendly and warm, despite the hardships and sometimes horrors that some of them have experienced. It was a powerful lesson for everyone and one that will stay with us. Some of them fear returning home and others will soon repatriate but whatever happens we wish everyone there bright futures and are grateful to them all for their kindness and hospitality.
We look forward to returning in 2012 and I must encourage anyone who wants a unique experience, a wider perspective on life and increased gratitude to sign up for the ride!