Graters and guitars: making a living in Malawi’s refugee prison

When refugees from Africa’s conflicted Great Lakes region seek peace in Malawi’s Dzaleka camp, they often find that they cannot leave

Patron Palushang, 36, leans over the half-finished guitar on his workshop table, closely inspecting the wood. Behind him, the bodies of three other instruments sway slightly in the wind. Fixed to the wall is a sheet of paper with his business motto: “We give new life to dead woods”.

“Now I make beautiful guitars, more so than in my home country,” Palushang says, looking up from his work. A musician since childhood, Palushang studied carpentry at high school before apprenticing with a guitar maker in Bukavu, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But it’s here – in the Dzaleka refugee camp in rural, central Malawi – where he perfected his craft. Palushang’s workshop is in the courtyard of his small mud-brick home in the camp, where he has lived for nearly the past decade.

The story of Patron Palushang, the guitarmaker of Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi

About 45km north of the capital, Lilongwe, Dzaleka is not a temporary settlement of tents and tarps. It has existed for more than 20 years, since the government converted an old prison to shelter people fleeing Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

It has become a “permanent” refugee camp – the result of crises in the Great Lakes region and restrictive Malawian laws that severely curtail refugees’ freedom of movement and confine most to the camps.

It is home to about 25,000 refugees, primarily from DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, along with smaller numbers from Ethiopia and Somalia. None of these countries share a border with Malawi – and few of the refugees intend to return home.

“Many things were happening: insecurity, killings, and soldiers and rebel groups were coming into houses and killing people,” says Palushang, describing what drove him to leave DRC in 2007 and travel more than 2,000km – partly on foot – to get here.

Inside Dzaleka there are restaurants, butchers, hairdressers and shops selling everything from baseball caps to kitchen supplies like metal graters and plastic colanders.

Some of the original prison buildings remain intact, and are now used by NGOs providing basic social services. There are primary and secondary schools and even a distance-learning university diploma programme, in conjunction with US colleges. Once a week, a salsa dancing club meets.

Many local Malawians attend Dzaleka’s health centre or send their children to one of its schools.

But refugees who leave Dzaleka without permission risk being caught by police, arrested and returned to the camp.

The 1951 UN refugee convention enshrines signatory states’ responsibilities. But Malawi signed this treaty “with reservations”, reserving the right to restrict refugees’ movements and where they live. By law, refugees in Dzaleka cannot work outside the camp or go to local schools.

The restrictions have made people even more dependent on food rations, which have been cut back recently.

It’s very tough for us,” says Palushang, who describes Dzaleka as still “like a prison”.

“The only thing we have here maybe is peace, because we don’t hear the sounds of guns,” he says.

Timothy Mtambo, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a Malawian NGO, says Malawi’s laws on refugees are a serious concern.

They are also a mistake, he argues, as “refugees do not come empty-handed” and have skills from which Malawi, one of the region’s poorest countries, could benefit. “We have a lot of resources within the refugee camps … some are professionals, doctors, teachers,” he says.

For many in Dzaleka, future hopes rest on securing one of the few spots for resettlement in a third country, or one of the equally limited scholarships to study overseas.

After a decade in the camp, Zamda*, a 34-year-old refugee from DRC, recently learned that she will be resettled to the US. “I’m happy, especially for the future of the children. Living in the camp we are living with no future,” she says.

According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, fewer than 900 of Dzaleka’s refugees were resettled in North America and Europe between January 2015 and April 2016.

Thousands of children have been born in Dzaleka, where more than half of the population is now under the age of 18.

“I don’t know how to help my children here,” says Katherine*, a 52-year-old from Burundi who has lived in refugee camps for more than two decades. “I cannot go home but here my children feel hopeless because they cannot see the future. They say, ‘Even if I finish school, where do I go afterwards?’”

Enid Ochieng, protection officer at the UNHCR in Lilongwe, says refugees are allowed to start businesses inside the camp.

“We encourage refugees to use their skills to earn a living in the camps,” she says, adding that aid agencies have arranged training on subjects including carpentry and computer studies.

But not everyone who wants to is able to start a business, she says, and there is limited funding to support them.When Palushang arrived in Dzaleka, he only brought with him a Bible and his guitar.

His business, Local Production of Guitars (LPG), is growing. For years he sold most of the guitars he made to churches, and some Malawian musicians, but now he sends his instruments to customers worldwide.

“Yesterday, I shipped one to Sweden,” he says. “And this one,” he points to another guitar, “that still needs one coat of varnish … maybe next week I will ship it to the USA.”

Palushang’s wife makes jewellery with strips of coloured paper tightly wound into beads. “But to sell them there are many problems,” Palushang says. “My family, we are all artists. But we are only allowed to stay here in the camp … We have talents here but we are not allowed to express them.”

Millions of people now live in protracted refugee situations, where their displacement has lasted for at least five years.

In Kenya, Dadaab is the world’s largest settlement, home to hundreds of thousands of primarily Somali refugees. The Kenyan government plans to close the complex.

In 2014, the Tanzanian government granted citizenship to more than 160,000 Burundian refugees, many of whom had lived in camps in the country’s western provinces since 1972.

Together with her eight children, Chantelle* walked for three weeks from DRC’s Katanga province to Zambia, from where they got a lift to Malawi this year in a truck.

“We weren’t sure where we were going,” says the 47-year-old, sitting on the concrete floor in the bare building that serves as a temporary shelter for new arrivals in Dzaleka, before they are allocated plots on which to build houses.

She says she decided to flee after one of her sons was killed by Mai Mai rebels while he was farming. “The main issue,” she says, “was to be far from our country.”

*Surnames withheld to protect identity


Claire Provost and Taku Dzimwasha in Dzaleka

The GuardianTramp

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