Home is…wherever you feel safe
A community of refugees becomes a community of entrepreneurs in Lovua Refugee Settlement, Angola
Lovua Refugee Settlement in northern Angola feels like any other city centre — except, it is not a concrete jungle.There is a never- ending hub of activity as people hustle out of the way of beeping motorcycles as they make their way to the local market, the community gardens and the pop-up spaza shops (informal convenience stores). The sound of high- pitched chattering and laughter as residents barter and call to each other from either side of the dirt roads makes me feel strangely welcomed, and right at home.
I have come to the settlement to visit the livelihood activities supported by the World Food Programme (WFP). However, I was met with much, much more.
Back in 2017, local government and UN agencies scrambled to provide food, temporary shelter and medical services to some 36,000 people who arrived in Lunda Norte Province on foot — tired, weak and frightened — after escaping violence and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Contributions from donors such as France, USA and Japan have ensured a steady distribution of special fortified food for children under the age of 2 and breastfeeding and pregnant women, as well as maize, beans and salt. People were encouraged to plant kitchen gardens and within weeks, staple foods were being cooked along with fresh organic vegetables.
Originally home to 24,000 refugees, the settlement has shrunk considerably after some 15,000 refugees voluntarily repatriated back to the DRC in 2019, with more packing to return every week. Most of those who remain have lost family and homes and have nothing to return to. Over the last two years, they have identified work opportunities, learnt Portuguese and built more permanent home structures in the settlement. They feel safe. And they want to stay.
For this reason, WFP and partners have identified a project to support livelihoods, ensuring that people are able to meet their basic food and nutritional requirements while also fostering social cohesion with the host community.
The Angolan government allocated agricultural land to the community within the settlement and, soon after, refugees and local residents planted fruit trees and vegetables in the Communal Demonstration Garden which they would sell at the market within the settlement and soon in the nearby city of Dundo. Proceeds have led to the birth of a thriving business center within the settlement as people invest in other activities like spaza shops and cafes.
The market is a hive of activity every single day as produce from the community garden is delivered. Angolans, refugees and staff from UN agencies swarm the stalls to purchase fresh. organic vegetables and fruit — bananas, pineapples, passion fruit, sweetcorn, grapes, papaya, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, cassava, eggplant and my personal favorite: okra.
Interestingly, I learnt that most of the people I met in the community garden had not been farmers in the DRC. Among them there are qualified nurses, hairdressers, teachers and accountants. Valerie Mputo Myembi is a refugee. He is also one of nine Livelihood Mobilizers, identified by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to support people interested in farming. Daily, he imparts knowledge on natural fertilizers, soil, water retention and irrigation, and shows participants how to grow food all year round using various types of seeds for both the rainy and dry season.
Antoinette Koy has been living alone in the settlement for more than two years. When she first arrived, she was a foster mom to many children who arrived as unaccompanied minors. She tells me she wishes to stay in Angola and has identified a good business opportunity — fish farming. She only needs the fish roe to start this business venture. In the interim, she is farming rice and cassava along the riverbanks, which fetch a good price at the market.
Before fleeing the DRC, Antoinette was an administrative officer in a large company. Having lost touch with her family, she has chosen to remain in Angola. When asked what she misses about the DRC her response is “the eight bags of clothes” she had to leave behind.
Antoinette works at the Community Help Desk and participates in the World Vision’s Strong Women Campaign. Trained in conflict and protection management, her role is to report grievances, particularly from women, to the humanitarian protection team. As a respected member of the community, Antoinette monitors food distributions, recording the quantity of food being distributed to each person and noting how the refugees are treated by officials.
Antoinette introduces me to Esther Tshibola, who arrived in Angola two years ago from Kamako, also in the DRC.
When I arrive at the home Esther shares with her husband and six children, there is plenty of excitement in the air — mixed with an equal amount of shouting and scolding. This is because Esther has decided — at the eleventh hour — to return to the DRC. She will leave in three days’ time, to ensure her children start the new school year in her home country.
Esther, a hairdresser, is tired of living in Angola. She has no interest in farming, even though Valerie tells me ‘she was one of my best students,’ and misses her freedom of movement.
Besides 50 kg of all-purpose flour and a plastic table set that Esther has bought with the proceeds from her farming efforts, the family will carry with them a two-month supply of WFP food commodities, to support them on their journey.
I was sad to leave the settlement. I would have liked to stay for the evening sing and dance activities — however my time, like Esther’s, was up. And so I left, reassured that the refugees are well on their way to self-reliance.
WFP continues to work in partnership with local government, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and the private sector in northern Angola on the livelihoods projects.
Separately, in Angola, WFP has been providing the Government with technical assistance to achieve strengthened food security and nutrition by 2022.