My first impressions of a refugee camp, 25 years ago.

Dear friends,

May 2020 opened up the floodgate to memories I have carried with me for the last twenty five years. They were carefully pressed into the photograph album of my mind. Each sheet was separated by tissue paper, delicate and flimsy, like the pages holding my Dad’s vintage black and white photos from his tours of duty during the Second World War, that inspired me to travel in the first place. And now, they poured forth relentlessly in my waking hours.

It is almost as though I were looking at someone else’s life instead of my own. I clung onto the makeshift raft to ride the torrent of flashbacks and emotions that threatened to engulf me or the crest of a wave of euphoria that lifted me up and away, bobbing and swirling, rising and falling: such is the capriciousness of a remembering so vivid and all encompassing of being a humanitarian aid worker for the last quarter of a century. So different are my days in this present moment as I potter about, safe and secure in a woodland on Salt Spring Island, half a world away from the Great Lakes region of Africa, that had been ripped apart by violent conflict. 

Yes, twenty five years ago I went on my first ever humanitarian mission to north-west Tanzania to serve with Christian Outreach Relief and Development(CORD) in a refugee camp, one year after the genocide in Rwanda. I was a very green and naive graduate back then. These are my first impressions of a refugee camp. 

I caught my first glimpse of the camps for Rwandan refugees from my seat in a small plane as I flew towards Ngara. It was a sight, which will remain with me for a long time to come. I had heard of Benaco, Musuhura, Lumasi and Lukole before I came to Tanzania but I couldn’t distinguish between these camps in the huge, sprawling mass, which lay below me. 


As the plane swooped lower, I began to pick out small, domed buildings neatly arranged in blocks. Columns of smoke curled skywards in a landscape, which seemed to be devoid of trees. Silence.


The next day, car horns blared out at Kasulu junction as we turned right onto the dirt road leading to Musuhura Hill. I couldn’t see the road for people. People walking: men, women and children carrying bundles of firewood or jerry cans on their heads; mothers carrying babies wrapped in brightly coloured kangas (cloths) on their backs; people riding bicycles (sometimes two to a bike) and vendors selling things by the side of the road, talking or shouting and gesticulating. Noise.


Driving through Benaco camp, the crowds thinned a little and I passed by mud-brick houses, tents, huts covered in grass or blue plastic sheeting, people tending to stoves or queuing for water. Approaching Mushura Hill I saw strange, hand-like shapes rising up from the ground, the remaining trees, which were heavily pruned. Wherever I looked, children came running towards us smiling, waving and calling out “Musungu, musungu!” (meaning foreigner in Swahili). I had arrived. 

Want to read more?

If you would like to read more about what it is like to be a humanitarian aidworker, then read my article Confessions of an Aidworker.I am currently freelancing as an international humanitarian and community development consultant based on Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada. I work with a range of individuals and organisations from Non-Governmental Organisations, Social Enterprises, United Nations agencies to Government institutions so if you or your organisation would like me to work with you, take a look at my Linked In page for my range of bespoke services and contact me there. For those readers, who are already in service as humanitarian aid workers or community and social justice activists or social entrepreneurs, I offer support to aid worker wellness through my reiki public practice and coaching as part of my intuitive healing work.

I shall look forward to hearing from you soon.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you would like to follow my blog please subscribe below:

With peace, love and light, 

Sarah xxx


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