Stepping into the light
After fleeing from the political turmoil that befell their respective countries of Zimbabwe and Burundi, two refugees based in Dukwi are ready to forget the dark past and step into the light.
Member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Bhekimpilo Weza and his counterpart Joyce Iganjo have 28 years between them as refugees in Botswana.
In 2002, Iganjo fled the violence in Burundi, seeking refuge from a civil war that erupted eight years earlier. By 2015, the war had claimed an estimated 300, 000 lives.
The unrest escalated in 2015 after the ruling party National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) announced that incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza would run for a third term. The elections went ahead without the participation of the opposition in July.
On 2 August, Chief of Presidential Security, General Adolphe Nshimirimana was shot dead by gunmen in his car, along with three bodyguards.
It’s reports like these that have Iganjo pondering settling in Botswana permanently.
The talented, business-minded woman can be found by the Dukwi Disease Control Gate selling crafts.
Some of the eye-catching products she sells include beads, necklaces, rings, bangles and winnowing baskets (leselo).
Her baskets are different from the ones commonly found in Botswana. Her secret is simple.
“I don’t use palm tree leaves like locals do. I use banana stalk and leaves,” she explained
Iganjo also designs personalised photo albums, chokers, headbands and wristbands.
“I learnt how to make these crafts a long time ago as a young girl growing up in Burundi. I’ve been in Dukwi for a very long time and I don’t wish to just sit around and let life pass me by. I have this skill that I can use to make a living outside of the camp,” she said, adding her wish is to be awarded Botswana citizenship so she can build her life here.
“Going back is not an option. Where would I start to rebuild my life? I feel home here,” she said.
Her only worry at the moment is a shortage of banana stalk in the country.
“I wish I had enough money to import the raw material. This is a good trade that I’m also willing to share with local people if they are interested,” Iganjo said.
The Burundian shares her makeshift crafts shop under a tree with Weza, who fled to Botswana in 2008.
Weza was part of a group of Zimbabweans fleeing from the persecution of the late Robert Mugabe-led ZANU-PF. The group were temporarily housed at the Centre for Illegal Immigrants and later transferred to Dukwi Refugee Camp.
The 40-year-old from Victoria Falls is a sculptor of note and his pieces are turning heads at the Dukwi gate.
“I’m doing this for survival. As a refugee I have a lot of spare time and since we are not allowed to work, I use most of my time looking for raw material in the bush,” he said, stressing that sculpting is in the blood of every Zimbabwean man.
“It is something we learn at a very young age. It is as natural as getting married. No one has to teach you that!” he added with a chuckle.
Weza’s sculptors include the ‘Big Five’. His almost life-size creations are difficult to ignore.
“I started working on these big pieces in January because it takes a lot of time and energy. It also requires a lot of concentration,” he said.
He further told Voice Money that it took him a while to get a permit from the Forestry Department for his raw material.
“We have however received overwhelming support from all the responsible officers and the interest from potential customers has been growing since we set up our shop here,” he said.
Just like his friend, Weza is not in any hurry to head back to his home country.
“What has changed? Mugabe’s death changes nothing!” he said.
Weza was amongst the nine refugees who exhibited at Thapong Visual Arts Centre in collaboration with UNHCR.
“I’ll use my skill to survive. I have a friend and a partner here who’s also committed,” he concluded, the two momentarily sharing intimate eye contact before they burst out in light-hearted laughing.
Making Ends Meet