boy looks on in refugee camp

© Emily Gilbert/British Red Cross

The ever-growing Imvepi refugee camp in Uganda is home to nearly 60,000 people. Aid worker Emily Gilbert has just returned from the camp and explains how Red Cross volunteers are playing a vital role in keeping people safe and healthy.

Forty two point one degrees centigrade. It’s hot.

And as the generator powering our office fan flicks off at 2pm, I’m left with only the off-chance of a breeze through the sides of the tent for comfort.

I’m in northern Uganda to help some of the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who have fled over the border.

Our camp, Imvepi, is the fourth to be set up this year. The first three are already full.

The population here reached 58,000 people this week. According to news reports, there are thousands more people on the border just north of us, waiting to cross.

Recently arrived refugees from South Sudan collect blankets and other items from Red Cross volunteers at Imvepi reception centre in northern Uganda. © Tommy Trenchard / Panos / IFRC

South Sudanese refugees collect blankets from Red Cross volunteers at Imvepi reception centre – ©Tommy Trenchard/Panos/IFRC

A quick walk around the reception area alone gives you an idea of the scale of the disaster.

Bus load after bus load of people arrive at the camp throughout the day. They are followed by buses of their luggage – whatever they were able to save when they left their homes and ran for their lives.

A South Sudanese man approaches us and shakes our hand.

A small girl stands next to him looking up at us as we greet them: “They took her mother, my wife,” he openly tells us. “I am looking after her now.”

Refugees are travelling for days to reach this camp. There are so many accounts of attacks and kidnappings from people who have taken the route through the southern parts of South Sudan to cross the border into Uganda. It’s a huge risk.

Red Cross volunteers look for the site of a toilet they are constructing. © Tommy Trenchard / Panos / IFRC

Red Cross volunteers on their way to begin constructing a toilet – ©TommyTrenchard/Panos/IFRC

Making a song and dance about good hygiene

As we continue our walk we come across a few neat rows of tents anchored into the yellow earth against the bright blue sky.

A large crowd has gathered in front of one of the tents and we immediately spot the blotches of red vest dispersed among it.

These are some of the Ugandan Red Cross volunteers we are here to support. Their job is to spread messages about hygiene and sanitation in order to prevent risks such as disease.

We hear laughter as one of the volunteers struts around with a clown nose and a bright orange curly wig. Another volunteer is in the centre, leading a song for the children and adults alike to join in.

As we move through the crowd we reach a ring of linked hands, before the circle moves inwards abruptly, collapsing into itself in fits of laughter and shrieks.

I kneel down and watch intently as a little girl wiggles in time to the clapping, copying the words of a song about the importance of washing your hands. She’s so hooked on it that she doesn’t even notice me.

Walther Onzima, a 26 year old volunteer with the Ugandan Red Cross, talks with South Sudanese refugees about the dangers of cholera and how to avoid it. © Tommy Trenchard / Panos / IFRC

Walther Onzima, a volunteer with the Ugandan Red Cross, talks with refugees about the dangers of cholera – ©TommyTrenchard/Panos/IFRC

Back at our base camp volunteers break off into groups and develop lyrics and tunes which they practise with loud speakers

It’s a nice backing track to my days in a tent sorting through orders of wood, plastic sheeting and toilet cleaner with the logistics volunteers.

Song and dance are an integral part of how the Ugandan Red Cross spreads their hygiene messages.

They also visit households to discuss with parents how they can prevent themselves and their children from getting sick.

Digging through the hard earth

In Uganda, refugees are provided with opportunities that they do not get in other countries. Here, each family is granted 2.5 acres of land, and they are also allowed to work.

This means that Imvepi, unlike the other refugee camps I have worked in, is very spread out.

For the volunteers who work tirelessly with the sanitation engineer, this brings a whole new challenge: latrine design.

In some parts of the camp the ground is so hard that jack hammers are one of the only ways to break through to dig a pit.

The volunteers know each area intricately: which family lives in which section of the camp, where the difficult terrain is, and which families are able to dig for themselves.

Some of them have recently been out visiting families to identify people with disabilities and how the latrines can be adapted to their needs.

Henry Dada, a refugee from South Sudan, uses Red Cross materials to construct his personal latrine near his home. © Tommy Trenchard / Panos / IFRC

Henry Dada, a refugee from South Sudan, uses Red Cross materials to construct his latrine ©TommyTrenchard/Panos/IFRC

They also sit and listen to what each family needs and wishes for. They hear a lot of tragic stories.

Last week I joined a pair of volunteers sitting outside a shelter of plastic sheeting.

They were discussing with a mother and her five children the different images on a laminated card we created in our make-shift office: the risks of open defecation, the need to keep nails short, the importance of properly disposing of waste.

Sitting outside that mother’s house, I reflected just how much volunteers are the back bone of the Red Cross in Uganda and across the world.

Without them, our job here would be impossible.

We certainly wouldn’t be reaching the thousands of refugees with toilets, bathing units, hand-washing points and messages of good hygiene practise.