Refugees at Bidibidi settlement playing brass instruments
Photo Credit: Damalie Hirwa

MAF partners with Brass for Africa to restore hope to refugees at Bidibidi, the world’s second largest settlement.

The number of disturbing suicide cases at Bidibidi refugee settlement is falling, thanks to a music initiative helping people overcome the horrors of their past.

Brass for Africa is an organisation that reaches out to some of the most vulnerable groups of people with instrumental music, to bring healing, create relationships and develop a sense of belonging. One of the biggest challenges refugees grapple with is trauma and stress, emanating from their experience of conflict.

Mission Aviation Fellowship flies Brass for Africa staff and their partners from Kajjansi Airfield in Uganda to Arua, from where they connect to Yumbe, the home of Bidibidi settlement.

“The Yumbe project is our second biggest after Kampala, so it requires proper monitoring to ensure that we reach our intended objectives. This also means that key members of the staff teams have to travel to Yumbe often, to do project quality visits,” said Brass for Africa’s Programmes and Admin Manager Ronald Kabuye.

“Before MAF, this would be an entire day of travel and then another, recovering from the 12 hours journey, which sometimes became 15 hours or even more due to bad roads.

“Right now the team can travel half a day, rest and also attend to urgent matters. This has increased utilisation of time, ensure that more time is spent on monitoring the projects. MAF has also provided an alternative to arrange short term visits to the project in case an emergency arises.”

Bidibidi refugee settlement
Photo Credit: Damalie Hirwa

Bidibidi, the second largest refugee settlement in the world was formed in 2016, after a brutal civil war broke out in South Sudan, leading to displacement of over one and a half million people. More than 280,000 of those sought refuge at Bidibidi refugee settlement, in the north-west of Uganda. 

From over 160 cases of attempted suicides in 2021, reports indicate that there were about 40 cases last year. The downward trend is greatly attributed to interventions of projects like Music for Healthcare Inclusion, where refugees are trained to play brass instruments, engage in activities designed to help them relax, hope and overcome despair, but also as a skill that could help them earn a living.

“Here suicides do not scare people because they are not strange. But we are happy that cases are significantly dropping since we started our interventions,” said Molly Nabwami, Brass for Africa’s project health officer.

“Last year there were 40 cases, and this is very good progress, because the previous years, cases were much higher. And we continue to do advocacy in different aspects.”

Hakim Joseph, a leader at Bidibidi settlement’s Zone II, came to Uganda from South Sudan in September 2016 when conflict intensified there. Hakim says that many refugee face mental health challenges, and some resort to suicide.

“In this zone alone, 18 people attempted suicide in 2022, out of which 16 were successful. But awareness from the partners and programmes like the one Brass for Africa started here are helping a lot. This year we have so far had only three attempted suicides cases, and none has been successful,” Hakim said.

According to Hakim, the graphic pictures of murders they witnessed created bad memories and changed their lives forever. Hakim like all the other refugees we have spoken to does not wish to return to South Sudan.

Children at Bibibdi settlement
Photo Credit: Damalie Hirwa

MAF is now working with local leaders in Yumbe to construct an airstrip near the refugee settlement. When the airstrip is complete, Brass for Africa together with other partners who are serving refugees at Bidibidi, will save another two and a half hours they spend on the road from Arua, where the closest airstrip to the settlement is currently located.

“When we first came here, there was a serious issue of social cohesion, life only meant sleeping and waking up. We brought the music and we are achieving a vibrant community,” Ronald said.

In order to bridge the gap between the host community and refugees, Ronald’s team opened the music classes to the host community too. This is because at the beginning, the local people were hostile to the refugees, and would bar them from sharing their wells, firewood and even sometimes, land. Now there is more peaceful co-existence.

“Our lessons are not individual based; we teach them as a group,” Ronald added.

“One of the problems refugees face when they leave their home country is loss of their culture. This project helps them to connect and cherish their culture. We help them appreciate that they can have their music and keep their culture while away from their home country.”

On the weekend of 21 – 22 April 2024, over 160 refugees and host community members received certificates, after successfully completing their training in brass music instrument playing.

Refugees receive certificates in brass instrument playing
Photo Credit: Damalie Hirwa

The team of brass music players moved around the community entertaining them with their newly acquired skills. One lady who had gone to the market paused her activities there, and joined the band, dancing all the way to the celebration venue. Moments like these are important in the healing of the refugees.

Refugees entertain community members
Photo Credit: Damalie Hirwa

Ronald, who as an orphan himself was enrolled in this programme when he was a little boy, has been a teacher on the programme before he was handed other responsibilities.

“They have to learn how to expand and grow even away from their home country. We help them to achieve that,” he said.

Refugee children fetching water
Photo Credit: Damalie Hirwa