Nicholas Ngota’s dream of becoming a journalist seemed to to be coming true when he got a job as a young reporter and anchor at a local radio station in South Sudan’s Kajukeji village in Yei River State.
The opportunity to get a platform to practise what he had always wanted to do since his early secondary school days, had finally presented itself.
“I wanted to practise the profession at the highest level and maybe become a correspondent for one of the international news agencies. I said to myself that if I ever made it there, I would have made it in life,” the tall, muscular 24-year-old Ngota says with a smile on his face.
His dream was, however, cut short by the second breakout of the civil war in 2016 when a power-sharing deal between President Salva Kiir and his Dr Riek Machar failed.
President Kiir had earlier in 2013 sacked Dr Machar as first deputy president, accusing him and 10 others of planning a coup, plunging the world’s youngest country into a war that has seen over a million refugees flee into neighbouring countries.
Ngota is just one of those who in 2016 came and settled in Rhino camp’s Siripi settlement in Uganda’s district of Arua.
Ngota’s plight worsened when the war, which had already taken on a distinctly ethnic dimension reached his home town, which had until then been peaceful.
In a statement in November 2016, the head of the UN Commission of Human Rights in the country, Yasmin Sooka, at the end of a visit noted that there was a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages. The government dismissed the allegations.
Ngota said government forces raided villages, tortured and killed people in the night and reporting about such incidents became risky for journalists like him.
“Most of the roads started sporting roadblocks. You would wake up to find the dead body of a friend you talked to only last night,” he said sinking his face in his palms.
“When we reported about it, we got numerous threats of arrest and for those who were arrested; the chances of survival were minimal.”
The decision to leave the country came when he became a wanted man after reading about a group of people killed by government soldiers, who were burnt using plastics to stoke the flames.
For about two weeks, with his younger brother and sister, they trekked to Uganda, leaving their parents behind. To this day, they have not communicated with them.
“We were not used to sleeping like this. We used to have enough food, but we lost all our property, clothes… everything,” he says.
Now Ngota, the former journalist, is pursuing a six-month course in catering at the youth skills development centre in Siripi camp, a new career he hopes will help him turn around his fortunes and also fend for his siblings.
Ngota is one of the 100 students studying vocational skills at the centre, which teaches mainly tailoring, catering, welding and building construction to refugees and students from the host community.
The enthusiasm at the school is evident in the classrooms; the busy students are so intent on their curriculum they even fail to notice a new entrant.
“Sometimes, we have to remind some that it is lunchtime,” an instructor said.
Even in courses like carpentry, welding and building construction, which many would see as appealing to only men, you will find female students like 22-year-old Lucy Lenia.
Siripi centre is run by German NGO Welthungerhilfe and received funding from Belgium’s Enabel through the $6.5 million European Union Trust Fund for Africa’s support programme for refugee settlements in northern Uganda.
The fund is designed to support 70 per cent refugees and 30 per cent of the host community.
Most of the refugee students are former professionals in different fields and business people but because of the new challenges life threw at them.
They are all trying out something new in order to either survive in the shortrun or approach life after the camp with a new skills set.
Take 25-year-old Joseph Lomoro for example, a father of two who back in Langa, Central Equatorial, used to import merchandise for a wholesale shop he jointly owned with his brother with whom he escaped to Uganda.
As the war raged on, their lives came under threat when gunmen looted their shop and on several occasions tried to kidnap one of them for ransom.
Finally, their premises were destroyed by a suspected arsonist.
Under the tree where the carpentry class is holding a practical lesson on this hot afternoon, Mr Lomoro is sawing a piece of wood with a serious look on his face.
“This is all I can do now. During the war, we lost a business that was worth $25,000 and here we are with nothing completely. I cannot just sit in the camp when there is an opportunity to learn something new that could help me,” he says.
While his brother, who too has a wife and two children, does not seem to have woken up to their newfound reality, Mr Lomoro says that given the reduced food rations provided by the UN World Food Programme, they may not be able to feed their families if the situation does not change for the better.
With a small start-up kit promised at the end of the course by the centre, Mr Lomoro does not think he will return to their wholesaling business because “it is impossible to start again.”
He has made up his mind to start off by making or repairing furniture for people in the camp until peace is restored in his homeland.
Whereas the initial employment opportunity for the Siripi students is the camp itself and neighbouring towns, many hope that the skills they learn will be a starting point when they return home.
According to Geoffrey Droma the principal of the centre, most of his former students work in neighbouring towns after industrial training.
“We follow up on them when they go for industrial training at private enterprises in other towns. A large number of them are retained. Others work in groups like the tailors and construction, offering their skills in the camps,” Mr Droma said.
Even with the South Sudanese warring factions agreeing to a ceasefire and signing yet another power-sharing agreement last month, most of these who have worked here are not yet willing to return home until the situation stabilises.
Pursuit of excellence
Mr Ngota, for example, is no longer interested in doing journalism, saying he does not expect the situation for journalists like him to get any better.
He wants to excel in his new field of study, hospitality.
“They will still be looking for journalists to silence, so I do not think of going back now. I want to work here, make some money and when I have enough and realise the situation is okay back home, my siblings and I will go back and maybe I will open a restaurant,” he says.
Mr Lomoro too does not plan to revive his wholesale business any more. He believes that it would take a lot of time and money, which he does not have, to build the kind and size of enterprise he and his brother owned.
He has opted for carpentry but first, he has to master his art here in Uganda and will not move back home yet, for “war could still break out.”