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The spaces in between: Social memory at Dzaleka refugee camp


Dzaleka refugee camp. Picture by Pablo Andrés García on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

In the relatively small, Southeast African nation of Malawi is the multiethnic, multilingual community of Dzaleka Refugee Camp. Refugees at the camp are predominantly from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), and Rwanda, with minority communities from Somalia and a few other countries. Swahili has emerged as the lingua franca of the camp with Lingala, French, Kinyarwanda and Kirundi also being spoken. Established in 1994 following the Rwandan genocide, most of its current residents fled various conflicts in the African Great Lakes region. The camp was previously a maximum-security prison; the name Dzaleka comes from the Chichewa phrase N’dzaleka which means ‘I will never do it again’. Many residents have lived in the camp for years, making it a de facto protracted refugee situation hosting over 46,000 residents.


Residents in the camp carry on with life the best they can as they wait for a way out, mostly through refugee resettlement and to a much lesser extent informal local integration. Malawi itself does not provide defined pathways to citizenship for refugees. While people wait out their time as refugees, a camp culture is produced. This is most visible in the communal events and locations in the camp including the kipompa (Swahili for ‘water pump’); the food distribution exercise, known as mapokezi (Swahili for ‘receiving’); and the vibrant market day, colloquially known as Mardi marché (literally translated ‘Tuesday market’ from French, otherwise marché du mardi in standard French). Through these run the unifying strands that constitute ‘the little things’ of everyday life in the camp. Over time, they have also become preserved in the social memory of life in the camp as core settings and time markers. This is because the interactions that occur along ethnic lines at Dzaleka are arguably not as frequent and regular as those that simply happen in the shared spaces of the camp; shared social life, shared struggle and the shared characteristics of a new habitation – at once a tapestry of cultures, and its own culture.

At Dzaleka, one is certain to find people at a water pump in the wee hours of the morning, as well as in the dead of the night! The clanking of the pump’s metal parts and the gushing of the water released are a regular feature of the background noise in the camp. Despite being in a periurban area less than 50 kilometres from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, the camp is not served by the public waterworks system. Without this vital access to running water, camp residents are dependent on the water pumps located in each zone of the camp. The number of available water pumps in the camp is not proportional to the population of the camp. Worse still, they are not always functional. At the individual level, this translates to queuing up to draw water at the pump. Every day is organised around fetching water, without which basic chores cannot be done. This common experience of finding water, and the sheer time it takes to do so has built a sense of community. As such, it is not uncommon to hear of friendships or romance that began with idle chatter and shared frustration at the kipompa.

Every month without fail, you are certain to see a seemingly never-ending line near the administrative centre of the camp. That sight is the monthly food distribution exercise by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Descending family size determines the order in which residents are served, with larger households first in the hierarchy, and single-person households last. Though the exercise is essential for survival in the camp, many residents express that the experience strips them of their dignity. The long waits are frustrating and incidents like cutting in line are met with disapproval and protest. It is in those moments of ‘disorder’ that clerical staff are high-handed, yelling commands and herding people with uncourteous gestures. Similarly, loss of dignity is felt through restrictions on place of residence and internal travel for refugees in Malawi. Express permission from the Camp Administrator’s office is required before exiting the camp. The permission slip issued is popularly known as kibali (Swahili for approval). Having to present one’s kibali at police roadblocks is often a humiliating experience. Through this shared struggle to retain their dignity while living in the camp, Dzaleka residents exchange personal notes and found solidarity with other refugees.


Every Tuesday, the break of dawn brings a swarm of buses, lorries and pickup trucks ferrying merchants and their goods to Dzaleka’s market day! Likewise, local vendors relocate their stalls from the regular camp market to the open field where market day is held. Mardi marché has grown to become an inextricable part of the local cultural fabric. The practice of having a market day itself is not unique to Dzaleka; it is a longstanding tradition in Malawi and throughout Africa. Nevertheless, the camp’s market day is distinct in its offerings, some of which are reflective of the cultural diversity in the community. You are certain to find an assortment of bright coloured fabrics, kitenges, with which one can have a Congolese tailor make an outfit after the Sapeurism style – a French and Belgian influenced, flamboyant high-fashion subculture introduced to the camp by refugees from the D.R.C. Uniquely available at the market are East African delicacies such as chapati (unleavened flatbread) and mandazi (fritters) which are best accompanied with a cup of chai (tea) served at tea houses found at the market and throughout the camp. Also sold are things common to every market in Malawi, such as agricultural produce, and miscellaneous items like disposable batteries and Tupperware. Patrons of the market are both refugees and Malawian nationals. The market is at once a chance to acquire supplementary income and an activity that helps the community members integrate with each other and the broader community.


The rote activities that are vital for survival have also become characteristic of life in the camp, giving it its own distinct collective consciousness. It is the small and mundane things that anchor life in limbo at Dzaleka refugee camp, and hold the community together from one day to the next.


Emmanuel Chima

Emmanuel Chima is a doctoral student in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. His research focus is trauma and psychosocial wellbeing among refugee youth and older adults. He worked at Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi between 2015 and 2017. Email:

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