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Meet Benson Wereje, co-founder of CIYOTA, in our fourth podcast


In this episode of the podcast, Helen and Habiiba are joined by Benson Wereje, co-founder of CIYOTA.

WARNING: This podcast contains some harrowing details of Benson’s early life. I would encourage you to listen, but if you feel uneasy, then you can skip the introduction and start at point 4 minutes, 32 seconds.

CIYOTA is a youth-led movement that supports the refugee population living in camps in Uganda. Most of the refugees come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as well as South Sudan. CIYOTA’s primary focus is on the education of refugees, and on increasing the number of children that attend secondary school.

Benson himself was born in DRC but had to flee, aged sixteen, when rebels attacked his village. He witnessed violent killings and slaughter that have stuck with him today. In 1997, he arrived at a refugee camp in Uganda. In the camp he was only one of a few refugees out of thousands who went to school. He endured extreme hunger, exhaustion and illness whilst attending school. Benson says that the strength of his faith is one of the things that got him through this period of his life. He made a promise to himself that if he survived, he would dedicate himself to helping other refugees.

Benson speaks honestly about how the trauma experienced in the DRC often leads people to resettle elsewhere. However, he confronts head-on the solution is not running away from this problem. When CIYOTA’s students go to study abroad for university, they sign an agreement to return to the camp or to DRC. He is very proud of thefact that many of these students have already engaged in plans to build new secondary schools in the refugee camp. He believes that this current generation of Congolese refugees will use their education to create peace if and when they return to DRC.

The main focus of CIYOTA is on education as it is a tool to help solve many of the other issues in the camp. CIYOTA has managed to get over 2,000 students into primary school, 1,200 into secondary, and 62 students have attended university. This has been facilitated by connections to schools and refugee groups. In addition, CIYOTA offers education programmes for women such as microfinance and health programmes. There is also an agrobusiness programme that provides a business education to the refugees whilst also providing food for the camp.

The episode also touches on a problem that affects much of Africa, including the camps, which is a high drop-out rate between primary and secondary schools. Benson explains the physical barriers to education such as the lack of schools, the distance of travel to these schools, and their cost. He also talks about some of the cultural reasons including language difficulties, age differences, and early teenage marriage.

Habiiba asks if Benson has noted a rise in the number of teenage pregnancies in the camp since the Coronavirus pandemic began. Benson recounts that there have been increased cases within the camp due to parental beliefs that marriage will create financial stability for their daughters. He explains that this cultural belief means that change will be slow. However, there are already education initiatives in place in the camp such as education around reproductive health through camp speakers, as well as connections to international non-governmental organisations.

The episode draws to a close with Benson remarking on the importance of the HALI Access Network for CIYOTA in creating a bridge between people that can help and be helped. Through its networks, CIYOTA has been able to impact 84,000 people.

This conversation inspired both Helen and Habiiba and shows how much can be achieved even with a lack of funds if hard work and belief is there.

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