• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Broom-wielding refugee sweeps away the cobwebs in Burkina Faso camp

Telling the Human Story, 31 December 2013

© UNHCR/H.Reichenberger
Roky explains to other refugees the importance of cleanliness, including washing one's hands before meals.

GOUDOUBO CAMP, Burkina Faso, December 31 (UNHCR) Roky is someone who takes pride in keeping a clean home and she's not letting standards slip in exile, even though she has a lot to worry about.

Her most important possession is a broom that she made from shrubs collected near her home in the arid Sahel region of northern Mali. Roky brought it with her when she fled to Burkina Faso in April last year after armed men attacked her village during the Malian conflict. It has helped to transform her life as a refugee, and empower her as a woman in a patriarchal and hierarchical society.

Although Roky escaped with her five children and a sister, some of her relatives were killed. "We fled on two donkeys, leaving loved ones behind. It was very painful and frightening," she recalled.

The family stayed first at Fererio camp before being moved to the safer Goudoubo Refugee Camp in mid-October. The 35-year-old Roky was at that time still traumatized by the attack, the shock of flight and the loss of kin. "I was a prisoner of fear and sadness," she told UNHCR.

Roky knew she had to do something to shake herself out of depression and to help her make something out of her new life as a refugee. So she wielded the broom that she had brought from Mali, using it to inspire herself and others.

"I decided to start sweeping," she said, explaining that at first she just cleaned around the traditional nomad shelter provided to her family by UNHCR. "Eventually, other women started to join and we started cleaning the whole camp." Less than two weeks later, with support from UNHCR's community services staff, she formed a refugee cleanliness group gathering mainly women.

They had such an impact on the cleanliness of the camp, as well as empowering women, that Roky was appointed to head one of the eight committees set up in different areas of the camp by UNHCR to help coordinate services such as aid distribution, shelter, health care, and water, sanitation and hygiene. The committees, which were established to give refugees a say in the running of the camp, have had a very positive influence on daily camp life.

Roky and her team of 12 refugees, with the support of UNHCR partner, Oxfam, have had particular success in improving operation of the camp's water, sanitation and hygiene systems. By keeping the camp clean and spreading awareness about the importance of sanitation and hygiene, they have helped avert the spread of diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera, which are a threat in northern Burkina because of poor hygiene practices and water shortages.

"Thanks to Roky's incredible energy, cleanliness sensitization campaigns are now very popular in Goudoubo," said Fassou Noramou, a UNHCR specialist in water, sanitation and hygiene. And it's helped make Roky popular too: "It is thanks to her that I feel at home in Goudoubo," said 35-year-old Fadimata, a fellow refugee from northern Mali.

Adds Alousseini Ag Anagnif, "She helps us to understand that we can make a change in our lives through small actions." A remarkable tribute coming from a man in the male-dominated Tuareg culture.

Always with a smile in her face, the forceful Roky is a hive of industry in Goudoubo, shuttling here and there organizing groups of fellow refugees to make their new home habitable.

The only time her smile fades is when she is asked about the situation back home. "I pray for peace every day for the sake of my children. In the camp we have different communities and we have all managed to get along when we work together. If this would be the same in northern Mali, it would be just perfect."

By Hugo Reichenberger in Goudoubo, Burkina Faso




UNHCR country pages

Mali Crisis: Urgent Appeal

More than 300,000 Malians have been forced to abandon homes in the hope of finding safety. Help us protect them.

Donate to this crisis

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks met with Malian refugees in Damba Camp on July 6, 2012, in northern Burkina Faso. The acclaimed soprano is using the visit to highlight the plight of tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from conflict in their country this year and are living in camps or settlements in neighbouring countries. As of early July, more than 198,000 Malians had fled to Mauritania (88,825), Burkina Faso (65,009) and Niger (44,987). At least 160,000 were estimated to be displaced within Mali, most in the north.

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Malian refugees flee for safety to Niger

Thousands of Malian families have arrived in Niger since mid-January, fleeing fighting between a rebel Tuareg movement and Malian government forces in northern Mali. Refugees are living in makeshift settlements along the border, exposed to the sun and wind by day, and cold at night. UNHCR has started distributing relief assistance and is planning to open camps in safer areas further away from the border. UNHCR's Helene Caux met with some the refugees who all expressed their desire to return to their country once peace prevails.

Malian refugees flee for safety to Niger

Harsh life for Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Some 3,900 Malian refugees are living in Damba camp in northern Burkina Faso. They left their homes in Gossi and Gao in northern Mali to escape fighting between rebel Tuareg movement and the Malian army as well as threats posed by criminal gangs and Islamist groups. Several families have recently arrived in the camp, worried that an attack on Gao in June will spill over to other towns. Life is harsh in the camp and UNHCR urgently needs fresh funds to ensure life-saving assistance for this silent humanitarian crisis.

More than 380,000 Malians have been forced to flee their homes this year. Over 65,000 of them have found refuge in Burkina Faso. And this comes at a time when the countries in the Sahel region are suffering from drought and food shortfalls.

Harsh life for Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Mauritania: Mali Elections In Mauritania Play video

Mauritania: Mali Elections In Mauritania

Hundreds of Malian refugees voted in exile at the weekend in the presidential election in their home country, way down on the numbers eligible to cast a ballot.
Burkina Faso: Election Sunday Play video

Burkina Faso: Election Sunday

Hundreds of Malian refugees voted in exile at the weekend in the presidential election in their home country, way down on the numbers eligible to cast a ballot.
Mali: Going Back Home Play video

Mali: Going Back Home

A trickle of displaced Malians undertake the journey back to their towns and villages.