When German, Sidd, and I visited Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in late 2019, it was being celebrated as a “unique urban experiment” and a model for long-term humanitarian relief. The United Nations and Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister had negotiated an agreement to develop Bidi Bidi into the world’s first permanent city of refugees. There we met Richard Akim, an aspiring South Sudanese filmmaker and community organizer, with whom we would go on to found Bidi Bidi Media Lab. During that first visit, Richard encapsulated the gravity and purpose of our work in Bid Bidi: “We hear you all the time. Now hear us.”
The pandemic prevented us from returning to Bidi Bidi until early 2022, when German and I arrived to find a social experiment on the verge of collapse and a community on the brink of abandonment. Two years of unyielding Covid restrictions, unrelenting isolation, and dwindling food rations had shattered any illusion of Bidi Bidi’s permanence and revealed its enduring ephemerality. Though it may be a city of refugees, it will never be home.
The following work of graphic reportage, Refugee Archipelago, is a mosaic of oral histories from Bidi Bidi as told through the experiences of its residents: refugees, relief workers, and administrators alike. It is meant to offer an honest account of the daily rhythms, discussions, and aspirations of a stateless, voiceless community struggling to exist.
This work would not exist had Richard not tapped me on the shoulder in a dusty field in Rhino Camp and trusted us with his story. He and his family are the inspiration for this work. We are also indebted to Fahad Wadada Adams—navigator, translator, co-conspirator—and everyone in Bidi Bidi who shared their time and stories with us. May the road rise to meet you.
Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement operates under the authority of the Ugandan Government’s Office of the Prime Minister with funding and administrative support provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and its partners. Refugee Archipelago would not have been possible without the consent and support of the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister, to whom we are indebted. All interviews and illustrations have been recorded and recreated as faithfully as possible.