As a contributor to the Emerging Scholars and Practitioners on Migration Issues (ESPMI) Network, I responded to the following question: What are the opportunities and challenges involved in creative methods of dissemination? How are alternative forms of media (including art, films, poetry, graphic narratives, performances, podcasts) being used to disseminate research on forced migration issues? What tools can be utilized to co-produce outputs and to actively engage with communities involved in research?
“In the coming years, forced migration research should increasingly emphasize agency-first dissemination of refugee-based accounts. It is a move away from top-down analyses of state-centered conflicts that draws instead from first-hand accounts of the migration.”
This highlights the lived realities of individuals while transcending notions of nationality and sovereignty. Western framing would move to the periphery as research becomes more dependent on the migrants’ understanding of their own experience. This change is already underway in sub-Saharan Africa through artistic mediums of story-telling by refugees, particularly those fleeing the conflicts of the Great Lakes region.
African art initiatives, many based within refugee camps, allow outsiders to learn displacement narratives from displaced artists and also for artists to share with each other. This creates two tiers of information dissemination about the migratory experience: one in which first-hand stories pass from the inside out and the other in which narratives interact with each other inside refugee spaces.
Such art initiatives reveal refugee camps to be both a challenge and an opportunity. Camps often limit refugees’ ability to move around larger society by placing restrictions on mobility, employment, farming, and outside education. Camps limit refugees’ abilities to get their stories out. However, art initiatives are only able to take root because so many refugees, sometimes tens of thousands, are concentrated within these limited areas. In this sense, refugee camps limit their residents’ worlds but the art initiatives within the camps, in turn, expand their worlds as well.
Malawi offers a striking example of refugee autonomy when we look at the Tumaini Festival at Dzaleka Refugee Camp—a resident-initiated art festival. It is a direct intervention by the refugees in response to the marginalization of their voices and as a useful tool for the re-imagination of the refugee camp (Makhumula 2019). In 2015, the UNHCR Kenya initiated the ‘Artists for Refugees’ art mentoring project in the Kakuma Camp to provide refugee artists a platform, therapy, and an opportunity to spread a positive refugee narrative. These agency-first art projects do not require vast resources when everyday objects are transformed into vehicles of expression, e.g. suitcases used by displaced artists in South Africa. Rwanda’s most renowned refugee artist, who was born in Burundi and later fled DRC, hosted an art installation in which motorcycle helmets represented the forced migration experience.
Such grassroots art initiatives, especially those that take advantage of population density in camps and thrive with few material resources, readily allow for active engagement of the refugee community in research outputs. This form of creativity gives voice to those displaced and enhances our overall understanding of forced migration.
Makhumula, C. (2019) Re-imagining Dzaleka: The Tumaini Festival and Refugee Visibility, Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies, 5(1), 1-18, DOI: 10.1080/23277408.2018.1521774.