Ugandan woman promoting well-being through Yoga in Kenyan refugee camp

(Pic courtesy: @UNHCR)

New Delhi (NVI): Yoga is going global and a Ugandan refugee is using the ancient Indian practice to promote self-acceptance and mental wellbeing among refugees in Kakuma camp in Kenya.

Meet Rita Brown, the Ugandan refugee who is the first Yoga teacher at the Kakuma camp. “I used to think everything I passed through was like a destiny which…God has a plan for me that I am going suffer for rest of my life. But since I joined yoga, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, I felt like Yoga really changed me,” says Rita who fled violence in Uganda as a child.

She and her twin sister, Dorine, fled on their own as orphans, at the age of seven, after they witnessed the murder of their parents. Her father, she says, died defending his family from the armed group who attacked their village, leaving destruction and death in their wake.

Rita learned yoga through a local wellness organisation. A year later, she started classes in Kakuma refugee camp. It’s home to over 2,00,000 lakh refugees.

“I really didn’t know that I would become a yoga instructor. I felt like being in a camp for so many years is so traumatising for like a child, a mother and father, anybody living in camp,” says Rita who is using Yoga to help people recover from trauma and negativity after escaping or leaving their native places due to violence or other reasons.

Rita found healing through yoga and is helping others. “I do online classes, that is Zoom and Facebook or one-on-one class with one or two people because of social distancing,” she says.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she ran in-person classes for refugees and aid workers at Kakuma camp and the adjacent Kalobeyei Settlement, which is home to 2,00,000 people. Since some physical distancing measures were imposed, she has taken the classes online through Zoom and Facebook, reaching an even wider and more diverse audience.

After taking part in an online yoga challenge dubbed ‘Sweat Serve Share’ she now offers yoga and meditation classes to audiences as far afield as the United States. It has become more than an exercise in physical wellbeing – it is what keeps her going.

According to research, yoga enhances social wellbeing and can also improve some symptoms of depression and sleep disorders.

Rita is among the very first professional refugee yogis in the camp, after she was recruited last year into the Africa Yoga Project, a community-based organization that educates and empowers refugee youth in Africa through yoga.

Personal initiatives like Rita’s towards addressing mental health are in line with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s priority to ensure access to mental health for refugees in the camp.

As part of its COVID-19 response, UNHCR and partner agencies like JRS stepped up access to mental health services for the refugee and host communities in Kakuma and the adjacent Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement.

During the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, psychosocial counsellors have been providing virtual counselling to people of concern, including those in quarantine and isolation facilities. Toll-free helplines are also available to ensure people have unhindered access to counsellors and other mental health services.