Adaptation of urban refugees in Uganda: a study of their socio-cultural and psychological well being in Kampala City

  • Wilson Winstons Muhwezi Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, Makerere University, PO Box 7072, Kampala, Uganda; and University of Bergen, Norway
  • David Lackland Sam Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, Makerere University, PO Box 7072, Kampala, Uganda; and University of Bergen, Norway


Given the paucity of studies on the refugee experience in low-income countries, and the difficulties they face, we set out to explore the mental health status and the socio-cultural situation of refugees in Kampala City. We were interested in psycho-social dynamics associated with adaptation of urban refugees. In this paper, we examine the mental health profile of urban refugees using both questionnaire and in-depth interviews. The questionnaire portion of the study is based on a random sample of 36 adult refugees (mean age of 31.1 years; SD of 9.2) living in Kampala city who came from different African countries. Nine of the 36 participants who were relatively fluent in English were recruited for the in-depth interview. Analyses indicated that between one out of seven, and one out of five might be suffering from serious mental health problems, in the form of anxiety, depression, psychosomatic symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorders. Results also suggested that presence of social support from fellow refugees and natives, a hospitable host society, learning the host society's language and financial stability reinforced refugee adaptation and satisfaction with livelihood in exile. Disincentives to urban refugees' adaptation seemed to be the desire to be resettled, regrets about losses incurred before and during fleeing, and inability to be employed in exile.
Constatant la rarete des etudes sur les refugies dans des pays a faible developpement economique, nous avons tente d'examiner le statut de la sante mentale et la situation socio-culturelle des refugies urbains dans la ville de Kampala. Nous nous sommes interesses a la dynamique psycho-sociale liee a l'adaptation des refugies urbains. Dans cet article, nous examinons le profil de la sante mentale des refugies urbains a l'aide d'un questionnaire et d'un entretien approfondi. Un echantillon de 36 refugies adultes provenant des differents pays de l'Afrique selectionnes au hasard (leur age moyen est de 31.1 et l'ecart-type de 9.2) vivant dans la ville de Kampala a repondu au questionnaire. Les entretiens approfondis ont ete menes avec les 9 parmi ces 36 participants qui possedaient un tres bon niveau d'anglais oral. Les analyses ont montre qu'environ un sur sept ou un sur cinq souffre d'un probleme serieux de sante mentale se manifestant sous la forme d'anxiete, de depression, de symptomes psycho-somatiques ou de symptomes post-traumatiques. Les resultats ont egalement suggere que le soutien social par un autre refugie ou un compatriote, une societe d'accueil hospitaliere, l'apprentissage de la langue de la societe d'accueil et la stabilite financiere sont des facteurs positifs de l'adaptation et de la satisfaction de vie concernant la vie en exil. Les facteurs entravant l'adaptation des refugies urbains sont le desir d'etre resinstalle, les regrets au sujet des pertes encourues avant et durant la fuite et l'incapacite de se trouver un travail.

Journal of Psychology in Africa 2004, 14(1): 3746

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eISSN: 1433-0237