Guitars from Malawi camp hit right note with musicians around the world
DZALEKA, Malawi, April 6 (UNHCR) - Hidden among the dirt footpaths of Dzaleka refugee camp is the nerve centre of a business that strikes a chord worldwide.
In one of the mud houses crammed together in the congested camp, Patron Palushong can be found carving and polishing handcrafted wooden guitars, his signature product.
Born in 1980 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palushong learned how to make guitars at a skills training centre in his home town of Bukavu in the conflict-torn east of that vast country. He fled civil war in the DRC in 2007 and was separated from his wife. The couple were reunited in Dzaleka camp, outside Malawi's capital Lilongwe, where they now live with two young daughters.
Realizing he could use his guitar-making skills to survive, he got to work.
"Life in the camp can be very hard if one is idle," Palushong said. "But those with special skills like myself can survive in one way or the other. My aim is not to rely on UNHCR handouts forever, but to survive on my own. I started making guitars in the DRC and continued even when I arrived here."
Word of his meticulous work and craftsmanship spread and his guitars were soon being snapped up, not only in Malawi, but also by customers in the United States, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Palushong has been a refugee in Malawi for almost a decade. In accordance with the country's strict rules, all refugees must live at Dzaleka.
He says life in the camp is a challenge, but his skill, talent and entrepreneurial flair have enabled him to survive financially.
He has received training in entrepreneurship and community development from the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), UNHCR's partner in Malawi, which has helped his business forge ahead.
Palushong says his work requires concentration, as well as finesse in carving, polishing, measuring and fine-tuning the guitar. It takes several weeks to complete one instrument using products such as wood, string and sometimes, cowhide.
"Apart from the physical work, making one guitar requires a lot of physical stamina, meticulousness and mental calculation, so that I produce a product that is sophisticated enough for international consumption," he said.
The money he earns supports his family, and buys farm equipment for his maize field and supports other small businesses he is involved in.
Some of the guitars are sold to clients who visit Dzaleka refugee camp and to musicians based in Malawi. However, most are referrals from people abroad whom he has never met.
Palushong's aim is to grow his business using his business acumen and determination, but he says insufficient capital is a major impediment.
Monique Ekoko, UNHCR's representative in Malawi, said UNHCR would like to continue to help refugees in Dzaleka and elsewhere in Malawi to become self-reliant. "However lack of resources does not allow us to provide more in start-up capital," she added.
Food rations were cut between October 2015 and January 2016, and refugees in Dzaleka struggled to make ends meet.
"We are happy that a number of our refugees, despite the many challenges we face in supporting them, are using some of the opportunities we are availing them, to change their circumstances in life, especially through various forms of entrepreneurship," Ekoko said.
"It is even more critical that we support them, as the refugees in Dzaleka are almost completely dependent on international aid."
Dzaleka camp was established by the Malawian government in 1994, and has more than 25,000 refugees, mostly from the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa.
There are more than 35,000 persons of concern to UNHCR in Malawi, of whom more than 10,000 are asylum seekers from Mozambique. They have been arriving since December 2015, fleeing clashes between RENAMO rebels and Mozambican government forces.
By Kelvin Shimoh, Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi