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Mzee Leo, a Champion of WASH and Hygiene Promotion at Bunagana Boarder

At 6 am, Leo Niyibizi (64) begins his day in the tranquil village of Maziba, Bunagana subcounty, approximately 6 kilometers from the border point he oversees. Equipped with his Mega Phone, Leo disseminates WASH and hygiene promotion messages to incoming refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda. He also provides basic first aid to those injured, guiding them to the UNHCR office for official registration before they are directed to the transit center in Nyakabande near Kisoro town.

Since January this year, there has been a surge in refugees due to escalating conflicts in North Eastern Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Local officials report an average of 50 refugees arriving daily. Mzee Leo commutes from home on his buffalo bicycle, a token of appreciation from URCS for his exceptional volunteerism. He wears well-branded Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including a URCS overall, white gumboots with a URCS logo, URCS visibility jacket, a cape, and carries his rosary (hanging between his overall and visibility jacket).

Upon reaching the Bunagana border point, Leo is warmly greeted by security personnel, who chant his name, “Mzee Leo orakoze kuuza,” in Kifumbira language, interpreted as, “Our Elder Leo, you are most welcome.” Leo proceeds to hang his Mega phone, which contains prerecorded hygiene promotion messages, next to the handwashing facilities. He then fetches water in two 20-liter jerrycans to fill the four handwashing tanks located in a shed at the entrance of the Bunagana border point. After ensuring the tanks are filled, Leo treats the water with measurable disinfectants to guarantee its safety for human use.

Leo Niyibizi, with his mega phone disseminating WASH and hygiene promotion messages at Bunagana boarder point between Uganda and DRC.

“After treating the water, I begin educating refugees and other individuals seeking to cross into Uganda about the importance of handwashing and hygiene promotion. During these sessions, I utilize my Mega phone, playing various prerecorded messages in the different local languages spoken here,” Leo explains.

Niyibizi is deeply motivated by a humanitarian ethos, dedicated to improving the lives of those around him through volunteerism. “I joined URCS about 30 years ago when I was still young,” he reflects. “Our region is prone to various disasters, from landslides to floods and conflicts in neighboring DRC, resulting in displacement. I felt compelled to make a difference, to save lives in the face of any disaster,” Leo emphasizes.

Leo acknowledges that his work, like any other, comes with challenges. He notes that sometimes people on the move resist advice and attempt to cross without washing their hands. “In such situations,” Leo explains, “I change my approach to be more persuasive. I educate them about potential diseases and the consequences of neglecting hygiene practices. I also emphasize the importance of using dustbins instead of littering,” he adds, underscoring the importance of hygiene promotion.

Niyibizi is married to Consolette Kabayondo and they have 8 children and 8 grandchildren. With the national society, URCS, marking 60 years of saving lives in Uganda, Leo suggests a decentralized celebration. He believes that some of the festivities should be held in Kisoro, recognizing the unique contributions of URCS in saving lives in the region.

Bernard Imanishimwe, the Acting Branch Manager, lauds Leo’s unparalleled dedication to serving humanity. He emphasizes that all individuals passing through the Bunagana border point interact with Leo. Bernard expresses his confidence in Leo’s reliability, noting his punctuality, teamwork, and versatility. He assures that, regardless of his age, Leo can always be relied upon to respond effectively to any situation.

Leo’s interventions are made possible through generous funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, IFRC, Netherlands Red Cross, and Austria Red Cross, through the Pilot Programmatic Partnerships Program (PPP). On February 25th, 2023, Niyibizi was recognized during the URCS National General Assembly with the Humanitarian Award, along with several other gifts, acknowledging his exceptional service towards URCS’s refugee response efforts. URCS operates 51 branches nationwide, with nearly 500,000 volunteers and members, showcasing its ongoing commitment to delivering high-quality and sustainable humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities.