In June, USCRI staff were able to meet some of the masterminds behind the stunning documentary, Sauti: Gayle Nosal (Executive Producer and Director) and Favourite, whose story is told in the film. The film, called “Voice” in Swahili (“Sauti”) because the main characters tell their stories in their own voices, is unique in its depiction of the decades-long protracted refugee situation largely overlooked by much of the world as other global refugee situations continue to emerge.
Here is Gayle’s story on how Sauti came to be:
“In the summer of 2012, I was invited to travel to Uganda to meet a group of thirty girls living together in a boarding house in Hoima, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the Western region. Many of the girls were refugees from nearby Kyangwali Refugee Settlement and some were Ugandan citizens from rural, impoverished villages on the outskirts of Hoima. They were brought together by a U.S.-based NGO (Think Humanity) for a highly unusual program providing food, housing and school fees so they could attend secondary school, a resource otherwise unavailable to them.
The girls lived like sisters—singing and dancing, ironing their uniforms, studying, attending church, and sharing stories of their pasts. Each girl dreamed of changing her life and navigating toward some kind of self-determination her parents will never be able to achieve. Their dreams for a better future were filled with hope and imagination, yet deeply complex and painful too. Immediately, I formed a deep connection to the young women, and a need to know whether they would succeed.
When I first met them I was struck by the tonal differences they adopted when they politely spoke to me as a “visitor” compared to the casual way they interacted with each other when they thought I wasn’t paying attention. The girls, just 15 years old at the time, initially spoke directly to me in a formal, rehearsed way, as if from a script. Each one of them essentially delivered the same message: “I wish to study hard to be a doctor (or nurse or teacher). I will work hard. School fees and uniforms and books are very expensive. I can make you proud of me.”
I didn’t blame them for this approach; they saw me honestly: a white American with many more resources than they have, hoping to make a difference in their lives. Their testimony is one they have practiced and it’s the story they have learned may help them survive. It is their true story and it is a hopeful and striving one.
What I also wanted to hear was what they talked about when they stood together in a small group off to the side. I was curious about the questions they asked one another at night. When they awoke before dawn to bathe and prepare for school, how did they encourage one another? What made them laugh at dinner? Could the songs they sang as they held hands and walked be sung louder for many others to hear?
From Hoima, I visited Kyangwali Refugee Settlement to meet the families of some of the girls. Uganda’s Kyangwali Settlement, located west of Hoima and near the border of DRC, has been home for more than twenty years to refugees who fled war and persecution in Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan. Despite years of efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR,) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs), the people of Kyangwali—like in other refugee settlements–continue to face food insecurity, little-to-no income-generating opportunities, inadequate secondary education, and recurring outbreaks of preventable diseases. These challenges, and many others, disproportionately impact young women.
I knew I wanted to make a film documenting the experiences of these East African refugees girls who had arrived to the Settlement as children, spent nearly their whole lives in the camp, and were now coming of age, hoping for a life beyond the constraints of a protracted refugee experience. Thought the opportunity to study in Hoima brought with it new kinds of support they would not have in the Settlement, it was evident they faced exceptional barriers on their path toward a better future. To really know these girls and their lives, I wanted the essence of their own voices, not the voices of experts, not the stories written about them in the news, and certainly not scripted testimonies.
On my second visit to Uganda, I arrived with a team comprised of local and U.S. based filmmakers. We told the girls they would be creators of a film about their lives and that we would be working alongside them to complete it. We provided them with creative options for sharing stories of their past, present and future. We trained them to use Handycams, giving them exercises to work on (such as peer-to-peer interviews and video diary entries), and freedom to use the cameras as they wished. We provided basic art materials so they could convey their experiences and hopes through drawing. At one point, two girls told us they liked to write poems and asked if poetry could be a part of their story. When we said ‘of course,’ we were presented the next day with dozens of poems and many girls excited to read her poem on camera. These creative options quickly became emotional outlets for the girls, while also being unique ways for them to share their compelling, and often-traumatic stories more intimately.
The girls’ videography, artwork and poetry became integral elements of the film’s narrative structure (we knew from the beginning we would incorporate their participatory work into the film rather than use re-enactments or archival material). Their creative work also deepened my connection with their struggles and their reserves of resilience and hope.
Take, for instance, a few lines from a poem called “Opportunity.”
You are so wonderful
You come for us all, especially we young children
For we are the future generation.
Uganda ranks among the top three refugee hosting countries in the world, hosting an estimated 1.4 million refugees, mainly from Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Though Uganda has been recognized as a world leader in dealing with the refugee crisis, that praise must be lined up with the harsher realities many refugees actually experience in the country and which are less often featured in the news or NGO reports. The country is receiving far less funding than it needs for refugee support. For the past five years and still today, new refugees regularly flow into Uganda from Burundi, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite years of efforts by the UNHCR, NGOS, and community-based organizations (CBOs), humanitarian agencies are stretched thin. Processes for land allocation to refugees in the camps are inconsistent and indeterminate. A report by the executive committee of UNCHRC summarizes the dire situation: “Camps save lives in the emergency phase (but) as the years go by, they progressively waste these same lives. A refugee may be able to receive assistance, but is prevented from enjoying those rights that would enable him or her to become a productive member of a society.”
As the film Sauti progressed over four years, we narrowed our focus to five girls and their families, each with a different view of what it means to be in a protracted refugee situation for decades. The girls and their families trusted us. They understood our goal to allow the girls to tell their stories authentically, using their own ‘voices’, without the commentary or opinion of others who were providing humanitarian assistance of any sort.
At its heart, our film is an invitation to share a connection with those refugees who were in crisis decades ago and who, today, are still in crisis. We hope audiences will question what they think they know about the global refugee crisis, whether it’s the crisis for refugees newly in exile or the crisis for those who have been in exile for a significant period of time.
Refugees today and those who obtained that label years ago are all connected to us; we have a shared humanity. All refugees want to know their place in the world. They yearn for self-sufficiency, and want to create a future of possibility and opportunity for themselves. It is an honor to share the stories of five young women in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement who—like all of us—want to belong.”
Learn more about Sauti here.