“Sauti” poses hard questions and rejects easy answers. As the girls mature into women, we discover they are little different, in their most essential hopes and dreams, from us. Only the vastness of their challenges, and the simple resolve of their responses, sets them apart.
The refugee crisis in Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Settlement isn’t new. For the people of this camp, being a refugee is a protracted circumstance endured for decades. “Sauti” (“Voice” in Swahili) follows the efforts of five young women who were brought to the Settlement as children and who, as they approach adulthood, strive to pursue their dreams for a future beyond the constraints of a protracted refugee situation in their host country. Though safer than they were before, little else has changed since fleeing war and persecution from their home countries of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. Transcending the label ‘refugee’ has been especially challenging for the women of Kyangwali.
Over the course of several years, “Sauti” follows the young women on their personal journeys past early marriage, subsistence farming, subordination to male relatives, and the crisis of having generation after generation of refugees born into a life of exile and lack of possibility. The film witnesses their struggle to stay in secondary school, and pass the country’s national exams. They navigate the tension between pursuing a life beyond the fences of the settlement and remaining tied to the community to support their families.
The young women become storytellers in their own right through drawings, poems, and video self-documentation. In doing so, they intimately explore the trauma of their pasts, their dreams of transcending the fates of their parents, and what it takes to be in charge of their own futures.
Sauti (Voice) started when I was invited to travel to Uganda in 2012 to meet a group of girls living together in a hostel in the town of Hoima. The girls, thirty of them, came from nearby rural, impoverished villages and from Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. They were brought together by a U.S. based NGO for a highly unusual program providing food, housing and school fees so they could attend secondary school.
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 them, and a need to know whether they would succeed.