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 an underdeveloped host country. Though safer than they were before, little else has changed since fleeing war and persecution years ago in 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, pass the country’s national exams, and avoid dangerous tropical diseases. 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.
These five young women make choices as diverse as the countries and circumstances of their origins. Peninah, originally from Democratic Republic of Congo, finds herself resettled with her mother and sister to the United Statees after nearly 16 years in the Settlement, a stroke of luck that ends up far more complex than she imagined. Betty, whose parents were killed in South Sudan when Betty was five, now has multiple dreams: to be an engineer and bring light to her community, to care for her aging grandmother, and to be reunited with her uncle in Australia. The tangle of staying in school, caring for her grandmum, and dealing with the international refugee bureaucracy is at times heartbreaking, but Betty is resilient and full of hope. Napona, from Rwanda, copes with the grief of orphanhood yet holds onto her resolution to become a lawyer so she can “stop corruption in Uganda.” Beatrice battles illness but finds empowerment in learning to claim a journalist’s voice. Favourite, the oldest of the group, cuts new paths of leadership for herself, her family and her community, while being torn between a cosmopolitan life at a fancy university in Nairobi and struggle for survival back in the Settlement.
“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.