In 2011, Ming Holden traveled to Kenya and founded a theater group for Congolese refugee girls in the slums of Nairobi. Her new book about the experience, Survival Girls, traces her journey and the stories of the remarkable young women who joined her project. (Incidentally, all proceeds of the book go to the Survival Girls themselves, and Hillary Clinton and Anne-Marie Slaughter are reported to be fans.) Below, an excerpt from Holden's non-fiction novella introduces us to the sweet, spirited refugees she encountered in her theater workshop:
“What do you do when you're feeling squeezed?” I asked the girls as we began the next workshop. We were standing in a circle, swinging our arms loosely back and forth.
“When you're really sad, or really tired, or really angry. What do you do?” I started shaking one foot in front of me. They followed suit.
“I cry,” said Nana.
“I sing,” said Sofia.
“I pray,” said Dianne.
We switched feet.
“I sleep,” said Palome.
I smiled at her. “You can sleep when you're upset? That's funny, how different people's responses can be. I have trouble sleeping when I am upset.”
“When I am angry I want to do things,” Palome said in her low, even voice. “But I don't want to hurt anyone so I know I should just go to bed.”
I wondered briefly about that bed. Did she share it with siblings? Were her parents alive? I circled my shoulders forward and back. “What do you dislike the most?” I asked.
“When someone says something that is not true.”
I looked at Sofa. “Back-biting?”
“Yes, like when you are not there, they say unkind things.”
“Backstabbing. I learned it as 'backstabbing.' Yeah, I don't like that either. Anything else?”
I looked around at the girls. I wasn't quite sure what they did with their time outside of workshop. Perhaps they looked for work. Perhaps they had televisions. Sofia, at least, sometimes wrote songs. It was difficult to find paying work without documentation in Nairobi, and often illegal for asylum seekers to be employed. What did their families expect of them, if any of their family members were even with them? What did they expect of themselves?
“We really want the truth, don't we?” I asked. “I noticed that that has come up as something you really value. We really don't like it when people lie and we don't like it when they twist words. We want language to tell the truth for us.” I held up their drawings from the first session.
They nodded. I produced my trusty yellow legal pad and wrote “flower” and “femininity” and “home” and “love” and “family” in different places, connecting the words with lines.
“So,” I said. “We keep coming back to these ideas, these pictures in our minds. It sounds like you would like to do some drama, yeah? Make a piece of drama to perform?”
“Yes!” they sang.
“Well, let's start thinking,” I said. “Let's think about these words. How can we make a story to show the words? How can we act out these ideas? What do you want to talk about? We need a story about people, or a person.”
The girls conferred, with Sofia the obvious leader. I could try to follow and learn some beginning Swahili, but I instead allowed myself the pleasure of just listening to the sounds and tones and rapport, the girls' banter and affectionate arguments like busy birds or bees or hens. They turned to me.
“We want people to hear and listen to the suffering of woman,” said Valentine.
“And how Kenyan people tell refugees, 'You destroy our country,'” said Clemence.
“Do they say that?” I asked Clemence. She nodded emphatically.
Sofia spoke for her: “You can go to UNHCR, they will give a mandate —but you could sleep outside and even be rained on, they don't care.”
“Sawa,” I said. (I'd at least learned the Swahili word for “okay.”) I motioned them to circle up. “What comes next is creating a character. Drama is to show these things through a story that will be interesting to an audience. So we create a woman who represents the women you say no one listens to.” I nodded to Sofia, who translated.
I put out my hands and made an hourglass shape with them, in the center of the circle our seven bodies inscribed. “Here is our girl,” I said. The girls watched my hands and the empty air between them.
“Here is our girl,” I said again, and again making a curvy vessel out of the air. “What is her name?”
“The girl,” I said. “We are giving our stories to the girl. She's an imaginary girl. She's our character. She needs a name.”
“Anita,” Sofia said.
“Okay. Where is she from?”
“Congo,” Dianne and Valentine said together.
“South Kivu,” Palome said.
“Does she have brothers or sisters?”
“Yes, brothers.” Sofia listened to Nana say something and translated: “But they were separated. By, how do you say it, the force.”
“Forcibly separated. Okay. And then what happened?”
“She was, there is no one anymore to care for her. Because the other tribe came and” —a few of them spoke at once—“they raped her. They said to her father to rape her or they kill him. And he said no and they killed him so she has no father.”
I kept my hands, facing my palms inward, in the center of the circle. “And then,” I repeated, “she was forced apart from her brothers. And then she had to run away?”