Rehema Nanyonga is a petite girl of just 20 years. She usually wears tank tops with ankle-high, colourful shoes and carries a small black satchel. She is known as Remy. Do not mistake her though for the average fresh-out-of-teenage girl. No, Nanyonga is not average.
Nanyonga lost her mother at nine years to HIV/Aids. “I never saw my father,” she says of the other parent. At 16, living with an aunt in Nsambya, she was introduced to hip-hop through the Break Dance Project Uganda. “I had been suppressed.” She found freedom and friendship on the dance stage and now dances to empower other girls. Her aunt sent her away from home.
She could not tolerate a girl that danced or interacted with boys. “She thought I used to have sex with them. Many women in the family had got pregnant at an early age,” Nanyonga narrates. Without a home, again, she was lucky to find an old friend who would take her in. “An old, old friend let me stay at her place.” “Old, old friend” does not refer to a person she had known for a long time, but rather an older woman in the community who gave her shelter. “I don’t know what it is about me, but I connect well with older people,” she says of the unusual friendship.
How her project started
Nanyonga started gathering girls around the community to teach them dance, listen to their stories and help them with their homework (for those that went to school). She went door to door, talking to parents and explaining her passion. Some parents understood, some did not care while others did not get it.
Regardless, every day, little girls in Nsambya told their caretakers “I am going to Remy’s.” At “Remy’s”, she helped them with their work and she taught them to dance. Most of the girls were not in school. “It was a very informal project, but I wanted to do what I could for the community,” she says. She would turn it into a formal project in October 2012, calling it Girl Be Project. “That was not really the name of the group. It was something that I always said to myself. “Girl Be.” That’s why it is not “girls”. It was my mantra,” she explains.
She turned it into a full-fledged project because she met more school drop-outs and young mothers, and she wanted to create a structured programme for them. “I am not the only girl who had to drop out of school. I am not the only girl who lost her parents. And, other girls like to dance.” Nanyonga is a girl with the kind of story you want to be told. You want to give as much resource as you can to make sure she writes that story.
Several people have felt that way and helped Girl Be Project. “Lulu Designs makes our costumes for free and also teaches the girls sewing and design,” she says about one of the project’s friends. Ello Designs did the graphics for their logo and printed flyers for them. They also teach the girls from Girl Be Project embroidery.
She has also recently partnered with Matooke Music House in Namuwongo who will offer a dance studio space as well as music lessons. “We reach out to them and sometimes they help. We all do what we can.”
A new friend, the Sifa Kelele band, is currently organising a show where all the proceeds will go to the girls. “It is on Friday 26th and it is our first fundraiser,” she says.
Nanyonga says the project has about 50 beneficiaries. “We have so far been able to buy school requirements for them all.”
The girls have tried to make arts and crafts for money, but most of the time it is not enough. In these cases, Nanyonga covers the costs through her personal ventures. “I do laundry for people. I also get money from dance performances and from friends,” she elaborates.
The group was also able to find sponsors for three girls who are now in school.
Nanyonga enrolled into Institute of Advanced Leadership in Nsambya where she studies Community Psychology. About the course, she simply says, “It is my dream.” She has just finished her first semester and does not know where she will get the Shs450,000 for the next. “I had a lady who helped me but she stopped,” she says, before she adds that she is not worrying about it because all she can do is “exploit the present and the future will take care of itself.”
Girl Be Project has no location. Their dance studio was wherever Nanyonga was staying, until they found a friend in In Movement in Kansanga.
On Friday and Sunday evenings, they can be found practising and counselling each other. Last Monday, the group ventured into the Namuwongo area. “12 girls showed up,” she says of the launch. The girls were aged 14-20 years and Nanyonga hopes that they will be able to find friends in mentors and in dance.
Rehema Nanyonga is what “phenomenal” means. She represents the suffering that our community has endured and what we want our community to be.