Batagine

by Michelle Kotevski

YARRIE GREW UP in a refugee camp in Guinea. She started university this year. Aminata was kidnapped by rebels in war in Sierra Leone. She is an ambassador for the UNHCR. Big Mama Rosemary fled domestic violence in Kenya. She is a community leader and she knows how to live. Yordy was a child soldier in Eritrea. Now she's the mother of four amazing kids. They are one half of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe and they would like to welcome you into their worlds.

These women have turned their extraordinary and sometimes harrowing stories of survival into a joyous theatre of humanity. With the help of four other African women – singers and dancers and actors – the ladies are celebrating a new beginning in a land of refuge.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a new Australian theatre work based on the personal stories of four African women now living in Sydney, is a celebration of women, human rights, laughter, and resilience. With a bit of sage advice on hair care.The work examines the effects of trauma, and what it means to be a survivor of horrific sexual abuse and violence in both domestic and war situations ­– as the women attempt to 'move on' and create new lives for themselves in a new country. Most of all it is a celebration of the resilience, courage and spirit of these remarkable women.

All over the world, the abuse of women remains an important issue. Australian public discourse and understanding of these issues, in particular regard to African women, is still nascent. Violence against all women and girls in Australia is regarded as unacceptable yet persists at chronic levels that cost the community millions, as recognised by the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022. Internationally, the experience of gender-based violence, especially in conflict zones, mars the lives of women, children and their communities and their experience of peace and security.

In her landmark speech Women's rights are human rights (Beijing, 5 September 1995), Hillary Clinton issued a call to action, declaring that 'the issue of human rights for women is the issue of this century. It must be tackled now.' Despite all this, the statistics on violence against women globally continue to escalate.

WRITER AND DIRECTOR Ros Horin has long been an important force in Australian theatre. She established Playworks, the women writers' workshop, to help develop more female playwrights in Australia. For twelve years, Horin was the artistic director of acclaimed Sydney theatre company Griffin, where she was dramaturge/midwife to more than fifty new Australian works and directed more than thirty premiere productions, many of them now considered Australian classics.

Horin is passionate about women's rights and has been associated with Australia for UNHCR and Amnesty International Australia for many years. As a writer and director, Horin has in the past decade decided to focus on marrying her passion for human rights and pressing social issues with her theatrical expertise. In 2005, she instigated and went on to write and direct the watershed Australian work Through the Wire, which charted relationships between everyday Australians and male refugees in detention centres. In 2010, she turned her attention to her recurring concern for women's human rights and The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe was born.

Horin believes theatre has the ability to touch people, rouse empathy and effect social and personal change. While legislation and policy change are powerful civic instruments, perhaps theatre is much more powerful and better at engendering and tending to what we will always need – empathy and care, cultivating a living, breathing culture of human rights.

Driven by this understanding, and a desire to see 'meaty' contemporary work that has a strong theatricality, Horin and her team set out to make work that is passionate, innovative, pushing form and exploring content that needs to be heard. It is a work that is honest, challenging, passionate, and joyfully alive, created by a strong female team, and truly reflects women's sensibilities and voices.

The initial research for the women's project led Horin to the NSW Service for the Rehabilitation and Treatment of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), based in western Sydney. STARTTS has from the outset been champions of this project and continues to be a significant partner. Through STARTTS, Horin met many different women who had survived terrible violence and she met with many workers and experts in the field of torture and trauma, refugee and women's services. She recorded many of her interviews with women through this process. A recurring theme that came up in these discussions and interviews was the culture of silence that pervades the issue of the abuse of women, particularly in African Australian communities.

'Out of all the recent arrivals to Australia, we've seen very little about Africans on our main stages and films, let alone anything created by and with African women about their lives,' Horin says.

About 48,000 Africans have come to Australia in the past decade through our Humanitarian program, and Africa remains one of the target regions of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Some settle in NSW and of those, most in western Sydney, where significant numbers of African Australian women already live.

According to recent statistics from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR), western Sydney Local Government Areas made up eight of the top ten Sydney metropolitan regions ranked by rate of domestic assault incidents in 2010. BOCSAR also estimated domestic violence is under-reported by as much as 39 per cent. The bottom line is that African women are less likely to seek and get appropriate help in relation to violence against them than almost any other group of women.

The consequence is that African women who've experienced violence are less likely to achieve the key indicators of successful resettlement than others. Every aspect of life is affected – physical and mental health; economic wellbeing; independence; social participation and a sense of belonging in Australia.

It is specifically this silence, and the feelings of shame around sexual violence, that The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe is intent on breaking. The courage of Aminata, Yordy, Yarrie and Rosemary to speak out is not insubstantial. Prior to telling their stories to Horin and each other, these women had not felt able to tell their stories to anyone, not even their own families. No one wanted to know. Despite their initial fears, these women have developed a steely determination to speak out publicly, and turn their experiences – and the challenge of sharing their stories – into a force for change, to help other women and girls. For these women the show is just one step in their journeys to bring about safety and healing for other women.



'Before I came to Australia I didn't know rape was wrong. I thought it was normal.'
– Yordy



In 2011 A core group of four African women survivors and other African professional artists formed a 'troupe. Horin began working with the troupe one evening a week over four months. The focus of these workshops was skills development, music, improvisation as well as creative exploration of experiences and ideas at the heart of the work. Horin began to develop a script based on the material from these workshops, her research and discussions and the transcripts of the interviews with the participating women.

The next phase of development took place between February and May 2012. The troupe and an expanded creative team undertook weekly workshops to develop material for the work. The workshops consisted of research and development tasks; skills development work and improvisation. Themes, images and ideas that arose out of the women's stories and responses to tasks were explored, generating draft script, music and visual material for the piece. There was a great focus on exploring aspects of the women's different cultures and a real focus on long-term effects of trauma on the women, where and how they found their strength and resilience – and exploring their lives now.

A unique and challenging aspect of this project has been working with trauma. Not just real people, but real survivors of trauma. Therefore the focus of these first stages of development was about building trust and cohesion within the group, supporting the women with the presence of a professional counsellor, where necessary, as the team dealt with the potent sensitivities and emotions around their trauma. By its very nature it was a slow and delicate process and will continue to be all the way through to the final curtain.

Throughout the making process the women have been in total control of their material, and at the centre of all decision making about the production. As a group they developed a very refined process of discussion and decision making in regards to the dramaturgical, social, cultural and individual meaning of material and the piece as a whole.

By the end of April 2012, the team, which included Lucia Mastrantone as movement director, had created about an hour's worth of material that they were prepared to semi-stage and showcase to an audience as a work-in-progress. They worked for a week to bring together aspects of the work and then in May last year presented the material to an invited audience of some 50 people at Riverside in Parramatta. The audience were staff from STARTTS, UNHCR, the NSW Attorney-General's Department, other women from African communities, friends and family of the women, industry producers and presenters.

The response to the showing was very strong and positive. Most people were very moved and keen to see the work developed into a full production. This was, of course, extremely affirming and encouraging to the women involved.

At this time Riverside and Belvoir invited the work to be part of their 2013 seasons and became investors in the work along with STARTTS and Racing Pulse Productions. Numerous individuals, the Australia Council, Arts NSW, Amnesty International Australia and the Sky Foundation have all contributed financially to enable this ambitious project to come to life.

The original working title for the show, Batagine, came from Aminata Conteh's sharing of her story.

'Most powerful woman'. My grandfather used to call me that. 'Batagine'. From when I was a small child. I don't know why. He must have seen something in me. Because he only used that word for me, out of our whole family.'

The women and the creative team have been on an extraordinary journey in the process of co-creating this production. The decision to have the four women perform on stage along with other professional African Australian performers is about creating, in an authentic yet subtle way, the experience of a warm and joyous functioning community of African women in Australia now – as a counterpoint to the dysfunction they describe.
The four women have a power and a presence that is uniquely their own. And to hear them speak in their own words is profoundly moving and inspiring. The team has discovered ways of transforming the women's words and stories from everyday reality, into metaphor – through poetry, dance or song. Exploring the issues that exist around abuse, through the prism of the specific community-making practices and cultures of the women, enables the work to resonate as more than just the sum total of the four individual stories, lyrically transforming and transcending the particulars to generate an experience everyone can feel and understand.

It takes a village to make and deliver a production such as this one. Every member of the professional team, from the designers to the stage manager, was carefully selected for both their exceptional talents, skills as well as their personal qualities, sensitivities and sensibilities. Each team member and key staff from Riverside and Belvoir have undertaken specific training on working with torture and trauma survivors. The cultural, political and social terrain of a work and a process such as this demands and is enriched by close relationships with a range of individuals and partners outside of the rarefied world of theatre. These relationships ensure the project's process and final product have an impact beyond the ephemeral public seasons. They have also helped our team, as theatre makers; make room for new narratives in Australian theatre culture _ narratives of just some of the many 'batigine' living amongst us.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe is presented by Racing Pulse Productions, Riverside and Belvoir in association with the NSW Service for the rehabilitation and treatment of torture and trauma survivors (STARTTS). It will be showing 9-18 May 2013 at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, and 15 August-8 September 2013, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.