Australian stories

baulkham hills african ladies troupe

Pic credit: Ros Horin, Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe


Review by Deb Bennett

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe documents writer Ros Horin’s involvement with a group of women from the migrant community of Baulkham Hills, west of Sydney. The film is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the journey of four women as their incredible stories of survival are turned into an internationally acclaimed play.

Filmed over a five-year period, the audience first meet the four women as they prepare to attend a storytelling workshop run by Horin.

High school student Yarrie Bangura remembers a happy childhood in Sierra Leone, until members of the Revolutionary United Front invaded her school and rounded up children to join the rebel army. Aged six at the time, Yarrie escaped. Hiding in the bushes, she watched the rebels use machetes to hack off the hands and arms of villagers.

Also from Sierra Leone, Aminata Conteh-Biger lived the life of a ‘princess’ in a big yellow house on top of a hill in Freetown. Her sheltered life ended when rebels invaded her family’s compound and abducted Aminata. She was 17 years old.

Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe grew up in Kenya, a child of a large polygamous family. She talks of the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of older relatives from the age of 11. Rejected by her family when she became pregnant, Rosemary has never told her story to anyone. Her two grown-up sons have no idea they had a half-brother who died in infancy.

Mother-of-four Yordanos ‘Yordy’ Haile-Michael was abandoned by her father after he murdered her mother. Yordy has no idea of her real age, but guesses she was about three years old when her father left her to live alone on the streets of Asmara, Eritrea. A few years later, soldiers came to the town and put her on a truck. For the next 10 years she was held captive by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. When she escaped, Yordy walked for six weeks through the desert to reach a refugee camp, leaving behind her baby daughter. She feels she has spent her whole life running.

Throughout the course of the workshops, the women build trust with one another and with Horin. Emotional walls built up over years begin to crumble as they speak of the horrors they have endured.

At times it is a difficult journey and some reviewers have expressed concern that Horin is, perhaps inadvertently, using the women’s pain to her own advantage. Horin herself acknowledges this dilemma. As a writer, she is aware of the incredible power of the women’s stories and her natural instinct is to have their stories heard. As Horin begins to develop a script for a play and brings in professional actors to work with the women, she carefully watches the emotional impact on the women.

Counsellors who specialise in trauma and torture support them through the arduous and emotionally fraught rehearsal period. Yordy in particular struggles with the constant re-telling of the most painful parts of her life.

In 2013, the women perform to a standing ovation at the Riverside Theatre. Among the audience are their families, many of whom are hearing the stories for the first time. As accolades for the play increase and the women receive an invitation to perform at the WOW (Women of the World) festival in London, Yordy decides she cannot be part of it anymore.

In what is undoubtedly an emotionally confronting documentary, perhaps the most poignant scene comes not from the women, but from Yordy’s 14-year-old son. Sitting at her kitchen table, Yordy explains why she can’t continue – she is not an actor reading words; she is a woman talking about her own life.

Her son then turns to the camera. He speaks with pride of the mother he now knows, and how he wants others to share that strength and inspiration. We watch as Yordy stares at her son in silence. When he finishes speaking she gets up from her chair, hugs him and asks “How can I not go?” Yordy re-joins the troupe and performs with the women in London.

This documentary is a reminder that, as many lament the lack of ‘Australian’ stories represented in the arts, perhaps we are not listening enough to those around us. The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe serves as a celebration of our diverse culture, and highlights how lucky we are to have such women in our community.

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In reliving the past and confronting their experiences, the women have been empowered to embrace the future. Yarrie Bangura was a 2015 Human Rights Award finalist, is studying international relations at university and is a UNHCR youth representative. Aminata Conteh-Biger is raising a young family and is a UNHCR special representative who recently established the Aminata Maternal Foundation to improve maternal health in Sierra Leone. Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe said she feels she has been released from ‘under a pile of blankets’. Rosemary was most worried about telling her sons; she said they now ‘love me even more’. She works as a multicultural community liaison officer with the NSW Police Force in Western Sydney. Yordy Haile-Michael, who taught herself to read and write in her 20s, has returned to study and is writing a book about her life. Her daughter, who she was forced to leave behind in Eritrea, now lives with Yordy in Australia and is studying to be a midwife.

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