Since the early morning hours Remy has been working in the performing arts section of the LaBa! Arts Festival in Nakasero, Kampala. Here, on the field that normally serves as a football pitch, she presents the work of her GIRL BE PROJECT to the festival’s 3,000 visitors who can attend open rehearsals and participate in workshops. On the main stage, suddenly, there is a gap in the programme. Festival manager Katharina Neidhardt asks Remy if she can fill this gap – on very short notice. “What a question”, Remy says, her eyes ablaze with excitement. She gets a flash out of her pocket, runs towards the sound engineer and asks him to play a certain hip-hop track. Seconds later she is with her girls again. All of them gather, cheer, and form up. Time for a mini rehearsal. But the MC is already announcing the next act on stage: “Guys, get ready for GIRL BE PROJECT and all the energy they’ll put on stage.” And yes, they really do. It is not a perfect technique or an amazingly difficult choreography that makes this act a success. It is the joy in their dancing that makes them impossible to ignore.

GIRL BE PROJECT is not just another dance project. “I want to give young girls a supportive space that enables and encourages them to lead a self-determined life”, Remy says. She has founded the project at the end of 2012 but has already found two colleagues for her team. The idea: Creative workshops of different art genres help the girls strengthen their body image, find and support their talents and inspire new ideas. Girls with difficulties at school get support through school training. A mentorship programme helps them find a direction for their professional lives. “If a girl wants to be a secretary, she learns from a secretary.” But for now, GIRL BE PROJECT is only a weekend thing, Remy has to work during the week: Scraping a living doing laundry for neighbours, holding private Luganda classes and accepting occasional jobs as a break dancer, Remy manages to save enough power for the weekend, for her project that, as she says, is designed to help young girls “find out who they really are”.

Nanyonga “Remy” Rehema is only 21. Big words for such a young lady? Looking at her life, her motivation becomes clearer. Remy spent her early childhood with her sick mother in Fort Portal, West Uganda, close to the Congolese border. She used to be up early in the morning to look for food for herself and her mother. “I was always only the daughter of the sick one”, Remy vaguely remembers. When she was seven, her mother sent her to Kampala to live with her grandfather’s family and to attend a primary school. But her grandfather’s wife gave her a hard time, did not want the young girl to be in school. “One day we had an exam. Before I left home, she gave me a cup of tea. It was strange because she’d never done anything nice before.” As it turned out, the woman had mixed shoe polish into it in order to prevent Remy from moving up a class. As a result, unsurprisingly, Remy’s stomach ached and she was sick: Nevertheless she made it to school and passed her exam. A short while after that, Remy’s mother came to Kampala, or rather, “was brought”, suffering from full-blown Aids. She was brought to die. “From then on I felt really alone. But this way I learned to be a survivor very early. It’s made me a strong person.” And Remy should need this attitude. Her grandfather died, she inherited some little money for her school fees. She moved to her uncle’s house who decided to spend the money himself. His wife overworked her in the household. Remy moved houses again. At her aunt’s place she felt more at ease. Now things started to get a little better.

Remy’s secondary school granted her free education after having told the headmaster her story and performing very well. And, just as important, it introduced her to the arts. “My school was one of the very few appreciating creative expression. I enjoyed that atmosphere.” A school friend, then, brought her to BPU, Breakdance Project Uganda, a project for deprived adolescents. Remy was 14 now. “I liked the director from the start”, she says dreamily, “I saw a new light somewhere.” She did not only benefit from dance lessons and performances but the project also functioned as a kind of family that made her feel responsible, in a good way. After a while she had her own dance classes and representative as well as administrative responsibilities.

Her aunt’s family, however, strongly objected to Remy’s new life style: Hip-hop, breakdance and baggy pants seemed just too far away from the traditional path that they had pictured for her. Remy had to leave – again. BPU helped her find a place: For a while she lived in an orphanage, teaching the young kids, before falling in love with a young man, a German, and moving in with him. She made a new plan, wanted to make decisions herself, to create something new, made important steps in her artistic career – she was one out of two women selected for the German-Ugandan-French Elysée Project Breaking Free – and, finally, had the idea for her GIRL BE PROJECT.

So far Remy’s project is located in other organisations’ premises – InMovement and 32° East – in a safe compound in Kansanga, Kampala. The small-scale project that it is, here is enough space for them. There are several small buildings with cosy rooms, a rehearsal hall and some new containers providing space for exhibitions – a place that gives room for creativity. But Remy would like to work for the project on a daily basis. “We want to expand our collaboration with local artists to be able to offer a greater number and diversity of workshops. Also we want to get more into family therapy and work for the communities in general.”

That sounds good. But in order for Remy to realise her ambitious aims, the project would have to move houses; it would depend on financial support even more. Knowing the right people in international organisations and aid campaigns, fund raising in Uganda can work. But there are heaps of projects like this. Orphanages with their own schooling, art projects for deprived children and a bunch of volunteers from the West experiencing their personal adventure: Every other person you meet seems to be involved in one or another project. This could make it difficult for Remy to find sponsors. But it does not discourage her: “I will never forget the moment I made a decision myself and for myself. With this project I want to give young girls the chance to feel the same.” Her project is still in its embryonic stage, Remy herself has just become an adult. With some luck, courage, and energy GIRL BE PROJECT might become taller soon.

By Dennis Große-Plankermann