A front page New York Times article published March 12, 2003, inspired in me a passionate commitment to make this documentary. The article described a "cultural orientation" classroom in a refugee camp in Kenya, where 12,000 Somali Bantu were preparing for resettlement in the United States. The Somali Bantu, an oppressed minority in Somalia, were subsistence farmers with very little exposure to modern life, and were illiterate due to the discrimination that prevented them from going to school. In the cultural orientation class, they were learning for the first time about ice, elevators, computers, everything we take for granted in modern life. How would these illiterate Muslim farmers adjust to 21st-century, urban life in America?
Fascinated by their story, I immediately contacted the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the immigration officials at the State Department and the Joint Voluntary Agencies to make the project happen. I learned that the Somali Bantu were being sent to 50 cities across America, and after much research decided to focus on two of these: Springfield, Massachusetts, and Atlanta, Georgia. After eight months IOM was able to schedule [several] families slated for those two cities for the same cultural orientation class in Kenya so that there would be a pool of people to choose from during the first shoot. With a grant from the Pulitzer Foundation, I took a crew of three people to Kenya in January 2004.
After our somewhat rocky beginning at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the Somali Bantu community welcomed us and gave us complete access to everything in the camp. We were fortunate to find the families featured in the film, who were eager to participate and who were very much at ease in front of the camera. We filmed them for two weeks in their homes, in adult literacy classes, at soccer games, during healing dances and in their cultural orientation class. We also filmed them telling harrowing stories of murder and rape in Somalia and talking about their hopes for a new life in the United States.
In late February I received the news that the families were about to come to America. I had run out of funding, so this was a difficult moment. Reaching into savings and calling in favors, I went to Kenya with a crew of one my cinematographer to film the refugees' last three days in Kakuma. We filmed Aden and Madina's wild departure party lit by Coleman lanterns and the headlights of a security-patrol jeep as well as Arbai's more stately departure dance and poignant good-byes to relatives and friends they all might never see again.
We flew with Aden and Madina's family to Nairobi, filming their flight and their first experience of a modern city in a disjointed way to reflect the refugees' amazement and disorientation. On March 17 we boarded a charter flight with 300 Somali Bantu refugees and filmed the family's flight to America, then continued to film key moments in their resettlement journey, capturing moments of struggle and difficulty as well as humor and poignancy as the family navigated its way in their strange new land. Underscoring the theme of "new beginnings," it seemed fitting that our final shoot in Springfield was the naming ceremony of Aden and Madina's firstborn American child, a joyful moment of celebration. And in Atlanta we finished filming with the beautiful wedding that Arbai gave her daughter Khadija, a wildly colorful affirmation of family bonds and culture.
During the filming of Rain in a Dry Land, the underlying theme changed from "strangers in a strange land" to a story of incredible resilience on the part of people who, despite decades of horror and hardships, retained their optimism, their family cohesiveness, their senses of humor and their determination to make a better life. The title changed from the original "Refugee Dreams" to Rain in a Dry Land, a rough translation of their own term for resurrection.
Since its completion in February 2006, Rain in a Dry Land has been in more than 25 film festivals, winning prizes in eight of them, and has been used extensively in community engagement programs across the country to raise awareness of the cultures and needs of refugee communities. It is also used in the cultural orientation classes where we first began filming to help prepare refugees for resettlement, and an organization called FilmAid holds outdoor screenings of the documentary in camps across Africa.
My goal in making Rain in a Dry Land was to foster tolerance, create awareness of global issues, specifically refugee issues, and move audiences with an intimate human story that will inspire them to make a difference in their own communities. I hope you will find many ways to use the documentary in your schools, churches, mosques, synagogues and community centers.
— Anne Makepeace, filmmaker