STRENGTH OF WOMEN’S VOICES
“When you travel to Africa, the first thing that strikes you is the energy of the women in the market, in the house, doing tons of things. And imagine that with an education.”
As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, you have participated in advocacy campaigns for girls’ education. Why have you focused on girls’ education?
Angélique Kidjo: First of all, my own example. My parents believed in education for boys and girls. I remember when I was going to school, part of the family of my father would comment, “Why are you sending your girls to school? They should get married, work early and be useful to the society. You are wasting time and money sending them to white people’s school when they don’t need to go to school.”
And my Dad used to say, “Every person should be educated simply because it’s good to be informed and it’s good to know where you’re going, how you can impact your society and how you can improve your lives.”
So that was one of the most important things that drove me to stay in school. Because I started being famous when I was six years old. My Dad would say, “I don’t want to have any artist in my house that can’t speak about the arts and cannot have any general idea of what’s going on in the world.”
Girls’ education is also something that is scaring the little boys. The men in the country say, “You are talking about women empowerment, what about us?”
I said, “Do you realize how important it is to have a wife home that can read the notice in the medicine? It saves your child’s life. If she can’t read, she has to wait for you to come back from work while her child is having fever. Those couple of hours may be deadly for your child. You men don’t even think about it. Someone can come to your home and say anything to your wife and she can give something away because she doesn’t know how to read. You come back and you’re mad. How do you want her to know? An educated woman is a power for a man. It is powerful for society.”
When you met the 350 children from New York City schools at the UN’s ‘Largest Lesson,’ what was particularly noteworthy about your interaction with them?
AK: The thing that stood out was the questions of the children of New York about human rights. When a child asks you, “What does ‘human rights’ mean really?”, it means that the kid is asking himself questions about a lot of things. I was not expecting to have those kinds of questions. I was not expecting to have a child asking me, “Why don’t the kids in Africa go to school? Why can we go to school and not them?”
You give them the opportunity to tell you what is in their brains, and you learn a lot about a lot. If you want our kids to be better politicians later on, we have to take the time – after school – to speak to them and to lend them books that they can read. So we have to lure our kids to read interesting books, and we have to be adult, parents, ready to answer the questions.
How would your life have been if you weren’t educated?
AK: If I weren’t educated, I would still be in Benin; I would have been married early and had tons of kids. Education changed that destiny for me by knowing my rights to choose to marry the person I love. To also choose what I want to do. To also see the world as mine, where I can go anywhere and do whatever I want as a human being.
Without education – I wouldn’t be a waste – but I would be somebody’s wife and I would fight definitely for my kids go to school, as my parents did.
Being to school and working gave my father another opportunity because he studied in Dakar and in France when he was young. So he saw what education can bring to his children. Many other people from the same generation as my father, not all of them chose to send their kids to school.
So it all depends on how we can convince the parent that education is the salvation of the whole family, especially in rural Africa where girls are married so early. If the parent can just imagine the future, how that girl can come back and help the village develop, they would send all of them to school.
Because of poverty, they can’t afford to send the kids to school. So we have to somehow make school free. And we can. Instead of spending the money on weapons, we can spend it in education.
For Africa, we need our historians to write our own history, because historical amnesia is terrible. If the kids don’t know anything about the genocide in Rwanda, about slavery, about colonization, when they get out of Benin, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, wherever, they are going to come with preconceived ideas.
Teachers have to be educated in full because the world has changed from the time I was in school.
We have to ensure parents in Africa that when the daughter goes to school, they won’t be raped by the teacher. We have to be really frank with this, to have the parents feel absolutely certain that no harm will be done to their kids. And today, we haven’t been there yet.
What was school like when you were in Benin?
AK: Great. It was great. For you to love school, it takes one teacher – one, only one person. Until I reach 4th grade, I did not like it at all. Because I was really tiny – I was the littlest, tiniest, skinny girl in school – and I could hardly see anything on the blackboard. And they always put me in the back of the class, and I’d be crying because I have to struggle. So when I reached 4th grade, my teacher put me right in the front desk where she could see me, and she said, “If you have any questions, you ask. If you don’t understand, ask me. You can stop being scared, OK?”
So I catch up with all the things I didn’t have before. This teacher, she spent time with me, explaining things to me. I would rather sit with her than go to the break. I was hungry to learn.
So it takes that teacher for me to suddenly go, “Whhhhwow. There are wonders in books. I can read; I can do my math.” It took that teacher for me to just love going to school.
Did you have any friends who dropped out of school?
AK: Oh, I had a lot of friends that have been pulled out of school after a while because their parents needed them. And I remember me going back home and yelling at my parents, “Why can’t you help them stay in school?”
My Dad and Mom would say, “We can’t help everybody. They must have a reason to take them out of school.”
And I would cry days and days. Especially when you were friends and you would do homework together and you could see how their brains, they are sharp. Even when I was in primary school, I sensed the waste when they disappear.
Today it’s a lot of problems because the poor people in the rural area will send their kids to cities, hoping that if they send them to a member of their family or people that they know, they are going to send them to school. But instead they turn them into slaves. It’s everywhere in Africa. It is a social problem that none of the politicians are willing to deal with.
So when you’re talking about girls’ schooling, children being sent to school, that is a topic that we have to tackle, but it’s gonna be the hardest thing to change. But it has to change. There’s no way that it can stay like that. “Why are you keeping the child home? Why does the child have to start work about 6:00 and work all day long?” And that is a very sensitive topic when I was in Benin. I know because it is my society. It is a really sensitive subject. But we have to find a way to deal with it.
Are you pessimistic or optimistic?
AK: Optimistic. I am really optimistic because, knowing the problem, you can see the solutions for it. Not knowing the problem kept you pessimistic.
I believe in human beings; I believe in the power of working together. Individually we make change. But together, we make revolution. We make things change faster.
You are talking about girls’ education. If someone told me when I was going to school in Benin that I would be working with UNICEF talking about girls’ education, I would look at the person and say, “Are you making fun of me or what?”
If I am able to work so that tomorrow is going to be better, why can’t all people do that? I believe that we can all make a difference together. That’s what Carol Bellamy told me when we were in Tanzania together. She said to me, “Every drop from everybody, one day is going to make an ocean.” And I believe that.
Your song ‘Mutoto Kwanza’ was inspired by a UNICEF-sponsored trip to Tanzania. The title means ‘children first’. Can you tell us about that trip?
AK: I had been seeing the orphanage. The kids were little and big, what can you tell a child who has HIV/AIDS? That has no treatment? And you know that child that you see at that moment may not be there in two or three months? How can you sing – hopefully? I was devastated, I couldn’t sing. And they were the ones who gave me the strength. They made me see that there is always hope as far as you have a breath. You can’t give up.
And they are the ones who taught me ‘Mutoto Kwanza’. They don’t even think about death. So who are we to think about their death for them? So I gathered from that trip more strength and hope than when I was on the trip going there. Those kids gave me that strength of believing that tomorrow is always going to be better. And unfortunately we adults don’t listen enough to children. Because the vision is innocent. There’s no hypocrisy. There’s no politically correct. It’s right to the point. And I loved it. They pulled me back, they centred me back. We are you. We are the reason why you are here. We have to be your focus.
In your travels through the developing world, what about girls’ education strikes you?
AK: When you travel to Africa, the first thing that strikes you is the energy of the women in the market, in the house, doing tons of things. And imagine that with an education. Wow, the economy of the continent would go [she claps her hands and as her right hand goes toward the sky, she whistles] whhhhhit, flying up.
If you give her education, the society will benefit. Absolutely. Not only the family, but the whole country will benefit from it.
How is it for you to be a role model, especially for young women?
AK: It is a lot of responsibility, but somebody’s got to do it. When I’m speaking to girls or mothers, I’m 100 per cent with them, which means I’m willing to learn, I’m willing to listen, and I’m willing to give them my experience.
And that’s the only thing I can give, because sometimes a mother goes, “Why do you want me to send my child to school?”
I say, “I’ve been to school, am I less a woman than you? No. Trust her. Send her to school. Give her the chance to change her life and to change yours.”
And then some mother will say, “I’m willing to send my child to school, because I realize now that if I had been to school, I wouldn’t be stuck where I am.”
We can convince the father to send the girl to school. Those mothers did not agree sending their kids to early marriage. But they didn’t have much of a say in it. So speaking to the men, I’m willing to do that too. Show them that a child cannot be married, a child of 12 years old cannot have a baby. “Because down the line, if your child dies, whose fault is that? You parents, because you made the decision for that child. You love your child? Yes. So don’t do that.”
It’s not only appealing to the love for the kids, but also the perspective of the future of the whole family that you have to point out to them. Because you have to understand that in the rural areas as soon as you start talking about girls’ education, the parents are thinking normally, “OK, my child will go to Europe and start dressing like all those European women with their breasts naked, blah, blah, blah.”
It goes with so many preconceived ideas. You have also to tell them, “A child is not a possession. A child is a human being. So your point of view may not be her point of view. But it’s OK. That won’t make you love her less. She should decide who to be.”
What are the realities today for women and girls in Africa, and what do you envision for the future?
AK: Today the women in Africa have great challenges to face. Not only because of the lack of education. There is something that is really endangering the future of women in Africa, that is HIV/AIDS.
HIV/AIDS has changed completely the face of Africa’s future. Because the number of deaths that we’re going to have is going to be too high, and we cannot afford that. So that’s where education comes to be handy. Because a girl that is sent to school means that, too, boys go to school. The little girl can take her brothers to school.
And a girl that is educated can educate a man – sexually. Knowing her rights to her body. Knowing her rights to tell a man, “If you don’t wear a condom, it’s without me.”
So the future of Africa with HIV/AIDS is really a shaky future. But the future of Africa with education is a bright one, because they are going to be able to save lives of the women, of babies and of men.