Jun 2, 2014

A little girl with a big voice

Source: Chime Original

BY Zuriel Oduwole

As a very young girl, I heard my dad say that when as a boy, he wanted to be a bus driver. Why didn’t he want to be a doctor, or an engineer? Maybe a school principal or a police officer? He said it was because, he was fascinated by how someone so small, could control something as big as a city bus.

My name is Zuriel Oduwole. I am 11 years old and I was born in Los Angeles. My dad is from Nigeria and my mom is from Mauritius. So, you could call me an African child – a Pan-African child. When I was eight years old, I watched the news on BBC television. I saw young children building mud bricks instead of going to school. At first, I thought it was fun. That is until I heard that they do this every day, from dust to dawn and on weekends too. Most of the children were girls, and they carried the same number of bricks on their heads, and walked the same distance, as boys. This was no fun.

Zuriel from website

At 9, I entered a competition for 11 – 16 years old called The National History Day competition. We had to talk about a successful revolution anywhere in the world. This was a great opportunity to find one in Africa and do a documentary about it. As you know, most of the news about Africa is negative, and I do not like that.

I had to travel to Ghana with my parents and went to interview the two men who had ruled Ghana for 28 of the last 34 years. They were President Jerry Rawlings, who started the Ghana revolution in 1980, and President John Kufuor who took over as the President in 2000. They were from different political parties but both agreed to work harder to provide free education for children. I did not understand why they had to fight for children to go to school. In my mind, I saw our school buses in the United States, and all the children smiling and lining up.

Whenever I travelled back to Africa, I stared at children on the streets in Nigeria, Ghana, and Malawi selling convenience goods on their heads instead of going to school. Most of them were girls like me. Then I found out that Africa did not have resources to send the children to school. And when there was some, the boys are sent to school first. Girls get to stay behind to do chores, take care of the younger children or go farming.  Or, they are out in the streets, selling things for their mom.

That means they’ll end up married sometimes as young as 14 and then have children themselves when they are still children. So, if one day their husbands leave them as it happens sometimes, they are left with 3 or 4 children and nothing else. So they send their children to the street to beg for money. That means they too will become like their moms: have little choices, and then get married again.

I talked with my family about this many times and in March 2013, I launched my project called “Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up” at the Lagos Business School. My hope is to encourage young children but especially young girls to dream big, and never believe it if anyone says there is something they can’t do. I also wanted to show myself as an example to the parents back in the village. I wanted to show them what a girl can do if she is educated. So I began to talk with African Presidents and Prime Ministers on girl’s education, and ask for their help and commitment. Today, I have interviewed and met more than 9 African Presidents and Prime Ministers since September 2012. Some of these are now my friends and we stay in touch for me to see how much their countries are doing about the issue. (They are President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, President Joyce Banda of Malawi, President Rajkeswur Purryag of Mauritius, President Jose Fonseca of Cape Verde and President Salva Kiir of South Sudan. The others are President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane of Lesotho Kingdom. )

Zuriel at the launch of Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up

Zuriel at the launch of Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up

President Rawling of Ghana taught me how to be fearless, he knew how because he had led a successful revolution. He even taught his own daughter to fly a fighter jet at 13! President Sirleaf of Liberia taught me to work and study harder as a young woman.

All these busy Presidents wanted to support education, especially for girls. I found out before my interview with President Salva Kiir that South Sudan had the highest rate of child marriage in Africa. As the tradition goes, When a girl is about 13 years old, a man comes to the door with 2 cows. Usually, the girl’s dad offers his daughter for marriage and the man gives the 2 cows away. So, I was looking forward to speaking to him.

President Salva Kiir told me that it was the culture in South Sudan, and it is a very hard thing to change. He said his parent’s generation did it, and their parent’s generation did it. He said he was very surprised I wanted to meet with him because I was only 10 years old at that time, but he could imagine if I was a girl from South Sudan and how proud he would be. President Salva Kiir said he would begin to think about the question seriously because if I could accomplish what I was doing, then maybe girls in his country could as well.

I have taken my Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up program to 4 African countries – Nigeria, Malawi, Tanzania and Mauritius, and have spoken to more than 3000 girls about Dreaming up, Speaking Up, and Standing Up for what they believe.

Zuriel with students in Tanzania

Zuriel with students in Tanzania

Two weeks after I left Malawi, I received a very cool note from the Principal of the Jacaranda School for Orphans. She told me something very surprising had happened. She took the children to a small concert by a popular Malawi singer. After the event, just as the children were about to leave, one girl put up her hand, and said she had a question. Principal Da Silva said the children, who are all orphans, never talk if they are not asked to because they are shy and keep to themselves.

The next day at school, she asked the girl why she put up her hand. She said it was because I came to talk to them in their school about dreaming and speaking up, she heard about all the Presidents I had interviewed, and she was older that I was. She said, the least she could do was to ask questions. This really made me proud.

A letter Zuriel received in 2013 from an orphan in Malawi

A letter Zuriel received in 2013 from an orphan in Malawi

Last month in Lagos – Nigeria, I invited some First Lady’s and Gender Ministers from across Africa to my maiden colloquy to discuss how we can begin to educate girls in African villages. Stop them from getting married early and falling into poverty. Those who came or sent representatives were the First Lady of Lagos State, the First Lady of Tanzania, the First Lady of Osun state and the Minister of Gender of Mauritius.
Policy makers and female leaders all came so we could develop a partnership to help all the girls in Africa.

I don’t know what a perfect world would be but maybe one where every voice would count and it wouldn’t matter where you’re from or what you look like?

Even though I don’t want to be a bus driver like my dad when he was a boy, I am happy that I
am a girl and that I have a voice, I am using it and I am loving it.

Learn more: www.dreamupspeakupstandup.com