Free the children
On World Day Against Child Labour, I think sadly of the lost potential of 168 million children toiling in brick kilns, carpet factories and plantations instead of attending school. I also celebrate a friend and force of nature who works enthusiastically to educate girls who might otherwise walk for hours to gather water and firewood, or be forced into early marriage.
Nelly Furtado is not only a chart-topping songstress in English and Spanish, she is also a fierce advocate for girls’ education and a dedicated Ambassador for Free The Children, the charity I co-founded with my brother, Marc, almost 20 years ago.
When I asked the Grammy-winner to travel with me to Kenya on a Me to We Trip a few years ago to visit our schools and development projects, I had no idea it would lead to an amazing friendship, a designer t-shirt for our Me to We Style line, a new all-girls’ high school, and many other inspiring spin-offs. She even chose the name for her 2012 album Spirit Indestructible from a line from Me to We, a book Marc and I co-wrote. Nelly also sold our Kenyan mama-made Water Rafiki Friend chain on concert tour, with each sale supplying clean water to one person for a year.
Nelly came to truly understand the power and promise of education while in Kenya, where she found a community of strong girls and women that reminded her of home. “My mother, who I’d call a hero in my life, has a way of carrying herself with grace and poise and intelligence. She never reduced herself to a box or a category,” Nelly told me. “Many mothers are role models in their community and some of them remind me of how my mother inspired me when I was little.”
In Kenya’s Maasai Mara region, Nelly befriended a girl named Susan, who dreamed of being a doctor. Despite Susan’s hunger for education, she didn’t have financial support to attend. Nelly stepped forward with funds so she could attend Free The Children’s nearby all-girls school. When she visited Susan’s mom to tell her that she’d pay the school fees, Monica burst into song, then ran out the door to tell her neighbours, who rushed back to encircle Nelly. Everyone sang joyfully together.
Nelly and I talked of the many Susans who couldn’t go to school, not just because of financial struggles, but because the high school was filled to capacity. Children who aren’t educated face so many struggles.
I remember telling Nelly about going to South Asia when I was just 12 to meet children forced to tie knots in carpets and do back breaking work in brick kilns, instead of attending school. Many were my age, and younger. Their names and faces are forever seared in my mind. I will always wonder what happened to Muniannal, who I met in a back alley in Madras, where she sorted through used syringes to separate needles from plastic. She had jabs and slashes all over her hands. I’d come to learn their stories, and in those early days I wanted to break chains to help child labourers escape—and joining a few raids I did—but I came to learn that freeing children from slavery wasn’t enough. These children need to be educated, empowered, so they can write a different future for themselves. It’s the same for children all over the world.
And Nelly knew this when she decided she would donate up to $500,000 to support the construction a new all girls’ high school in rural Kenya. With her amazing gift, she wanted to help the “thousands of Susans out there, with hopes and dreams but limited opportunities.” Her funds were matched by amazing North American kids who held bake sales and penny drives. Then, during an unforgettable visit last August, she participated in the school’s opening.
The school is called Oleleshwa, named after a hardy tree that grows perfumed leaves even in drought—and symbolizes perseverance. On opening day, it was surreal to stand with Nelly and the 1,000 community members who’d come to celebrate the education of their girls.
She observed that they are lightening bolts for their communities. The first girls to attend Oleleshwa have top marks from primary school, scholarships and huge dreams. Faith Cherop, 14, told us she’d watched television for the first time just a few months earlier. Now she is studying English and Swahili so she can become a television news broadcaster.
When the ribbon was cut, Faith was along with tribal elders and proud mothers; all of us filled with hope for the opportunities afforded these girls, forging new paths, intent on proving that with an education they can create something for themselves, their families and their communities.
Nelly once told us that if she had a socially conscious superpower she would “make it so every person in the world could travel alone to the farthest corner from where they now live and live in another person’s shoes.” She said those people would come back enlightened by empathy and understanding. Nelly travelled to Kenya and back, with a message of the power of education to truly free the children.