Zuriel Oduwole is an accomplished person. She was the youngest international media representative at the 2012 World Press Conference in Nigeria; she has directed, shot, and edited her own ten-minute documentary on the formation of the African Union (for which she personally interviewed several former and current African presidents); and in early 2013 she traveled to Nigeria to showcase her film and speak to Masters students at the Pan-African University as part of her project to inspire young women to take action for gender equality in education in Africa.
It was an early Thursday evening in June when I first heard Zuriel’s story. At work, my phone rang.
“Girl Rising, Cassia speaking.”
The man on the other end excitedly announced that he was from a non-profit in Fiji and that there was “a 10-year-old girl that was filming a documentary for girls’ education in Africa” that he wanted to put me in touch with. He’d met her through their volunteer program. I answer the main phone number for Girl Rising, so I’m used to receiving calls from unknown organizations like this. There was so much static on the line, I could barely hear him.
“Did you say 10-year-old?” I asked, thinking that it might have just been the bad connection.
“Yes! She’s 10. It’s simply magical.”
I was skeptical. I couldn’t believe someone so young could have that much drive and compassion for others. My most outspoken opinion at age 10 was that Christina Aguilera’s “Lady Marmalade” proved beyond a doubt that she was a better singer than Britney Spears. I don’t think I even fully understood the meaning of “human rights”– or good music, for that matter. It wasn’t until I received his follow-up email with more information that I even considered the story possible. Yet, as I read the articles he’d forwarded to me about the young girl’s interview with Venus and Serena Williams and heard her voice-overs on her documentary, my disbelief faded. She was the real deal.
As I prepared for my Skype interview with the girl, Zuriel, and her father, Ademola Oduwole, I imagined that she would be standing in front of a chalkboard, wearing a crisp suit like the 10-year-old YouTube sensation, Kid President, and speaking in his precocious, scripted aphorisms. She would say, “If it doesn’t make the world better, don’t do it!” and wag her finger at me.
Instead, when the video clicked on, the scene was much less staged. Zuriel and her father sat side-by-side in front of an undecorated, off-white wall. She wore a neon green t-shirt and waved at the computer camera. Her father, Ademola, nodded welcomingly and adjusted his baseball cap.
I told the smiling young girl that I had just a few questions for her and she cheerfully responded, “that’s fine!”
Zuriel was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, with the exception of a few years in her early childhood when her family moved to Paris and then Hong Kong. She and her three younger siblings are enrolled in a homeschooling program, which allows her to spend some time in a regular classroom, but also leaves room for her busy schedule. While she’s only 10 years old, she’s already advanced to 7th grade.
She said she first became invested in changing the world while watching news coverage of wars, famine, and corruption.
“There’s a lot of negative comments about Africa, and I wanted to focus on education because I believe that if you can educate the kids of today, then the future of Africa will be much greater.”
These wise words soon became the mantra of her work.
It was in 6th grade that Zuriel began exploring documentary filmmaking. During her search for extracurricular activities, she found and applied for a contest whose guidelines involved producing a 10-minute documentary about “revolutionary reaction and reform in history.” Zuriel chose to focus her project on the history of the African Union and its impact on the continent.
The contest rules included that the documentary needed primary sources, so Zuriel wrote letters to African politicians asking to interview them. One positive response came from Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, who before becoming involved in government was an educator and grassroots women’s rights activist. In 2012, Forbes cited her as the most powerful woman in Africa.
Zuriel told me that from speaking with President Banda, she learned that “just because there are a lot of male presidents in the world and a lot of male leaders, prime ministers, ambassadors, it doesn’t mean that females can’t try to get a position like that too.”
As she continued her research, she learned that gender inequality existed not just in politics, but in education.
“Because I’m a girl and also from African roots, I didn’t like the way that girls there are being treated. And I wanted to do something about it.”
It was with this simple, sincere idea that Zuriel began the “Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up” program, on which she collaborated with the US Embassy in Nigeria. She spoke to Grace High School and the Pan-African University in Lagos, encouraging the young women to take action and make their dreams become reality.
The most arduous public speaking engagement I had gone through by 10 was a middle school spelling bee. I still remember how my cheeks burned as I carefully pronounced each letter, my fingers clenched and sweaty behind my back. I made it to the final round, but lost when I started the word “isotope” with an “e.” I couldn’t have begun to imagine giving a speech to a room of older women, let alone in a country I’d only just visited before, on a subject as important as education.
“I want them to really understand that just because someone says you can’t do something, doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Zuriel said. And true to her own advice, Zuriel continued pushing forward in her own career. At the world press conference in Nigeria, she even competed with journalists from CNN, CNBC, and the UK Guardian to interview the Williams sisters. It was a bold step, even for such an outspoken girl.
“I was a bit nervous… because everyone’s attention was on me, but in the end, I just pretended it was only me, my dad, and the Williams sisters there.”
Zuriel quickly began to draw attention from the media, and in several articles, reporters described her as “the next Larry King.”
When I asked Ademole for his thoughts on the media’s description of Zuriel, he paused.
“It’s an honor for them to say that, but she’s just Zuriel, a 10-year-old girl who just wants to help others.”
At first, I was taken aback by Ademola’s response. Zuriel was no average 10-year-old. She had already accomplished things that I could only dream of! But as I continued to speak with Zuriel, learning about her daily activities– which include playing basketball, practicing piano lessons, and reading kids’ adventure stories– I began to realize what he meant.
Zuriel has no production team that helps her with her documentaries. She does everything herself on her computer. She developed her own project to inspire girls in Africa. She has accomplished such amazing things because of her passion and the support of her loving family.
“It’s just an honor to be her dad,” Ademola said. “We push her. Make no mistake about it! We push her, we inspire her and let her know she can always do better and she can always do more. And she tends to strive towards that.”
Zuriel is currently working on a longer documentary that will be focused solely on girls’ education in Africa. She recently visited Ethiopia and conducted interviews with politicians that she’d like to include in her film. While she is just a 10-year-old looking to change the world, it’s impossible to not imagine her as a role model for others. Zuriel herself hopes that when African parents see her, they can, too.
“I’m hoping the parents can say “oh, look, there’s an African girl and she’s 10 and look what she’s doing! We should think about educating our girls, too.”
Zuriel is a shining example of what a girl can accomplish with just a little bit of passion and a lot of courage. There are millions of girls out there, just like Zuriel, who need to know that their dreams are possible.
Zuriel said it best during her speech at the Pan-African University.
“We should dream, dream up, and dream big. In speaking up, we should not just speak; we should also take action. There is a saying that action speaks louder than words. And, in standing, you should stand, stand, and stand again until your dream becomes reality.”
Zuriel, after all, certainly dreams big.
“I’d like to maybe become an actress and then afterwards an athlete. And then when I become much, much older, I’d like to become the President of the United States of America.”