Edwidge Danticat wrote Wadley’s story for Girl Rising, helping to bring the inspiring Haiti set chapter of the film to life, and has released a new project with a young girl at the center. Edwidge’s project, a novel titled Claire of the Sea Light, was released on August 27th. This work of fiction brings us deep into the intertwined lives of a small seaside town in Haiti where a little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, has gone missing. Edwidge tells us about how Claire, her novel’s protagonist, is not so different than Girl Rising’s Wadley.
This past spring, Girl Rising, a documentary I had contributed to, was screened in theaters all around the United States and later on CNN. The film told the stories of nine girls in nine different countries, all fighting to get an education. Each girl was paired with a writer from her country and I had the honor of being paired with Wadley, an eight-year-old girl from Port-au-Prince. Wadley had survived the devastation of the 2010 earthquake along with her family, and she had lived in a tent city for weeks. When I traveled to Haiti to meet her, I found a sweet and intelligent girl, who over time gradually began to talk to me. And I, in turn, despite the hardship she had suffered, loved hearing Wadley’s stories. I have an eight-year-old daughter, Mira, and I know how both pensive and dreamy eight-year-olds can be. In Wadley, I saw not only a great deal of both of Mira and her sister Leila, but also some of myself. I grew up in an extended family that was a lot like Wadley’s, where family meant not just blood relatives, but also neighbors and friends. Wadley is lucky to have an extraordinary family, people who love her deeply and want to see her have a bright future.
The same can be said of Claire Limyè Lanmè, the main character in my new work of fiction, Claire of the Sea Light. Claire’s mother dies in childbirth and when Claire is seven years old, her fisherman father, hoping to give her a better life, faces the heartwrenching decision of whether or not to give her away to someone else. Claire’s potential new mother has known Claire since the day she was born, but she is also wounded, a person full of secrets, a person who has also lost a child of her own. She is one of many people in this one small Haitian town whose lives Claire enters in and out of on her way to having her fate decided, over the course of the evening that frames the book.
I feel blessed to have worked on both Girl Rising and Claire of the Sea Light at around the same time. Among the many things that the documentary and the book—a work of fiction—have in common is that they both try to tell a larger story via the life of one girl. In Girl Rising the message is that girls must receive their community’s (one might argue their world’s) support in getting an education. One can also not ignore the effect that global economic policies, which destroy the lives and financial independence of poor people in the developing world, have in making it nearly impossible for them to feed, nurture and educate both their boys and girls. In Claire’s case, I was writing something from my imagination; it was fiction, and things are a lot more nuanced. The message—if there is one—is for the reader to determine. In the case of the amazing girls in Girl Rising, things were all too real. And the message too was super real, we MUST educate our girls.
Working on both projects was equally moving. When I see or talk to Wadley or her family members now, I feel as though I had known them my whole life. And when I look at the cover of Claire of the Sea Light, my face always lights up because the cover girl is my daughter Mira. And though all these girls are so different, connecting them does not feel like too much of a stretch to me. Because an extra benefit of writing a story like Claire’s is to get rid of my own worst fears. What if this was my daughter? I would ask myself as I was writing the book. What if I had to face the choice her father faces? The difficult choices that the parents of all girls in Girl Rising face? What if Claire were my daughter? What if these other girls in the film were my daughters? And then I’d remember that, in some way or other, every child is mine, and ours.
Read the Washington Post review of Edwidge’s Claire of the Sea Light: http://wapo.st/15x8GkS
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.”
An earthquake struck Haiti and thirteen-year-old Rosematrie’s house in 2010, and since then, the costs of education have made it difficult for her to stay in school. Despite her circumstances, however, Rosematrie is dedicated to learning and remains hopeful for the future. “I want to go to a big school in order to develop my talents,” she explains, “…I want to be a teacher.”
Rosematrie is intelligent and conveys her ambition both in the classroom and at home, where she completes her coursework on a large chalkboard that has been secured to the wall. The panel, covered daily by Rosematrie’s studies, hides the extreme damage to her house from the quake. Rosematrie takes pride in the exercises that she writes on the board, but the knowledge and skills that she practices come with a cost.
Because Rosematrie has five siblings, her father is unemployed, and her mother can only find occasional work as a dressmaker, it is hard for her parents to afford schooling for her. According to Plan International USA, as reported by CNN, “in Haiti, public schools only meet about 20% of the demand for basic education in rural areas,” and paying for private education is an even greater concern for families.
Organizations such as 10×10 and Plan understand that education should not be unaffordable for anyone; all girls should have the opportunity to learn. So that students like Rosematrie can go to school, we can contribute to decreasing the costs of education. For more information about Rosematrie and how to help, visit CNN.
Girl Rising is the feature-length film at the center of 10×10′s global action campaign for girls’ education.The film reveals extraordinary stories from around the globe, of revolutionaries fighting to overcome impossible odds on the road to realizing their dreams of education.. Coming Spring 2013.
10×10 Director, Richard Robbins sent us his thoughts from the field while filming 10×10 in Peru.
I haven’t made it up to La Rinconada yet – still trying to acclimate to 13,000 feet before heading up to 17,000. I have now been to eight of our 10 countries. I figure I’ve now seen enough to offer some general observations about the world. Mostly the not very profound things that have occurred to me over the last two years, from a tired American traveler’s perspective.
So here, in no particular order, are 10 thoughts about the planet and traveling it.
- The bicycle is a staggeringly important invention. Most of us don’t realize how this simple piece of technology transforms many millions of lives. The world would not function without it.
- It doesn’t take too much travel to realize that we Americans coddle our children, very often to their detriment. Children are truly capable, and basic responsibility is not a burden to them.
- When in doubt, don’t eat it. A little hungry is a lot more manageable than a little sick. And honestly there is rarely such a thing as “a little sick.” Oh, and you do not want to try the local delicacy. I promise.
- Dignity is the most precious human commodity. More than health, money, power or even education.
- Long-term planning is not a skill or a lifestyle or a cultural phenomenon. It’s a luxury afforded those of us with a somewhat certain future.
- The joy of children is universal. And there is no creature on the earth more adorable than a little girl. Little boys can be cute too but they have a nasty habit of throwing rocks at things they find interesting. Like me.
- The world has an extraordinary shortage of trash cans and a lot a lot of trash. Also, in most of the world there is really no such thing as clean, just degrees of dirty.
- When taking care of business, a careless squat (for those of us without a lifetime of practice) can be catastrophic. A mistake you will only make once (sober).
- There is more kindness and more cruelty in the world than you can ever get your head around.
- There is no national or cultural dominance when it comes to annoying ringtones. They are everywhere.
The following story was included in a USA Today/Media Planet special section: Investing in Women and Girls on newsstands March 23rd. 10×10 was featured alongside a number of outstanding NGOs and aid groups working on behalf of women and girls around the world. To see the entire insert, click here.
“A chalkboard made of sheet metal hangs on the plastered outer wall of a ramshackle home in Jacmel, Haiti. Next to it stands Rosematrie, a small girl of 12. Hand-on-hip, she showed us her study space, full of pride.
We are a team of journalists who have come to Haiti in search an extraordinary girl to be featured in the 10×10 film. 10×10 is a major motion picture and global campaign about the power of investing in girls’ education (www.10x10act.org). We have been introduced to Rosematrie by Plan International, our host in Jacmel.
Privacy is unheard of in Jacmel, where seemingly every structure is missing a wall, a roof, or has been replaced by a tent, but Rosematrie has a small corner to call her own. Though she may not eat three meals a day, her mother buys her a piece of chalk every afternoon so Rosematrie can practice her lessons. It’s a small sacrifice for a bigger dream of a better future.
She is precocious to a fault, with meticulous braids and an impish grin. Though Rosematrie finds herself in constant trouble for talking too much in class, she is also never late for school. She sits in the front row of her 6th grade classroom and received an award for perfect attendance out of her 600 peers. Rosematrie attends a Catholic school called the National Girls School of Jacmel, on the Southeastern coast of Haiti. A local charity pays for her tuition, but Rosematrie fears that the sponsorship may not extend to secondary school. In Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, where 85% of schools are private, tuition fees prohibit 40% of children from attending primary school, and fewer still can afford the more expensive secondary-school fees.
Rosematrie’s story, however, is not one of poverty, but of possibility. She dreams that her mother, who suffers from poor health, will live long enough for Rosematrie to take care of her. After her father left them two years ago, her mother has struggled as a dressmaker to feed her family. “How noble,” we told her. “Excuse me…what is ‘noble’?” She responded, unabashed, and then the interview-tables were turned. “Where are you from?,” she asked. “What exactly do you do? May I come visit? ” Rosematrie had taken control of the interview. Sharp and inquisitive, she was poised yet determined to understand what our intentions were.
Watching her eagerly raise her hand from her front-row seat, or leaning over to help her peer solve a math equation, it is not hard to imagine Rosematrie leading her classmates, her community, or one day realizing her dream of being a teacher, helping children the way that her teachers have helped her. “When you listen to the teacher, great things can come to your mind,” she told us. In a land struggling to rebuild itself, where instability and uncertainty have left physical and emotional scars, a young girl whose tiny stature earned her the nickname “Mouse” but whose bold personality is anything but “mousy,” proudly stood beside her towering chalkboard, a symbol of perseverance and hope for the future.”