How Uwem Akpan Inspired Angelique Kidjo
Photo: Joshua Jordan
Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Angelique Kidjo has been working on behalf of children in her native Africa as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002. But when she read Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them , she was profoundly changed—and musically inspired.I'm traveling all over the world, singing and always speaking about my continent, Africa, about the beauty of its culture and how one day we will overcome all of its flaws. I have witnessed firsthand all of its suffering as I have traveled to so many African countries with UNICEF.
From Darfur to Ethiopia, from Malawi to Uganda , I have met hundreds of children, and I always feel overwhelmed by their stories. I was always wondering: "How can you express their hopes and pain? How can you communicate to the rest of the world the truth of their lives?"
When I read Uwem's book, the answer came to me: You have to tell the story from their point of view, not our point of view. The media covering Africa, with its fascination for poverty, oftentimes treats the African children as objects, objects of compassion yes, but no longer real human beings.
Uwem's book reverses the equation. When he calls his book Say You're One of Them , I think he is saying, "Stop watching this suffering on your TV screens; understand what it is to live in their shoes." His talent as a writer allows him to make it real.
I was born in Benin, a small country in West Africa, which is one of the poorest nations on earth. But I have to say I was so lucky. My family was supportive and gave me the best gift possible: access to education, which is not granted to many girls on my continent. I'm so proud of my parents, and when I received my Grammy in 2008, I knew my mom and dad should have been the ones standing on the podium!
The fact that I was able to accomplish my dream of becoming a singer and getting out of poverty is a true miracle. I am aware of this, and this is now why I'm fighting so hard for the children of my continent. Poverty and lack of education are at the root of all evil. As Uwem describes in one of his stories, in Benin, a lot of kids work at a very early age.
Through the years, I have always been sensitive to the situation of African children, but something different happened when I became a mother. The love I felt for my daughter was so strong and it made me think, "What if it was my little daughter over there doing all of the chores and working crazy hours at an age when she should just care about playing with dolls and going to school?" The love I felt for her was making the suffering of the other children of my country unbearable for me. When I started to read Uwem's book, I felt the same empathy. One of these kids whose stories he is telling could be my daughter, "Say she is one of them!"
The distance between America and Africa, the difference of language and culture won't change this fact: We are one humanity, and a little girl in Africa is not worth less than a little girl in New York. She has the same blood and the same heart.
Uwem's stories inspired me to write the song "Agbalagba" to express this conviction. The children of Africa will stand tall if we're able to break the cycle of poverty but also look honestly at our traditions. The richness of our culture will be the root of our successes. We have to acknowledge that some traditions, which are harming our children and are made worse by the rise of poverty, have to disappear now!
Listen to Angelique's song now
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