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25.04.2008 - Article
Interview with Angélique Kidjo: “Africa needs people like me!”

Angélique Kidjo is a world famous musician. Born in Benin, she left her home country early on to move to Paris. Nowadays she spends most of her time in New York. Her ties with Africa are still quite strong, both in her music and her commitment: she has been a UNICEF Ambassador for the past five years and also works closely with various development organisations. Today, Angélique Kidjo shares her convictions on TRAVERSE, the SDC’s discussion platform. The one cause that she holds closest to her heart and continues to fight for: giving educational opportunities to Africa’s young people.

Angelique KidjoInterview by Marie-Thérèse Karlen

Angélique Kidjo, you have spent over half of your life outside of Africa. Why do you still devote so much of your time to helping this continent?

I do it because I know what life is like there, it’s where I grew up. Africa needs people like me, people who were born and raised there. I spent twenty-three years of my life in Africa and go back there regularly. When UNICEF asked whether I was interested in becoming UNICEF Ambassador, I jumped at the opportunity. UNICEF rekindles my childhood memories, even the unpleasant ones! When I was a child, UNICEF had launched vaccination programmes in various African countries, including Benin. I remember my mother had to drag me kicking and screaming to get my shots. Even today, the sight of needles still scares the daylights out of me! And yet: as a little girl growing up in Africa, those vaccines probably saved my life. My commitment as UNICEF Ambassador is an opportunity for me to give something back, not just to my home country, but to the entire continent.

Apart from UNICEF, you are also actively involved in international NGOs. And last year, you even created a foundation…

Yes, this was needed to complement my work on UNICEF’s Girls Education Campaign. I realised that primary education alone was not enough. My foundation has only been around for a year and we are already sponsoring 430 children in several African countries. The problem is mainly that many parents cannot afford to send their children to study beyond the 6th year of schooling. They need their children to work at home. So, we give microcredits to mothers and focus on where we have the best chances of bringing about change: in the field of education. Africa’s children need education in order to change things and be able to take their destiny into their own hands. Education develops their critical judgement and enables them to stand up for their rights.

You are strongly committed to education. Is education enough? Will all of Africa’s troubles be solved by putting all of its children in school?

Of course, this will not happen overnight. Education is a long-term commitment that can have a lasting impact if progress is made. We also need to realise just how daunting this undertaking really is. Here, we are not talking about one country; we are talking about an entire continent that has experienced massive population growth. At the same time, I see more young people in Africa today working to make a difference than was the case in my time.

And yet, the traditional hurdles that prevent young girls from attending school are still in place.

You are absolutely right! Here we are, in the 21st Century, and there are still people out there who believe that education is only for white people. There are still those who believe that an educated girl will not respect her husband, will soon leave him or will not even marry him to begin with. Nothing could be further from the truth! Look at me: I am an educated woman who has been with the same man for the past twenty years. And I still respect him!

Changing our beliefs also means breaking our cultural frames of reference, moving away from time-honoured traditions.

You know, there are good and bad traditions. The trick is to keep the good ones and throw out the bad ones that are holding us back. Two very good examples are female genital mutilation and slavery, both of which are still firmly ingrained in cultural mindsets.

As someone who herself comes from an African culture, what do you think would be the best way to prevent female genital mutilation?

The answer is obvious: by focussing on the women who are doing the cutting. Professional excisers have a certain status in traditional community-based structures. For many, removing external female genitalia is their only source of income. The first step is to show these women the negative effects of female genital mutilation. Then they need an incentive, an alternative (e.g. microcredits) that will enable them to earn a living by some other means. Once you have convinced the person who has the knife in her hand, you’ve basically convinced everybody else. All it takes is for such a woman to refuse to perform the procedure and you’ve stopped the young girl’s father in his tracks. And this is the heart of the matter: by educating young girls and women, you also educate the men.

You grew up in Africa. Where did you learn to take charge of your own life?

I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a household where both parents were educated. I also had two strong-willed grandmothers. Both became widows at the age of thirty-five and never re-married. This environment had a profound influence on my life. It was there that I learnt that women also have the right to ask questions, that women also have the right to decide what they want or do not want.

You have been quite successful as a musician. How do you see your chances of success in the development field? Have there been results?

I recently visited a school where schoolgirls sponsored by my foundation are enrolled. I asked the girls what they wanted to do when they got older. A thirteen-year-old told me that she wanted to become President of Benin: “Because the men in government are the main reason why the country is in such a mess. I want to change things.” This type of sentiment warms my heart.

And what do you think about development cooperation in Africa in general? There are critics from both donor countries and Africa who wonder whether development cooperation serves any real purpose.

If aid is not tied to the interests of donor countries nor ends up lining the pockets of corrupt officials, then it is a tremendous help. My call to donor countries is clear: use your money in a way that enables everyone to know where it is spent and what happens with it. Demand greater accountability from African governments. They often have no interest whatsoever in seeing their population benefit from good education and health systems. An uneducated, weak populace is much easier to satisfy and even manipulate.

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