Last January, I was invited to Africa. Somehow, I knew it was time to come home.
While the people, the places left such strong impressions, the hope I left Africa with was more profound than anything else.
I learned so much about community, spirituality and, of course, song and dance, African rhythms, and the sustainable work Free The Children does in true partnership with communities in Kenya and worldwide – Sierra Leone, India, Ecuador, China to name a few.
I learned how one country’s political realities can affect all the nations sharing Africa. I learned about Moammar Gadhafi as a leader and dictator. I felt so ignorant but, at the same time, enlightened. My thoughts immediately went back to a concert I performed as part of a celebration thrown by someone described as an “oil sheik” in Italy in 2007. That night, I met a “son of Gadhafi” who had helped pay for the celebration. I didn’t know much about Libya then; in Kenya, I began to learn more.
A month or two after I returned from Kenya, as the Libyan civil war heated up, I found myself, BlackBerry in hand at 3 a.m., unable to sleep: In Libya, people who rightly believed the cost of freedom was worth it because the benefits were tenfold, were being killed; people were living things I couldn’t truly fathom, but I could feel the weight of them inside my heart. At that moment, in an act of solidarity, I sent a tweet about my intentions to return money I felt wasn’t truly mine.
I decided to give the $1-million (what I was paid to cover all expenses for the 2007 concert) to Free The Children, but wanted a plan that would include the people of Libya. I decided on a sustainable program, rather than immediate aid, inspired by the work I had seen in action with Free The Children in Kenya. I wanted to support women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Gaza. I wanted to help educate girls so they might have a place in the new democratic regimes in MENA postrevolution – a revolution many women helped spark.
I also wanted to build another school in Kenya like the beautiful Kisaruni school where I spent life-changing days – a school that would support brave girls like the ones I had met, girls so confident they put my 14-year-old self to shame. I wanted and needed the help of youth across North America, so I’ve set up a matching program through Free The Children to inspire youth to do more fundraising and believe in the “power of we.”
I vividly remember my life-changing experience at the concert in Italy in 2007. Then, it felt like a story I could tell my grandchildren about the brutal but very real divide between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor. I felt I had seen the “other side” – an “other” rarely known by someone with my humble beginnings. At the time, I felt like a servant performing at an invisible king’s court, realizing for the first time just how common the role of “entertainer” is in the grand scheme of the ages. That said, I realized my price tag for the evening would have raised the eyebrows of my music conductor grandfather in the Azores. Now I understand that the feeling in the pit of my stomach was just the toll of that amazing bell we all have within that signifies a new journey in life. Then, the sound was faint. Today, it rings louder than ever in my heart. It’s so ironic that I went to Kenya intending “to help” and left as the one who received the most charity.
The world is and always will be complicated. Moral dilemmas will continue to be present in my career, which attempts to merge corporate and emotional needs on a daily basis. The world is changing faster than we can handle. Money rules.
Yet, in that rural town in Kenya near Kisaruni High School, God rules. I now laugh at the phrase “Third World,” because the “Third World” is so full of human triumph. In many ways, it is the heart of the spiritual world. A name like “third eye world” would be more appropriate. It is the world that contains the people who will save us with their proximity to God, primordial relevance and belief in the human senses and sensitivities – the very things that make us vital as humans and will ensure our survival. We just need to wake up and start joining forces.
The student of life within me has been summoned and humbled. When roll call is read, I will forever be present with a recent map in hand – a map that I hope, one day, will be void of the borders that separate us.
Nelly Furtado is a Canadian mother, singer-songwriter, record producer and actress.