Community & Current Events

Nelly Furtado and the gift of hope

By: Nelly Furtado, as told to Shelley Page

Photography by Scott Ramsay, courtesy of Free the Children Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Scott Ramsay, courtesy of Free the Children

Community & Current Events

Nelly Furtado and the gift of hope

By: Nelly Furtado, as told to Shelley Page
Giving is the secret to happiness in my life: Nothing makes me happier than giving time, energy and love to my daughter. Helping young artists realize their potential is deeply satisfying too. And now, my circle of giving has grown beyond my wildest dreams. It includes amazingly brave girls from Tunisia, Gaza and rural Kenya, as well as their communities. I feel blessed. Let me explain.

Two years ago, I donated $500,000 to build a girls’ high school in rural Kenya. The funds were matched by amazing Canadian kids who held bake sales and penny drives. I also pledged a similar amount to fund Girls for Change, which delivers leadership workshops to girls from places in the Middle East and North Africa where revolution has occurred.

This past August, I spent two unforgettable weeks at the new school, Oleleshwa, named after a tree that grows perfumed leaves even in drought – and symbolizes perseverance. I met girls there who are lightning bolts for change in their communities.

On opening day, I stood with 1,000 community members who’d come to celebrate the education of their girls. Only a year earlier, Free the Children cofounder Craig Kielburger and I could only imagine the existence of this school in a region where girls’ high schools are scarce and out of reach.

Girls who attend Oleleshwa must have top marks to win scholarships. And they have big dreams, like 14-year-old Faith Cherop. She watched television for the first time just a few months ago and saw a Kenyan woman in a suit jacket reading the news. Now, Faith is studying English and Swahili because she wants to be a television news broadcaster.

I think of myself when I was 15, late for school or occasionally skipping class. These girls are up at 5 a.m., studying because they are so eager and happy to learn.

Faith was there when the ribbon was cut. So were the elders and many proud mothers. We all wanted the same thing: Opportunities for our children. After that day, I’ve felt Kenya forever in my heart.

Meeting the Girls for Change
On the same trip, I also got a remarkable chance to spend time with 10 girls from Tunisia who were part of Girls for Change and had experienced revolution in their country two years earlier.

Enjoying milky chai together, I learned their stories. Eighteen-year-old Hajir, a gifted singer, explained how her group used music, poetry and painting to protest the harassment – physical and verbal – of girls and women. I have one of their poems on my wall at home to inspire me.

Nour, 17, whose name means “light,” campaigned with others to change
the dress code that requires girls, but not boys, to wear boxy blue blazers.

On one of my last days there, the Tunisian and Kenyan girls came together. I taught them how to write lyrics in the language of their choice: Arabic, French, Kipsigis or Maa. They reminded me that music is the universal language. And that these girls live very brave lives.

They are becoming pioneers. They are proving they can get an education and do something fruitful with it, for themselves, their families and their communities.

This Christmas, I’ll think of the many memories and gifts these girls gave me, especially the gift of hope and the reminder of the value of mentorship. If you have a talent or skill – baking, sewing, running, singing – share it with girls in your life: your daughter, niece or neighbour. There is always someone you can help. That is how hope grows.

Nelly Furtado is a Grammy- and Juno-winning singer-songwriter and Free the Children ambassador. Shelley Page is executive editor at Free the Children. She was also in Kenya this past summer.

We have lots more information about how you can give back in your community.

                                               
This story was originally titled "The Gift of Hope" in the December 2013 issue.
           
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Nelly Furtado and the gift of hope

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