This article first appeared in North State Parent magazine in March 2008; © Lisa Shara
On March 15th, 2008, the legendary Angélique Kidjo came to Chico’s Laxson Auditorium to share her world-renowned music. Kidjo is also known for her role with UNICEF, her association with Oxfam, and for the organization she founded and holds close to her heart: Batonga Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to expand secondary school opportunities for poor and orphaned girls in sub-Saharan Africa.
Even in the flurry of activity following her recent Grammy win for Best Contemporary World Music Album for her 2007 release Djin Djin, Kidjo took time to speak with us about her passion for music, education, and for making a difference in the lives of children and teenagers.
Lisa Shara: I love the story of how you invented and used the word Batonga as a child, and think it’s fascinating how the word has developed over time into being the song title of one of your first song hits, and more recently has become the namesake of the amazing organization that you founded, the Batonga Foundation. All of the stages of Batonga’s evolutions relate to your long-held conviction about the importance of education and it’s impact in helping young women become self-sufficient and contributing member’s within their communities…and I’m sure long-range, to being contributors and voices heard on a global level.
Can you share a bit about this for our readers who don’t know the history and vision of ‘Batonga’?
Angélique Kidjo: As a child growing up in Benin, I was blessed to receive a good education. My parents had eight children but they made sure each one of them was attending school. People could not understand why my parents put their three girls into school, but I am glad they did–it allowed me to accomplish my dream of being a singer and to travel the world. The African Continent has given me so much because its traditional songs and its people inspired my music. I feel I have the responsibility to give back as much as I can by empowering those who will make the face of Africa tomorrow: the girls who don’t have access to education. My dream is to see every girl in Africa getting the kind of education I received.
LS: I’ve talked with Batonga President Mary Louise Cohen about the reasons Batonga Foundation’s mission focuses beyond primary school and is about supporting secondary and higher education. What inspired you to take the step of creating Batonga as an organization?
AK: The idea for creating Batonga came when I heard that Wangari Maathai, the African Noble Peace Prize Laureate, received a scholarship from president JFK when she was a little girl. It is an incredible success story! So we’re hoping the work of Batonga will help another Wangari! The Millennium Goals have put a lot of emphasis on free primary education, and in fact it is a priority, but we want to make sure that the best students are able to go beyond primary education and one day become highly educated leaders.
LS: Can you explain the current situation regarding education in the areas of Africa Batonga is working in, why it’s imperative that there is assistance beyond primary education, and how Batonga is working to make secondary and higher education a reality for the students Batonga serves?
AK: My experience during my travels to Africa with UNICEF or Oxfam-to more than 15 countries-showed me that at a certain age girls stop their schooling, and for many reasons. Many cannot afford school fees. In rural areas both distance and a need for girls to help care for younger siblings are factors. This is especially sad since we know that educating girls reduces maternal and infant mortality rates, and the likelihood a girl will contract HIV. Educated mothers lead to educated children, and I am convinced that this is the best way to empower African girls to change Africa. Right now, Batonga is providing scholarships to poor girls in Benin and Mali, we provide vocational training to girls who have been victims of war in Sierra Leone, and we are sending AIDS orphans to school in Ethiopia and Cameroon. We are also providing funds to improve teacher training. Next year we hope to be able to fund projects in Ethiopia and Mozambique that will focus on girls in rural communities.
LS: You are a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Having been in this role since 2002, you must be witnessing and playing a part in developing aspects of the organization’s mission. Is there a particular vision you bring to the role? Where can people learn more about UNICEF and its mission?
AK: My first encounter with UNICEF took place when I was a little girl. I was not happy about it because it meant vaccination shots! My mother always made sure I got those, and then I saw the great work they are doing in places where sometimes UNICEF is the only active agency for children, especially in cases of conflict or disaster. My main focus since 2002 has been supporting the “Go Girl” campaign, which supports improving gender parity in primary education. If you want to know more about their work and about some of my trips with them you can go to www.unicef.org and look up Kidjo in the search engine.
LS: In addition to the work you are doing in the world outside of the music realm, your impressive musical career includes 10 studio album releases, your work has been featured in numerous other album and film releases, you’ve collaborated and toured with many high-caliber talented musicians, have won multiple types of “best artist” music awards, and have received one video and four album Grammy nominations-of which your most recent album release Djin Djin just won for Best Contemporary World Music Album. Can you share a few highlights of your musical adventures and experiences and what you hold in heart when you are performing and sharing your music?
AK: My passion is playing on stage. I started when I was six in the theater company of my mother, and since then I have not stopped and I am not planning to stop soon! I feel my mission throughout the world is to bring to the people a little glimpse of what African culture is about. Sometimes my audience has never heard African music before, but at the end of the concert they understand the warmth and the universal message of African music.
LS: [Asked pre-concert] You are playing at California State University, Chico’s Laxson Auditorium on March 15th. Is there anything you are especially excited about and looking forward to in regards to your current tour?
AK: Every time, I hope to reach a new audience and bring them as much energy and joy as possible!
LS: What brings you hope?
AK: I think something is changing in the mentality of people. They are starting to realize that the mixing of culture can bring a lot of good to this country! When I see all these people coming to my shows and feeling the message of my music when they don’t understand the lyrics, I feel really positive about the power of music.
North State Parent was proud to be a sponser of Angélique Kidjo’s March 15th, 2008 concert at California State University, Chico’s Laxson Auditorium.
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Writer and editor Lisa Shara’s top passions include music, dance and being involved with organizations that make a difference in the quality of life. © Lisa Shara 2008 www.z-manproductions.com