Zuriel Oduwole

Zuriel Oduwole: High Hopes

Zuriel Oduwole, the 16-year old documentary film maker and girls’ education activist, recently made a trip to Ethiopia to premiere her new documentary, “Follow the Ball for Education” to a group of female students and young professionals. The trip was part of a four-country tour around the world with the film, where Oduwole also spoke about the importance of educating girls. EBR’s Menna Asrat was on hand at the Radisson Blu Hotel to watch the documentary and speak with Oduwole about her work.

On a drizzly Friday afternoon in the middle of Addis’s rainy season, students and staff file into a small conference room at the Radisson Blu Hotel. Progressively, the room was packed almost to the rafters with women and girls who have been invited to watch a new documentary by an unlikely filmmaker, 16 year old Zuriel Oduwole.

Oduwole is almost the definition of a wunderkind. A film maker, girls’ rights activist and consummate world traveller, she has done it all in her young life. Already a high school graduate, Oduwole’s story began when she was 10 years old. During her stay for a school project in Ghana to produce the film ‘The Ghana Revolution’, she took notice of the scores of children on the street, often times begging for money, and often with no homes to go back to. It sparked a drive in her that would eventually grow into a series of documentary films, and interviews with 28 heads of government and ministers in Africa, in Europe and in the Caribbea, among others.

Watching those children who were struggling to survive that led her towards the path of education advocacy, and especially girls’ education. “I want to make sure that on the African continent, girls have the opportunity to go to school and get a good education,” she told EBR.

Once she was back home in the United States, the young Oduwole entered a competition, hosted by the History Channel, which encouraged young children to do everything for their films themselves, including shooting, directing, and editing. Once she got a taste of filmmaking, she realised that she could use this as a platform to spread awareness of the issues she was passionate about.

“After I made my first documentary, I realised there was power in media,” she said. “If I want to get a message across, media is a very good thing to do, especially with film, because everyone loves movies. I thought it would be a good way to highlight people involved in girls’ education as well.”

To that end, she started travelling, using her camera to tell stories of female students and the visionaries who are trying to help them, to shed light on the importance of education for girls. So far, she has produced five documentary films, including the one she is currently travelling with.

“I want to try and tell positive stories,” she says. “Especially African stories because [stories about Africa] mostly portray negative things.”

Her latest trip around Africa was to premiere a new documentary “Follow the Ball for Education” to a group of female students and young professionals. The film was a visual record of a project she had undertaken, starting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. Oduwole, who was then just 13 years old, had the idea to take two footballs with her on a trip around the world, starting in Rio, and have people in five countries sign them to express support for girls’ education, from random people on the street to presidents and ambassadors. The project itself took about four years to complete, and took her all over Africa and South America.

In contrast to the stereotypical portrayal of African stories, Oduwole’s projects tend to focus on positive things, such as leaders trying to make policy changes, and girls breaking the mould to get an education. It is a responsibility she takes very seriously.

Telling positive stories is very important to Oduwole, as well as her family, who have deeply entrenched roots in Africa. Born in California to parents of Nigerian and Mauritian descent, she has three younger siblings. The family travels together whenever possible, and the closeness of the Oduwole clan was on full display to the people who come to see her speak.

Working as a girls’ education advocate has taken Oduwole all over the world. As she produces documentaries, she also interviews world leaders, urging them to take action to ensure that girls are protected throughout their educations. One such leader with whom she spoke was South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 52Pct of girls are married by age 18, and nine percent of girls are married by age 15.

“I spoke with him during one of my trips,” she explains. “As South Sudan has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, I took away a lot from that conversation. It helped me to formulate a way to try and get more girls into school.”

As much as she enjoys what she does, there is a lot of technical work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that she can actually accomplish what she wants to do. The biggest concern, as with any project that spans continent, is the expenditure. But the family finds ways to make it work.

“We have sponsors who help us find ways to do this,” she explains. For her latest project, Oduwole and her family’s travel was sponsored by Ethiopian Airlines. In addition to companies, individuals are also invited to sponsor her work. Radisson Blu Hotel is one of her major sponsors. In some countries, hotels sponsor their stays free of charge. It is still not an easy life for a family, but they find ways around it.

“All four children are home schooled,” says her father, Ademola Oduwole. “That is how we are able to do this. “
Oduwole agrees. “My family are very supportive of things I do. They are there to encourage me and to lift me up sometimes.”

The confidence that comes from that support is also pretty apparent. During discussions with the audience of her documentary, Oduwole answered the question of how she actually got in to see so many heads of government, which interested many of the participants. The answer was deceptively simple.

“I send them emails to their presidential offices,” she explains. “I talk to them about girls’ education, and the things I want to ask them.”

Having spoken to so many leaders is a privilege that not many people have had. “It’s hard to choose a favourite from all the people I’ve talked to,” says Oduwole. “But the ones that tend to stay with me are the women leaders, because they tend to talk about the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve overcome them to become the president or prime minister of their country.

But luckily, her efforts to bring about some concrete results. “I’ve seen a lot of positive impacts, not only on girls, but also on their mothers, who come to me and say that because of what I’ve said, they’re not just going to keep their girls at home. There may be some instances where I have to try harder to get through to people. For instance, in South Sudan, girls don’t go to school for cultural reasons, and this happens generation after generation. Girls are encouraged to marry between the ages of nine and 12. When I met with President Kiir, he told me that it would be hard to change an entire country’s culture because one girl said so. But he did say that he would at least start a conversation with the elders and leaders of communities.”

Oduwole has received recognition for her work from various institutions and publications, including being the youngest person in the world to be featured in Forbes Magazine at age 10 in summer 2013, being listed in New Africa Magazine as one of Africa’s 100 Most Influential People of 2013, at age 11 and being honoured by former US Secretary of State John Kerry for her work on girls’ education.

Even though she has done things that most teenagers can only dream of, Oduwole is, for the most part, a normal kid. “I like watching crime shows like Hawaii Five-Oh,” she explains. “We love watching crime shows.”

The fiercely ambitious teenager has her sights set on higher office as well. “In the future, I want to try and find more ways to get girls into school,” she told one of the audience members. “But as I go further down the line, I want to become a robotics engineer and down the line, either the president of the United States, or the United Nations Secretary-General, so I can influence policies, especially in Africa.”

But when it comes to more detail, Oduwole is a little vaguer about her plans. “In ten years, I’ll have graduated college, so I want to continue doing my girls’ education work,” she anticipates. “In regards to films, honestly I’m not sure. I’m definitely going to try to keep telling positive stories wherever I can, especially about the African continent. It’s important to tell stories you don’t always see out there.”

6th Year • Aug.16 – Sep. 15 2018 • No. 65


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