The Rallying Cry That Changed My Life

Angélique Kidjo shares the origin story of her charity

Grammy winning singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo has been dubbed by TIME as Africa’s premier diva. She rose to international fame in the early 1990s, and now, on the brink of her 60th birthday, Kidjo has no plans to slow down. On Saturday, she will be performing Daughter of Independence at Carnegie Hall, a showcase which celebrates the anniversary of her native Benin and other West African nations.

But Kidjo’s real passion lies with helping to liberate and educate young women. Her charity the Batonga Foundation is aimed at helping young women and girls in the most remote regions of Africa gain confidence and skills to advocate for themselves. Angélique spoke to our producer Emily Pinto about how a UNICEF trip to Africa inspired her to take action…

In 2002 I went to Tanzania with UNICEF, where I recorded a lot of PSAs urging parents to send their girls to primary school. I was shocked to see how, even in small villages, people knew who I was. When my first music video was released, it was at the beginning of a lot of TV stations in Africa, and they needed content. So they played my video every day, around the clock. Girls started to wear their hair like me, and dress like me. Even now I will meet girls who are 25 and they’ll say to me, “oh I grew up listening to your music.”

During that first trip, I discovered the pandemic of AIDS among children. It was one of the hardest things for me to see. It took my breath away. I thought, how did we get here? What is this? Those kids are going to die from this. It just seemed so unfair. It was eating me up.

When I visited an orphanage, I couldn’t think. At that time my child was the age of some of the kids there, and I thought, “What would I do if this happened to my kid?” And this little boy, he couldn’t have been more than four, came up to me and said, “You’re not going to cry, right?” And I was like “Oh no, no,” and he was like “Uh-uh. You’re not going to cry. We are all here today to hear you sing. You’re gonna sing now.” And I said, “I can’t.” And he said, “Yeah, you will!” And so he went over to his friends, and they all started cheering “Mutoto kwanza, vifin oye!” And I asked him, “What does that mean?” And he said, “It’s our rally cry. It means ‘children first.’”

I remember he was so warm. I don’t know how high his fever was, but I just wanted to cuddle him and put him to bed. But he said to me, “I’m not going to bed! I want to sing!” I just thought to myself, “How.”

Those kids had so much strength, and they were not afraid. Those kids didn’t even understand what was going on, they just wanted to continue being children. And who are we to pity them? You can’t help them if you’re not strong, and they’re giving you the strength to be there for them, and represent them, so that one day they can tell their own story. I asked the kids if I could write a song about them, and they said “Yeah, as long as the song is not a sad song, you can use our rally cry!” So I did — it’s called “Mutoto Kwanza.”

A couple of years later I went back with UNICEF again. I was in a small village and I met a young mother who said, “Do you remember the PSA you did to send our girls to primary school? Well we did! But you know that if they don’t make it to secondary school they’re going to have the same fate we did — they will have to marry early, and become mothers early.”

And so I started thinking: What can I do about this? To help young girls get secondary education? Everyone discouraged me from doing it. They said the dropout rate was too great. And I said, if it’s easy, why bother? There are girls, the poorest of the poor, who are practically invisible. They live in small villages, and so I decided to start there.

In 2006, I decided to walk the unpaved roads to the villages where nobody wanted to go. At the beginning it was really hard, because these girls didn’t trust anybody. You asked them, “What’s your name?” And they would just look at you. They didn’t want to talk. It was frustrating. But as I would go back to these villages and see the same girls, I would say, “Tell me what you need. You have to tell me what you want me to do to help you.”

I wanted to start a program with the mandate of giving scholarships, mentoring, tutoring, uniforms, books, and one meal a day for those girls. And in order to do that, I worked with local NGOs who had the same goals so that we could bring our resources together in order to do this for these girls. We started in five countries — Benin, Mali, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone. I just dove right into the water to start getting the girls to school. That was the start of Batonga.

Over fifteen years later, The Batonga Foundation equips the hardest-to-reach girls and women with knowledge and skills to be agents of change in their own lives and communities. They do this through digital data collection and mapping to identify the most vulnerable young women and girls, and give them access to safe spaces known as Girls Clubs. At the Girls Clubs these young women build peer networks and have access to mentors, who work with them to come up with business plans in order to generate their own income.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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