THE BLOG
10/07/2014 04:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Every Child Has A Story To Tell

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently notes, it's shockingly easy to have one narrative of Africa, one story of its people. She talks about leaving Nigeria to come to university in the US, only to find that her roommate had already defined her, already put her in a conveniently labeled box. Despite the fact that Ms. Adichie is highly educated and able to attend an international university, her roommate couldn't help but consider Adichie someone that is African, and in other words, poor.

As she recounts this tale, she's careful to distinguish herself as a person of means and not "one of them." But what I find missing from Ms. Adichie's otherwise compelling narrative is the notion that, most certainly, there's a deserved plurality to poverty too.

This is true even for the most vulnerable people in Africa: children. Importantly, each child has his or her own story to tell.

These stories are evident where we work in Uganda, as part of the i.HUG Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help empower children to live happy, safe and productive lives. The children we serve live in extreme poverty, in some of the worst and oftentimes dangerous conditions and who face and trump adversity on a daily basis.

These are some of the most inspirational stories on the planet. So why don't we hear more of them? Why are we stuck on the same old tales?

A girl name Faridah, who joined i.HUG's program, ultimately showed me the answer. But I had to listen closely, and follow along.

I met Faridah in 2006 where she lived in a slum outside of the capital city of Kampala. She lived in a corrugated tin shack with her mother and sister, out of which her mother sold charcoal to earn a meager living. Given the tiny quarters, the girls had no choice but to sleep on top of the charcoal at night. Faridah was a young girl when I met her, and she had already assumed that she would never have the chance to go to school.

Faridah fit into the box of what one might consider a typical story of a child in Uganda. Indeed, in the country, more than half (55 percent) of all children live in abject poverty. That paints a bleak picture in terms of education: Of those who do enroll in primary school, less than 40 percent complete it. Only a quarter of Uganda's children enroll in a secondary school.

When we met, Faridah was so quiet, so painfully shy. She hardly spoke -- and when she did, her voice was so faint it was difficult to hear her. At the time, I assumed it was just Faridah. Later on, it occurred to me that the reticence was somehow a hallmark of poverty. But now, years later, after having met hundreds of children and especially girls that struggle in the same way to speak, I have come to understand a different truth. The lack of a voice for a child comes from a lack of education.

Put another way, education gives children voice, and it is through that voice that they have the power to tell their story. To hear more stories, we need more education.

Faridah's story, as it turns out, wasn't a typical story of an African child. It changed due to the generosity of people she will most likely never meet. Faridah had a chance to attend primary school. Then, she went on to attend high school. Today, she is on the brink of becoming a high school graduate and attending university. She communicates easily and is extremely well spoken, and I have to blink to realize that this young woman is the same girl I met so long ago. The last time we spoke, she quickly moved on from talking about how she was feeling -- having recently contracted typhoid and malaria -- and instead wanting to cover the important topics including her upcoming exams, what she'll wear to her graduation dance, her excitement for the future.

That's a story I can listen to all day long.

While the issue of poverty can seem so vast, so unfixable, there's hope within individual stories -- and they need to be told. We need to invest in education in order to hear those stories and make them better stories.

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