Transcript: Big Read Media Call


April 22, 2009

April 21, 2009, 11:00 am ET

This is a transcript of a media call conducted in concert with the Global Fund for Education on April 21, 2009, announcing the Big Read, with:

  • Owain James, Oxfam
  • Angelique Kidjo, founder, Batonga Foundation
  • Assibi Napoe, Chief Regional Coordinator, Education International
  • Ishmael Beah, former Sierra Leonean child soldier and author of the memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

Operator: Good day and welcome to the Global Campaign for Education conference call. Today’s conference is being recorded. At this time, I’d like to turn the conference over to Mr. Owain James. Please go ahead, sir.

Owain James: Thank you and good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to all of those who are joining across the world to this Global Campaign for Education media call about The Big Read and our Global Action Week on Education For All.

I’m glad, delighted to have three fantastic speakers here today on this call. And after a couple of minutes of opening remarks, I’ll hand over to them to speak to the issue of Education For All and their contributions to The Big Read, and then later on in the call we’re going to have an opportunity for the media to ask questions in English or for two of the speakers, they can ask in French, too.

But without further ado, I want to just briefly introduce the Global Action Week this year; and we’re seeing right across the world, several million people take part in over 120 countries this week in The Big Read. The Big Read is a book of short stories about education, which is written by many leading critics from across the world, including Nobel Peace Prize winners and award winning authors, and we’re delighted to have two of those authors with us today.

The stories of the book are about education. Some about people who have been denied an education, some of them are funny, but there’s one thing that all the authors and readers have in common, and that’s the common cause. The fact that we want to make sure that everyone has a good quality, free education and that we can fulfill the promise of Education For All and the education MDGs.

Today, 774 million adults around the world are without a basic education, that means that one in four women can’t read and write. Furthermore, there’s 75 million children who are out of primary school, and an additional 226 million young teens or adolescents who are out of school.

Since 1994 alone, we’ve seen adult illiteracy increase by 28 million, and it’s crucial that at this time with the current global financial crisis that it doesn’t overshadow this crisis of a human right to education, and that we see world leaders take action, and that’s why we’re delighted so many people around the world are speaking up today in that cause.

We’ve seen some success with some 40 million more children in school since 2000. And it’s become clear that these goals are achievable, but much, much more needs to be done. I, as I said at the start of the call, we’re truly delighted to have such passionate and vocal leaders for education on this call, and I’d like to introduce our first speaker, Angelique Kidjo. She’s well-known as a Grammy award winner from Benin whose music has stunned audiences across the world. And she’s also a leading advocate for education. She has campaigned for women’s education, is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and has created her own charitable foundation for Batonga, which is dedicated to supporting the education of young girls in Africa.

Angelique, I’ll hand over to you to explain a bit about the story you wrote for The Big Read and to talk about your views in education, (too).

Angelique Kidjo: Thank you, (James). My view about education is to see the challenge that we have to face of the lack of access to education in Africa and how educating girls can change the future in Africa. And we know that mothers that are educated would put at least 50% children in school, and more likely there will — you see the survival of children past the age of 5, when the mothers are educated.

My example is just because my mom and dad have been educated, they make sure that both of us went to school. And I think that just education is — it has to be the priority for a father and a mother. A girl should have the chance to be educated to take lead in her own life. My father would not let me sing without going to school because you — it’s not because you make money out of singing, that you don’t go to school, and that has been something that my father have never, never ever negotiated with me. He said politely to me, “If you don’t go to school, you don’t sing.” And as I love to sing, I had to really go to school and stay in school, and which is, for me, the best example that I can give to those girls that I’m trying to put in school in my foundation, my Batonga foundation.

We need highly educated women in Africa to change the tide, and when the girls are educated you see that projects that come to Africa succeed and they can achieve goals, they can become leaders in Africa. We need more education, and I’m passionate about education, because with education we can eradicate child mortality or reduce it drastically. We can eradicate HIV and Aids, we can eradicate malaria, because what we’re talking about people understand, education is I think the only thing that really can help Africa take a big step forward in its own destiny for us to take lead in our own life. I think I’m done.

Owain James: Thanks, Angelique. That’s great.

And we also have, as one of the speakers, Assibi Napoe, who is the chair of the Global Campaign for Education and Coordinator of Education International in Africa. And I’d like to ask Assibi to say a few words now, and then after her and our final speaker, we’ll then move to questions and answers from the media. Assibi, over to you.

Assibi Napoe: Thanks, Owain. I think what Angelique has said now is really important for Africa. Gender illiteracy is a problem which deserves attention and ((inaudible)) and we believe that the best way to tackle gender illiteracy is to promote gender education as a business (level), especially encourage girls’ education.

And in West Africa now illiteracy is going up. Right now, I’m coming back from (Ghana National Coalition) and they say that 55% of Ghanian are illiterate, and out of them I think 75 women. In Sierra Leone, in Benin, we have 75 again percent. So it is necessary to take illiteracy as a key priority today, and we need to continue even though there is a crisis, an economic crisis, we need to continue to invest in education and in literacy because without literacy, Africa cannot come out of poverty. And we need to invest in teachers. Teachers are the wheel of education and all the education, all the goals of EFA must be considered, not only formal education but non-formal education, literacy and gender parity. Owain? I think I’m —

Owain James: Thank you, Assibi and I wanted to just check, if the third caller has been able to join us. We’re hoping that Ishmael Beah would be able to join, but I know he’s speaking at another event and coming straight on to this call. Ishmael, have you been able to join us yet?

Operator: He hasn’t been able to join yet.

Owain James: OK, thank you.

Angelique Kidjo: Hello, Owain.

Owain James: Hello, yes?

Angelique Kidjo: If nobody, (while I’m here).

Owain James: Hi, and I don’t know if Ishmael has been able to join us, so what I will do is move to some of the questions and then, hopefully, Ishmael will be able to join us during the rest of the call. And just before we bring in some of the media questions, I thought I’d quickly ask one as chair.

And Angelique, I just wanted to ask, given you’re such a leading figure for education around the world, what is it that you feel makes education so important and particularly for girls?

Angelique Kidjo: I think that women, the girls are going to become the mothers of tomorrow and the leaders of tomorrow, as Assibi was saying. I mean we have various ways of educating women in Africa. Formal education is a good thing, but occasional education is also a good thing.

We have to empower the women for them to take a lead in their lives, because the women, because of lack of education are victim of violences within the marriage and outside of the marriage. And women that are educated will educate their boys to change a little bit this attitude that the men have in Africa, thinking that a woman is a possession.

Without education, we cannot reduce child mortality at birth. Without education, we will always be perceived as the third world and as less developed and less intelligent people, and we are not less intelligent than other people, we just need to face our responsibility. Civil society, government, and media have to be part of this. We all have to work together. Without education in Africa, we will never move. We don’t do it, we will stay at the same place where we are, even worse.

Assibi Napoe: Can I just add to Angelique there? Is that —

Owain James: Please.

Assibi Napoe: Model (the search) ((inaudible)) for children. They are the ones who transmitted all the values. So education is mothers, it educates all the family, educates the nation, I said, educates the world.

Angelique Kidjo: That is true. Assibi is completely right, because we women are the ones that raise boys and girls equally. I mean the African women are the backbone of the continent, so they have been the first ones to be the victim of the lack of leadership in education and the lack of willingness of the government to give access to every girl.

And if we do not educate the women, our society will crumble because the women, they are the ones that raise our future. As Assibi was saying, they pass on the values that we all share equally in the world. Every mother in the world, it doesn’t matter where you come from, give up the same way. We all cherish our children, so how come between the conception of the child and the birth of the child to the adult world of the child, we just bail out. What happened that we gave away our strength to protect, to do everything in our capacity to protect our children. Why should the girls always pay this biggest price when it comes to education?

Owain James: That’s fantastic. Thanks, Assibi. And thanks, Angelique. So proud to have an advocate like you join the global campaign and it’s crucial that we will stand together for this campaign for Education For All.

I’d now like to just open the call up to questions from the media, and back over to the operator, who’ll explain to colleagues on the phone how they can log questions.

Operator: OK, thank you. The question-and-answer session will be conducted electronically. If you’d like to ask a question please do so by pressing star 1 on your telephone keypad. If you are using a speaker phone, please make sure your mute function is turned off to allow your signal to reach our equipment. Once again, please press star 1 on your telephone keypad, and we will pause for a moment to assemble our roster.

Ishmael Beah: Hello, if anyone can hear me, I’m actually online now, it’s Ishmael.

Owain James: Ishmael, fantastic. Thanks very much, Ishmael.

Ishmael Beah: Sorry to be so late here. I couldn’t get on for awhile.

Owain James: Don’t worry, at all, we know how busy it was today, and we’re delighted you’ve been able to join us. What we perhaps should do before we take the first question is just give you a chance to say a few words about Education For All and your personal experiences.

For the media on the call, Ishmael Beah is from Sierra Leone, and is a New York Times best selling author of “A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” He is a UNICEF advocate for children affected by war, and a member of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Advisory Committee, a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, with a BA in Political Science.

Thanks very much for joining us today, Ishmael, and I’ll hand over to you to say a few words about Education For All.

Ishmael Beah: Well, first of all, I’m coming from a country in West Africa, Sierra Leone, that had a civil war for 10 years, and I fought in that war as a boy when I was 13. And what happens during war, particularly for both boys and girls, is that people are not able to go to school because there’s no safety and school that has once become a place of safety is no longer that case. And also people lose out on not going to school for a few years.

And then after the war’s end, in my personal experience, going through rehabilitation, having a family is one of the most important things. And I think one of the holistic part of recovery is actually being able to have access to education, being able to go to school again, to relearn about yourself, your role in this society and the world and what you can do. And it’s only education that provides you a window to that. It also becomes an anecdote actually to show how you can resist violence, itself. So I think education is absolutely necessary for every society, particularly for the youth of every society.

I caught the last part of what Angelique was saying, and there’s also a serious case about girls, particularly, even before the war where some hadn’t gone to school, and after the war the situation increasingly becomes difficult where people don’t have access to education.

In my opinion, I always say to people that for me, education has become a way for me to relearn about myself as a human being, to relearn that I wasn’t only capable of violence, it is what I’ve been told as a child, that I’m capable of other things, which that I can use my own mind to benefit other people, that I’d be able to think deeply about my own country and my own community.

And so for me these are the importance of education, which is why I’ve come onboard, just because I think it’s absolutely important to provide that opportunity to everyone. There are certain places where this is a privilege, and I want this to be something that is a right, that everyone should have access to, and all over the world.

Owain James: Thank you, Ishmael, both for joining us here today, and for your previous support for the campaign, and The Big Read. Thanks for your inspiring words.

I will now hand over to questions from the media, to either Ishmael, Assibi, Angelique, or to me. And I’ll hand back over to the operator to take us through.

Operator: And at this time, there are no questions. But once again if you’d like to ask a question, press star 1 on your telephone keypad. And we’ll pause just for a moment.

Owain James: Perhaps just while we’re waiting, I could say a couple of words just about The Big Read, itself, and the Big Read is available online and we can send copies to any of the journalists that are on this call.

We’re expecting up to 10 million people around the world to be taking part this week in reading The Big Read, from over 120 countries, and whether it’s children in remote villages through to heads of state where we’re hoping to mobilize support right across the world for Education For All.

And we have alongside the fantastic stories from Ishmael and Angelique, we also have the contributions from Nelson Mandela, the film actress Natalie Portman, the author Alice Walker, and many, many others.

So if any colleagues do want to have a look at that please either visit (any colleagues please visit the) campaign for education Web site, www.campaignforeducation.org, or get in touch with any of the colleagues in the South Africa Office.

Operator: And at this time, there are no questions in the queue.

Owain James: Well, that, so what I’ll do is hand back over to Angelique, Assibi, and Ishmael to just say a few words about particularly adult literacy. This year is the first time that we’re focusing on adult literacy as a major campaign focus, and we have coming up the major conference on (Confontaia), which will be a once in a decade chance for countries around the world to agree to new changes on adult literacy. And it’s just a great moment to hear why in particular we need to address and tackle education for adults and particularly women.

Angelique Kidjo: I think that adult education will help understand the importance of educating the (youngers), because one thing that I witnessed is the pride that a woman in the market take by writing down how much stuff she has sold and what she has left. To be able to write and to sign is a huge achievement for their own pride. When they go and vote it’s not only about doing a cross or putting their thumb, their print down, but by being able to sign their own name. And that’s what adult literacy — one of the things that we see first is that, and then it gives, it empowers those women and those men so much that they will become, they’re more — the defenders of the next generations and this generation to go and stay in school and to be educated because they knew firsthand what has changed in their own life.

Assibi Napoe: Owain? Can I come in?

Owain James: Please, Assibi, yes.

Assibi Napoe: Thank you. I just take the example of a Ghanian, eastern Ghana, (Imanee), who went to school in (Sestern at Essie Crow). He say for me, liberty means education. You are never too old to learn. I think —

Female: ((inaudible)).

Assibi Napoe: — everybody because without liberty, we cannot have a democracy in Africa. It’s when we are illiterate, they can come to you and give you all the forms for the election and (open). Even in your own family. We need all Africans and all the world I think need at least to know how to read, how to speak, how to count. So for me, I do think adult literacy must be, like I said earlier, must be a key priority for our government.

Ishmael Beah: If I may jump in, also, is that I believe that you know I think having adult literacy as part of this campaign and also just generally educating the world is also a way to say that education is not only something to get a career or to change this issue status, but it’s also a right and it’s also a way that you can begin to understand what you need from your government, what you can ask of your government, to learn about your right.

So I think really move beyond just that perhaps the old understanding of the conventional understanding of education. I think educating adults, put them in a position to be able to do that and to tell that to kids, as well, so that people are not only going to school for those various reasons that have come, that the old kind of thinking about what education should be but rather it becomes a human development issue you know?

Angelique Kidjo: I completely agree.

Owain James: Absolutely, absolutely. So I will just hand back to check in with the operator if there’s any questions that have come forward?

Operator: We do have some questions in queue. Just as a reminder, please press star 1 on your telephone keypad and we’ll take our first question from Johanna Weitzel in Germany.

Johanna Weitzel: Hello?

Angelique Kidjo: Hello.

Johanna Weitzel: Hello. I’m from a German radio station for kids, and we — it’s called Raedejojo. And my question is what can we especially, a radio station for kids, do to help you in Ghana or Kenya, like something like that, for the education, what can the children in our country, in Germany, do for you?

Angelique Kidjo: May I?

Owain James: Please, please.

Angelique Kidjo: I think that you can use your radio and try to ask the children that listen to your radio who wants to be a pen pal with a child in Africa. And because the kids, they have that capacity of really linking and connecting quickly to each other.

To use the technology that we have to allow those kids from Germany to be able to see through this trouble of those kids that go to school in Africa, but also to emulate each other, not only helping from developing country to non-developed country, but to have a really equal relationship toward education to exchange knowledge and to exchange friendship.

I think the way you can help do that link is with one country that you would choose. Which country that’s going to be is up to you, and which school you’re going to choose is up to you. You can ask UNICEF or other organization around if they have any — I mean a contact in any country that you choose to put you in contact with those kids.

Johanna Weitzel: OK, thank you.

Angelique Kidjo: You’re welcome.

Owain James: Thanks, Angelique. Any others want to comment on that?

Assibi Napoe: Yes, yes. I can add as media from Germany, you can use your media to make (recitations) well known by the world, by the (community). Because sometimes creditors and World Bank, IMF, they don’t understand really what happens in Africa. They’re ((inaudible)) and pressing education, investing in social domain) is wasting the money. So like we are giving some banter about literacy, about education. You can take it and talk and I think the ones who listen to your radio and look for an investment in education, in literacy. In the (off days), literacy in the adult ((inaudible)).

Johanna Weitzel: Thank you.

Owain James: Thank you. Ishmael, want to — OK, sorry.

Ishmael Beah: The next one, please. That’s fine.

Operator: OK, our next question comes from Anna Jefferys from Senegal.

Anna Jefferys: Oh, hi. Anna Jefferys with IRIN News, the U.N. News Service in Senegal. I have a question for all of you. And, sorry, I came in a little bit late.

So it’s — I want to address, one of the West Africa problems is that the — it’s the impact of having the untrained and teachers who can’t necessarily read and write properly. And I guess my question to everyone is how can, what can be done to build up literacy in children, when even some of the teachers are not necessarily equipped with the education that they deserved, in order to be able to pass that on?

Angelique Kidjo: That is really a concern of mine, because at one point the teachers’ salaries have dropped so much that the good teacher have left, and some countries, and some countries like Sierra Leone, the war have killed some of the teachers, and it needs time to be replaced, and that’s where I think we have to in our program, it’s a program that, Batonga, I mean in my foundation, that’s one of the things that we do, we do teacher training with other NGO that can help us train those teachers and instead of stopping the school year, we do it during holidays and we continue doing it all the time, so that you have to be able to adjust.

And if they cannot read and write then we have to find other teachers somewhere, and that is, for me personally, is one of my biggest, my biggest worries, and we have to find a way to make teaching more attractive with the salary, and then we can — I think if we do that we’re going to have good teachers.

Ishmael Beah: We have to make, definitely make teaching attractive for people to teach but to also train another generation of teachers, so the ones that are older, when they are finished people know that becoming a teacher is also a noble thing.

I think, also, not only that one of the things that have to change with the way teachers are trained also is to move away from perhaps the idea of education, which has being that everyone can only become a doctor, a lawyer, or a politician. That there are other careers that people can have, like being a teacher, being an artist, being a writer. I think diversified careers in the educational system.

Because I think the old methodology has been to only do those big careers, but you can only have so many doctors in a place like Sierra Leone. Most people are going to be out of jobs, so it’s to diversify the career area in education, but also to move beyond that kind of education we’ve had which doesn’t promote critical thinking, which is more like you memorize and regurgitate what you are told. But rather people using education to actually critically think about things, and I think for me those are the two areas that we need to also emphasize when we train these teachers you know?

Assibi Napoe: I’d just add to what you all said that we need to train teachers. Training is something crucial because we continue — I have said that for World Bank and IMF. I don’t count who (attract them) but we need to train teachers and qualified teachers. ((inaudible)) they cannot give a quality education. We have to motivate them with a good ((inaudible)) condition of ((inaudible)). But we need to motivate teachers to go to this prime areas, to rural areas. Because when you take a country like Niger, like Ghana, like Senegal, you have disparities in teachers. You can get many teachers in the capital but when you need at the interior, no more teachers, no science teachers, no physics teachers and others. So we need motivation for all teachers and especially for rural and deprived areas teachers.

Angelique Kidjo: I agree with that, too.

Owain James: Thanks. Thanks, everyone. Now, I think we’ve got time for just one more quick question.

Operator: And at this time, we do not have any further questions.

Angelique Kidjo: I have to go get ready for my show, and —

Owain James: That’s no problem.

Angelique Kidjo: I want to apologize to everybody, but I have to leave.

Owain James: Don’t worry, at all, Angelique. Perhaps if — we’re so grateful that you could join us from Italy and that Ishmael from the U.S. and Assibi from Ghana. Could we just ask you to just say one final closing remarks from each of you, just for one moment, on the campaign?

Angelique Kidjo: I think it’s a good campaign because the story going to be read by the children, and mostly for them to see that the struggle of education, all, if there’s any privilege in that, has given us a chance to share our experience with them.

And as Ishmael said before, he said something really important, it’s not a privilege, it’s a right. For those children to understand that if we pass on our stories to them, is that they have the right to know and to be inspired by those stories, for them to take a lead in their own life by staying in school, stay educated, and become the next generation of teachers or the next generation of whatever they want to be, but it’s just a beginning that we’ll be starting today, and I’m really proud of being part of it, and I really have to go.

Owain James: Thank you. Thanks, ever so much, for joining us.

Angelique Kidjo: Thank you.

Owain James: Angelique and Ishmael, any closing thoughts from you on the campaign?

Ishmael Beah: Well, I think the campaign is, I’m very grateful to be a part of it, and to echo Angelique, to share perhaps my own ideas of what education has meant for somebody coming from a very difficult experience.

But I think one of the things that I love about the campaign tremendously is that we’re trying to move from just the talk about it to really try to put together some practical things on the ground, things that help people go to school, get people literacy, and I think this is what the campaign is trying to do by making something accessible that people can read, creating a lot of areas where people can read and begin to really force the idea of going from just talking about it, because we already know what to do, so to move to more the practical aspects of implementing some of the thing that we’ve learned over the last few years about how to bring education to people in various societies around the world.

Owain James: Thanks very much for sharing your experiences today, Ishmael, and that’s strong call to action for everyone, for all areas around the world.

Assibi, any closing remarks from yourself?

Assibi Napoe: We need all the activists in global campaign for education to continue pressurize our government to come to the action. No more promises but action. We have come to the time to act and act now. And I will send you the letter that (Grant) of Ghana sent today. He gave me a letter today to give to the president honorable Atta Mills. I will send that letter and publicize for everybody to know what the children are thinking about literacy. Thank you, Owain.

Owain James: Well, thanks to Assibi. And that brings us to the end of the call, so thanks once again to all of our speakers, and to the colleagues from the media that have joined us.

This campaign will be building up from here and further updates will be available on the Web site, and we’re really going to be taking forward the work on adult literacy as I said to the next big conference, the (Confrontaia) in just a few weeks time.

Adult literacy is so crucial and women’s literacy is so crucial in breaking the cycle of poverty, and even in terms of meeting the millennium development goals on ensuring that all children are able to learn to read and write; the truth is that literate parents, they have literate children, and it makes a massive contribution if we can tackle adult literacy, too.

So thanks for everyone’s efforts, and we look forward to working with you again on all our campaign events in the near future. Many thanks.

Ishmael Beah: Thank you.

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