By Nellie Furtado, Globe and Mail, September 27, 2011
(Nelly Furtado is a Canadian mother, singer-songwriter, record producer and actress.)
Last January, I was invited to Africa. Somehow, I knew it was time to come home.
While the people, the places left such strong impressions, the hope I left Africa with was more profound than anything else.
I learned so much about community, spirituality and, of course, song and dance, African rhythms, and the sustainable work Free The Children does in true partnership with communities in Kenya and worldwide – Sierra Leone, India, Ecuador, China to name a few.
I learned how one country’s political realities can affect all the nations sharing Africa. I learned about Moammar Gadhafi as a leader and dictator. I felt so ignorant but, at the same time, enlightened. My thoughts immediately went back to a concert I performed as part of a celebration thrown by someone described as an “oil sheik” in Italy in 2007. That night, I met a “son of Gadhafi” who had helped pay for the celebration. I didn’t know much about Libya then; in Kenya, I began to learn more.
A month or two after I returned from Kenya, as the Libyan civil war heated up, I found myself, BlackBerry in hand at 3 a.m., unable to sleep: In Libya, people who rightly believed the cost of freedom was worth it because the benefits were tenfold, were being killed; people were living things I couldn’t truly fathom, but I could feel the weight of them inside my heart. At that moment, in an act of solidarity, I sent a tweet about my intentions to return money I felt wasn’t truly mine.
I decided to give the $1-million (what I was paid to cover all expenses for the 2007 concert) to Free The Children, but wanted a plan that would include the people of Libya. I decided on a sustainable program, rather than immediate aid, inspired by the work I had seen in action with Free The Children in Kenya. I wanted to support women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Gaza. I wanted to help educate girls so they might have a place in the new democratic regimes in MENA postrevolution – a revolution many women helped spark.
I also wanted to build another school in Kenya like the beautiful Kisaruni school where I spent life-changing days – a school that would support brave girls like the ones I had met, girls so confident they put my 14-year-old self to shame. I wanted and needed the help of youth across North America, so I’ve set up a matching program through Free The Children to inspire youth to do more fundraising and believe in the “power of we.”
I vividly remember my life-changing experience at the concert in Italy in 2007. Then, it felt like a story I could tell my grandchildren about the brutal but very real divide between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor. I felt I had seen the “other side” – an “other” rarely known by someone with my humble beginnings. At the time, I felt like a servant performing at an invisible king’s court, realizing for the first time just how common the role of “entertainer” is in the grand scheme of the ages. That said, I realized my price tag for the evening would have raised the eyebrows of my music conductor grandfather in the Azores. Now I understand that the feeling in the pit of my stomach was just the toll of that amazing bell we all have within that signifies a new journey in life. Then, the sound was faint. Today, it rings louder than ever in my heart. It’s so ironic that I went to Kenya intending “to help” and left as the one who received the most charity.
First, we would like to thank and commend Ms Furtado, for her compassionate, ethical and wise decision to make good come from the Libyan dictator's $1million concert payment.
Second, we would like to underscore her learning of the irony of "helping turning into the one being most helped"...as it always is.
Whenever we feel drawn to provide some form of assistance when we observe an authentic need, and we reach out to be available to assist with that need, we are the recipient of "gifts," or "blessings," or "learnings," or "grace," or "love in the agape sense," beyond we could ever have anticipated or expected.
Working in religious communities for about a decade and a half, I noticed a profound need among several to "minister" to the needs of others. Often, unfortunately, the definition of that need was provided by the intended donor of the assistance. "You really need to..." was the way the conversation began, with the speaker being the one offering assitance.
I cringed every time I heard such a conversation begin. I knew how the recipient of the aid felt. S/He felt patronized, parented, controlled and devalued. The prospective donor was "in control" and directing the prospective recipient's next steps. The process was not charity, in the pure sense. It was based on the need of the prospective donor to "be needed" and not on the real need, identified by the prospective recipient him/herself.
(Of course, if a person is ill, incapacitated, injured, or destitute and cannot make a decision, then offering 'the next step' is legitimate. It is when the person is not in complete "crisis" that we must be more senstiive.)
"You're going to be fine!" was a greeting hospital visitors often uttered to patients they had entered, whether or not that was actually the case. Once again, the need of the visitor trumped the need of the patient. "I have to say something positive, to lift their spirits," was the way they often explained their choice of exhortation.
"I know just how you feel," is another expression from those offering help to those who have recently experienced trauma, when, in fact, the truth is they know little or nothing about the feelings of the other person.
Here, Ms Furtado has met and documented her "aha" moment in receiving the spiritual gift of grace, in the moment when she expected she was its agent for others. There is little doubt that others have and will benefit from her actions; however, it is the transformation of her perception, insight and gratitude that will pay the largest dividends for her and for all those whose lives she touches, and whose live touch her's.