On the sideline of her recent visit to Nigeria at the start of a three-country African empowerment film making programme, Nseobong Okon-Ekong encounters Zuriel Oduwole, the teenager who has acquired global fame for her advocacy for education of the girl child

It was a typical classroom. But this one was filled with women; from teenage into their late twenties and early thirties. The place is the Lagos State Vocational Institute at Surulere. There was some unusual activity in the class today. Journalists were around. And a filming crew was setting up cameras and lights; ready to record some scenes. At this moment, the director hushed the growing chit-chat which was growing into a gentle rumble. Silence fell on the class and all attention was on him. He wanted the students to know that a few of them would be called up to say what they expected from the training session. He emphasised the need to sound confident and audible. That done, he called a few of the ladies to try out what they just heard. Some got it right at first try. A few of them had to be told to speak louder.

The principal of the school stepped in to explain how lucky the school and the students were for this privilege. She encouraged them to learn as much as they could and to ask questions. These students were honing their skills in photography. Being familiar with the camera (to take still pictures), the reckoning was that it would not take much to impart basic knowledge of film making to these ones. The Sahara Group which has in recent years intervened in the Nigerian film making space was making another strategic involvement by teaming up with Zuriel Oduwole, the famed young film maker and girl child advocate to empower 90 girls in the art of film making in Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Zuriel who had been pacing around the corridor and sometimes, chatting with her production team of officials of Sahara received a signal to approach the class. Dressed in an orange colour T-shirt and trainers, her younger sister who also doubles as a Personal Assistant was similarly dressed and stood beside her. On their shirt was emblazoned ‘DUSUSU’, acronym for ‘Dream Up, Stand Up, Speak Up’. Having greeted the students, she introduced herself and requested each person to say her name and what they expected to learn from the session.

At 15 years, the only person in the room who was younger was her sister. She was not new to speaking to a group of older and sometimes more influential persons. This is what she has been doing since the age of nine when a routine class assignment opened her eyes to the challenges and possibilities that have since become her reality. Her first venture into media and advocacy was in 2012 when she entered a school competition with a documentary film about Africa titled The Ghana Revolution. For this she conducted her first presidential interviews, when she met with two former presidents of Ghana: Jerry Rawlings and John Kufuor.

The previous weekend, Sahara Group had facilitated another session between Zuriel and budding young female film makers at the Lekki Conservation Centre. It was a remarkable Saturday for the young participants who showed eagerness to become film makers. They went through series of interviews. After the seminars, the participants had the privilege to explore the conservation centre from the raised walkways which enable them to view animals like live monkeys, crocodiles, snakes and various birds. It was a very inspiring experience for the girls.

The Sahara Group intervention is acting on the premise that 15 million girls of primary school age – half of them in sub-Saharan Africa – will never enter a classroom. It’s film making empowerment platform seeks to give wings to the aspirations of the African girl child.
Tagged “Empowering the African Girl Child”, the project is being implemented under Sahara’s Grooming Film Extrapreneurs initiative which seeks to promote economic empowerment through the arts.

Sahara Foundation in collaboration with Zuriel Oduwole, young film maker and advocate for girl child education and gender equality conceived the film making session for 90 African girls in Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’ Ivoire to give the beneficiaries a head start towards pursuing a career in the creative arts.

According to Bethel Obioma, Head, Corporate Communications, Sahara Group, the project is expected to drive the advocacy message for girls’ rights, highlight key issues affecting girls across the three African countries and equip 90 girls with the foundational skills required to become film makers. “We plan to identify and empower girls who have shown a talent for film making and/or production. Our hope is that the initiative would inspire and replicate Zuriel’s success amongst other girls her age in Africa. Above all, Sahara Group is particularly passionate about the fact that the project would give traction to ongoing conversations and interventions geared towards the pursuit of Gender Equality and Quality Education, being Goals 4 and 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.

Speaking on her partnership with Sahara, Oduwole said she was hopeful that the success of the project would encourage more corporations around the world to create partnerships with small groups to empower more girls across the globe.

“I like the fact that Sahara Group sees some value in what I am doing with girls’ education across the world, and just like the African proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together. I think I have gone very fast in the last five years, since I started my project at age 10. Sahara has shown they are serious about Girls Education, so it’s easy for me to create a partnership, so we can do more together, for Girls Education in Africa, and also around the world,” said the teen-age film maker who at the age of 12 had her self- produced movie screened in a commercial cinema.

Oluseyi Ojurongbe, Manager, Sahara Foundation, said, “The physical workshop training will be accompanied by several on-line and classroom based mentorship/follow-up sessions for six months to track and sustain the progress of the beneficiaries. At Sahara, we are hopeful that the platform would amplify the cause of empowering the girl child across the continent through the voices of the beneficiaries and millions of other girls that would be inspired to reach for their dreams. The participants will be expected to execute a joint docu-film project featuring human angle stories of children across Africa – using their countries as case studies. Last August, Zuriel premiered a documentary in Abuja, which focused on the issue of girl’s education. Like many of her works, it was a story trying to convey a positive message.

Her current effort at filming class started in February, 2016 in Monrovia, Liberia. She has since taken it to places like Kenya, Mauritius, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Namibia and Nigeria. She describes her typical film making class. “I had a class of about 25 youths in Namibia. I was teaching basic filmmaking skills like animation, transition, voice-overs and things like that. A few months later, one of the students who came to that film class did a documentary. She is looking to create a second one from that as well. I went to congratulate her and gave her some filmmaking equipment she can use in her next documentary. I have seen that the youths I’m teaching are looking for stories to tell and I can see that as well in this country. I started filmmaking at nine. My education project was at 10; so film making came before my education project. But in my recent documentary, I thought that since I’m a filmmaker, I needed to create a documentary that will tell the story of girl’s education.”

Largely due to very busy schedule which entails a lot of travels around the world, Zuriel gets her education at home from teachers and mostly online. She listed some of the challenges she has been confronted with in the course of her work. “There are economic reasons, and there are also cultural reasons. In most places, there are not many resources and the parents can only afford to send one child to school and usually they send the boys ahead of the girls because they don’t think that girls should go to school. That is economic. And then culturally, in places like South Sudan where for generations, girls are known to be married off at young ages because people don’t see the need to send them to schools and figure out what they are going to do when they are older.

These are two main things I have seen about girl’s education. I try to address those issues wherever I go. For the economic reasons, I talk to parents and tell them ways they can send girls to schools that they can afford. There are scholarships. There are sponsorships from major companies, and they can also get support from government as well. For the cultural, it is hard to change because of the kind of societies in those countries. I try to talk to the world leaders particularly South Sudan about finding ways to share the success stories of girls who are doing well because they got educated, hoping that it will change the culture of those societies.”

For Zuriel, the decision to train girls on film making was tactical. She does not believe that education is only about what can be learnt in schools. “It’s not about Mathematics or Science or History. Education can be skills that you have outside the classroom and things you can use to be of benefit to the society. I chose to do filmmaking because I’m able to tell my own story and tell other people’s stories. At the end of the training, I’m hoping that the girls would have learnt some skills that they can use. I have seen one saying they want to use their stories to tell the stories of other people too. I’m hoping there will be some positive result at the end of this class.”

Since the age of nine, Zuriel has five documentaries to her credit. The most recent one was premiered in Abuja. Previous documentaries were shot in five countries, Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mauritius and some parts the US. In one of the documentaries, which was shot during the World Cup in Brazil, that focuses on aspects of girl education, she had people sign footballs to these two different countries and I got people to sign them because they support girls education. Among the supporters of her cause were governors, football players, football fans and even people on the street. That is what the documentary is all about.

Born of a Nigerian father and Mauritanian mother in the Uinted States of America in 2002, Zuriel Elise Oduwole is famously known as an American girl education advocate and film maker. She has achieved fame for her works on advocacy for the education of girls in Africa. Her advocacy has since made her the youngest person to be profiled by Forbes. Her mission which is on empowering the African girl child seeks to promote economic empowerment through the arts. Her project is expected to drive the advocacy message for girls across the African continent.