Against all advice and logic, and to the confusion and consternation of everyone around me, I bowed out of my corporate job on Monday. I will no longer be forced to travel on red-eyes, lead a bickering national team or track multi-millions of dollars which everyone wants to get their hands on. This also means that finally, I’m free of my migraines. What an absolute sense of relief. Thankfully, I’ve got so much vacation left (that I probably should have taken earlier), I still have a few months until my paycheck stops. After that, I’ll be relying on two years worth of savings. That’s it. The end of my runway.
The trigger for this move was a series of life-changing events on the personal front, including a sad divorce and a cancer scare, but if I really think of all this clearly, none of this happened by chance. These events merely woke me up from a stupor. This is but the culmination of more than two decades of hard work, frugal living and planning ahead. This is what I’ve been dreaming of and planning all along in the back of my mind, ever since I stepped out of high-school and into adulthood a long time ago.
More than anything right now, I’m simply grateful I’ve been able to have this experience, to say goodbye to that phase of my life and start this new and exciting one.
Last week, I received heartwarming and encouraging feedback from my beta readers who said they like my work, enjoyed my book and asked how they could join me in my mission to empower girls and young women around the world. Last night, I spoke with an entrepreneur incubator here in Vancouver and got advice on my business and financial plans. They actually think I should have jumped out earlier.
There is only one road ahead of me now. My calling is calling, and the pull is strong. It’s high time to do the thing I want to do, the thing I dream to do. I want to leave a legacy when I die, one that says at the very least, she tried to leave this world a better place than when she found it.
For those who wonder, yes, I’m anxious about this decision. Yes, I’m nervous about the uncertain future. And yes, I smell the fear in between those euphoric moments when I wake up to a day that’s mine and my own to do what I’ve always dreamed of. But now my motto is: feel the fear and do it anyway.
There will be steep mountains to climb on this journey, and there will be high cliffs off of which I may roll, but that’s life. Whenever I fall, I plan to get back on my feet, dust myself and keep on walking. Because that’s what it will be like to live a life without regrets.
My stories are about girls from around the world kicking ass and beating evil men, while still enjoying the things girls love, from fashion to food to cute guys. And why not? Life’s not just about survival, but about growing and thriving and laughing and living, isn’t it?
I’ve lived in seven countries in four continents and traveled to countless more since I was a baby, so I write from my own experiences and observations. I write to entertain, but more importantly I write to empower girls, especially those who live in the darkest corners of our planet. These are sad places where a girl is born with few rights. If any. Their rights are taken away by archaic customs and traditions, by their own families and communities and in some cases even by law.
Did you know that in some parts of the world a little girl can be bartered in exchange for clemency when a male member of her family commits a crime? That little girl is “married” off to the other family only to be abused in horrific ways that if we truly knew how, it would keep us all awake at night for the rest of our lives. Hard to believe this is happening today, in the twenty first century, under our own watch, isn’t it?
Contrary to some beliefs however, girls aren’t disposable or useless or a burden. In contrast, girls are the greatest untapped resource on earth. The greatest untapped resource on earth.
Did you know:*
Women operate a majority of small farms and business in the developing world
Each extra year of a mother’s schooling cuts infant mortality by between 5 to 10%
When girls over 16 earn an income, they reinvest 90% in their families and communities, compared to men who invest only 30-40%
Every 1% increase in the proportion of women with secondary education boosts a country’s annual per capita income growth rate by about 0.3% points
Picking just one country – if India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, their GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. Imagine
Did you also know:*
38% of girls in developing countries are married before the age 18, with 15% of all girls married before 15. Yes, you read that right. Married before the age of 15 usually to men 20, 30 or more years older.
In a single year, an estimated 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence, and 50% of all the sexual assaults in the world are on girls under 15. These are our children.
The number 1 killer of girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide is pregnancy & childbirth complications. These are our children having children.
Women and girls make up 80% of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually with the majority trafficked for sexual exploitation
100 to 140 million girls and women in the world have experienced female genital mutilation, also called cutting. Most go through this between infancy and 15 years old
In sub‐Saharan Africa, girls aged 15–24 are eight times more likely than men to become HIV positive. Imagine being 15 and being HIV positive?
There are 65 million fewer girls than boys in primary school today. Girls’ primary school completion rates are below 50% in most poor countries because they’re pulled out by parents for domestic work or to be married off
More girls under 16 years old are in domestic service than in any other type of work
Heart breaking statistics.
Let’s not forget behind all these numbers are real live girls with blood pumping in their veins, bright eyes that look up to the skies in wonder and hearts filled with feelings, wishes and dreams. They are just like how you and I were when we were little. But as you can see here, so many girls have their hearts and bones broken on a regular basis around the world.
This horrifies me. And it should you too. It’s for all these reasons I write. And also because I was a little girl once and know what it’s like to grow up in this world as one.
I have heard that feminism is a dirty word now, one that is isolating and choleric. I fervently believe in the equality of all – women, men, boys, girls, gay, straight, transgender, bi, black, white and everything in between. But, if even one girl is forced to drop out of school and marry a man she’s never met with no one uttering a word in her defence, then I say feminism is not dead. If even one little girl is taken to the back shed to have her clitoris cut while she screams for mercy, then I say feminism is not dead. If even one young woman is robbed of her identify and restricted in her movements by being forced to cover up for so-called safety and ‘honour,’ then feminism is not dead. When those of us sitting in the comfort of our living rooms whisper to one another “Oh, but it’s racist to talk about it. We must not offend,” and pussy foot around serious human rights violations, then I say feminism is not dead.
As long as we, in the name of misguided multiculturalism and perverted political correctness, allow honour killings, forced marriages, wife beatings and female genital mutilation, to continue, then, I say feminism cannot die. When so many today defend such vile practices as “cultural, “part of a heritage,” or “a tradition,” then no, feminism cannot die. There is still much work to be done.
For those who still wonder why we must care, I have a simple poem for you. A poem I hold dear to my heart.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Martin Niemöller, German Anti-Nazi Activist
Regardless of where you identify yourself in the political spectrum and whether you agree with any of the organisations mentioned in this poem or not, one thing holds true. The day we stop fighting for what’s right, is the day we give up on ourselves and on humanity.
My message to all the vulnerable little girls everywhere is to stay strong, fight for your rights, find ways that allow you to learn and become who you truly dream of becoming. With all the advances in technology and reach of information these days, there has never been a better time to be bold and grab onto your dreams. So yes, you too can grow from the little acorns you are now, to magnificent, giant oak trees.
Anything is possible, my little sisters.
I also want to you know you’re not alone in your endeavor to claim your rightful place as human beings, to be respected and valued like any other. We will change this world together. We will make the world aware, and we will make them care.
And if no one else will, I promise you, you’ll find me standing with you, always.
“If I have to swim across the sea to get what I want, I will learn how to swim, then I’ll swim it. If I have to climb the highest mountain to get what I want, I will learn how to climb, then I’ll climb it. If I have to dive the deepest ocean to get what I want, I will learn how to dive, then I’ll dive it. If I get disappointed because things did not appear as I wanted, I will learn how to accept it, then I’ll try to accept it. At least now I have experienced how to swim, to climb and to dive and also how to accept everything that came from my effort. Then, I will try again to do better.”
I made a promise to myself a long time ago.
I promised myself I’d climb Mount Kilimanjaro before I turn 50. I have quite a ways to go before my deadline looms, but I’ve decided to start planning now, and bring to life this dream I’ve had since growing up in the long shadow of this mountain. Africa is the continent that held me as a child, the place I grew from toddler to teen, so this voyage will be in some way a return home.
But I don’t want to climb just to climb. And I don’t want to climb to satisfy a curiosity, or conquer something, or to prove myself to the world. I want to climb for one reason and one reason alone. I want to climb for all the little girls everywhere on our planet earth, whether they live in the slums of Asia, the villages of Africa, the favelas of South America or the inner cities of America. These young girls are in my mind every day as I write my stories and my novels. And every day, I wonder how many of them have stood up for their right to learn, their right to play, and to not have their childhoods robbed through forced marriage, modern slavery, bondage, rape or worse. I long to find a way to help them, support them, and inspire them to create a life of their own making, one that is filled with security, health, and happiness as they define it.
Little girls matter to this world, more than any of us realise. To them I say, Rise up. Be brave. Stand strong. They will be what will propel me every step of the way up.
I will be video-documenting this journey from preparation to finish and plan to share with you every step of the way. I also want to share the stories of those brave souls who plan to join me, especially women of all ages who have overcome adversities to create their own destinies. In the coming year, I’ll be adding a blog about each climber who decides to join me on this epic journey, share their story and showcase their talents whether it be in art, music, writing, science, technology, education, design, business or more. My hope is for at least one little girl to view a video or read the story and whisper to herself ‘If she can do that, then so can I.’
But this is not going to be a super solemn or serious journey. It will be a fun one too. Did you know that most Kilimanjaro porters start each day with a Swahili song and a dance, inviting climbers to join them? What a wonderful way to say good morning. So who’d like to join me and sing and dance all the way to the top in January 2018?
To whet your appetite, here’s a documentary of the mountain and the surrounding park. Enjoy!
Mount Kilimanjaro which lies along the border of Tanzania and Kenya, is a giant snow-capped volcano formed a million years ago when lava spilled from the Rift Valley zone.
At 19,341 feet above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
There are three volcanic cones on the mountain: the extinct Mawenzi at 16,893 feet, the extinct Shira 13,000 feet and the dormant Kibo at 19,341 feet which could erupt at any time. The last major eruption was 360,000 years ago and the most recent activity was 200 years ago, so I’m not too worried.
The youngest person to climb Kilimanjaro was Jordan Romero of California, USA who climbed in 2006 at 10 years of age.
The oldest man and oldest woman to climb are Martin and Esther Kafer from Vancouver, Canada, who achieved their feat in 2012, aged 85 and 84 respectively.
Anne-Marie Flammersfeld, a 37-year-old German, was the fastest woman to climb the mountain and broke the record at 8 hours and 32 minutes.
Bernard Goosen scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in 2007, taking six days in his wheelchair.
Kyle Maynard, a true and inspiring hero in every way, the first quadruple amputee to ascent unassisted to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2012. Click here to watch this incredible video of his climb: Kyle Maynard
Live your life as you would climb a mountain. Climb steadily, slowly and surely. Every so often glance at the peak. Enjoy the scenery at every vantage point on the way up. Be prepared for all circumstances. Know that there is more than one way to the top. The magnificent view from the top is well worth the determination, perseverance and effort of the journey.
Reading this made me realise I finally have found a tribe. My penchant to work in solitude for hours, even days at times, furiously putting to words my imaginings and plots brewed in my head overnight is – thankfully – a strange passion shared by others. It may be outlandish, deviant perhaps, but it is me. It is how I thrive, how I bring to life my visions, my dreams, and how I share with the world my ideas and inspirations. While I cannot imagine to have even one hundredth of an iota of talent this great man had, I am glad to know I am not alone.
“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.
No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.
It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”
The United Nations has lost all credibility in my eyes. That Saudi Arabia has now been appointed to oversee human rights issues is a despicable joke. A vicious joke. This is a country where women are not permitted to drive, let alone walk by themselves in public. Where Christians are persecuted and human rights activists are flogged. Where if you’re gay, you are certain to face death at the hands of the state. Where saving face for a community is greater than the life of a girl. This is a country that just ran an ad to hire eight new executioners, and has this year, beheaded more people than that dreadful, disgraceful ISIS. This is who is running the United Nations Human Rights Council panel? How does your stomach turn? Mine feels like a tornado.
I am saddened.
I have lost all respect & confidence in the United Nations, an organisation that is supposed to stand up for human rights around the world, an international body on which we have relied since the second world war to speak for those who cannot, a bastion against injustice, one that represents all of us in the human race. What the heck happened? Has our world turned upside down? Have money and politics outdone integrity and decency?
I am angry.
Not a penny of my charity dollars will go to this corrupt, spineless organisation or any of its related subsidiaries or partners. That includes you too, UNICEF. Sadly, I’m done with you. No, not one penny, until we rebuild a strong organisation, one with integrity and probity, one that truly represents human rights and stands up for our common values of respect, freedom and egalitarianism. (And for those of you still in the fifteenth century, humans do include women, gays, writers, artists, technologists, entrepreneurs, scientists, yes and female scientists too.)
I beg the powers that be: No more backdoor politicking. No more pandering to hypocrisy. No more allowing political correctness to trump the Right Thing To Do. No more of our hard earned tax dollars for the United Nations please.
There was a girl in my eighth grade who didn’t have any parents.
Joyce was an orphan but no one talked about it. It was her adopted parents, Dutch expatriates who had been working in South Africa, who sent her to school, bought her uniforms and books, packed her lunches and sometimes came to pick her up when the buses weren’t running. And buses and trains weren’t so reliable in the capital city of Zambia at that time, so they’d come often and wait patiently in the parking lot for her.
This girl was a few years older than the rest of us, a mid-teen already. She had the soft features of a South African, lighter skin than the other Africans in my school, full lips, and small slim eyes. She was always dressed conservatively and had her hair up in two pointy ponytails tied in ribbons, something any other teen would’ve died rather than have. Those were the days of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, of huge hair and hairspray, hoop earrings and acid jeans. Yes, me too and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
The other South African girls and boys in my class were gregarious, opinionated and the first to thrust their hands up and speak in class, sometimes shouting, drowning out the rest of us. It was like they had something urgent to say whatever the topic, and they wanted the world to hear them whether we wanted to or not. I now wonder if that was because back home, where they came from, their voices weren’t heard. What my young mind didn’t fully grasp at that time was the extent to which they were not heard.
Joyce didn’t talk much, unlike her fellow countrymen. Not her. She sat in the back of the class with her nose in her books. Quiet as a mouse.
Now I was the curious one, always asking this and that from my classmates, from my teachers, the school gardener, the kitchen cooks, even the bus driver. I had gone to international schools all my life and thrived in that mixed milieu of people and cultures. I was fascinated by the different things going on in the world and couldn’t help wondering, marvelling, questioning. I’m sure I was the most annoying kid in school.Why do you wear that? What are you eating? How do you make that? Why do you pray like that? What language was that? What does that mean? That sounds cool, can you say that again?
One morning I sidled up to Joyce in the back. I looked at her ponytails and her pretty face.
“Hey Joyce, why do you put your hair up like that?”
She looked up from her book and wrinkled her nose, like I smelled.
“Why don’t you put your hair down?” I said. “Zoe can do an amazing do for you. It’ll look gorgeous.” Zoe was the self-proclaimed hairdresser in our class who took her clients to the back of the school where she worked with gusto on hair of all kinds; wavy, kinky, straight, or silky.
“My mama always liked it this way.” Joyce had a quiet, thoughtful voice. An almost adult voice that made me stop in my tracks and think before asking my next question.
“Where’s your mama?”
Her eyes flickered and she looked down. There was a long pause before she said, “She’s not here anymore.”
My time to pause. I was dying with curiosity but I knew I had to tackle this gently.
“What happened to her?” OK, as gently as a twelve year old could muster.
“They were shot.”
It was I who almost shot out of the chair. I stared at her dumbfounded.Did I hear that right?
She was scribbling on top of the page with her pencil now. A flower of sorts. I looked at her face. She looked bored, like I’d just asked her what she had for breakfast that morning. She didn’t seem to realise the weight of her words, but I recognised the invisible veil she had on, one that hid deep emotions, memories, stories. Stories I couldn’t fathom even if I tried.
“Why?” I said quietly.
She shrugged and kept scribbling.
I stared at her.That’s so wrong. So wrong. No one deserves to have their parents shot. Why would anyone do something so horrible?
“Why would anyone do that?” I couldn’t help myself.
Joyce sighed. I guess she knew she wasn’t getting rid of me that easily. “They were sitting in front of the parliament and they were shot. It was the police. I was with my aunt behind them.”
She was looking up now, directly at me. Her eyes were dark, strong, angry.
“I saw it,” she said.
I sat stunned. Numb. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Yousaw…? You saw them being…” I couldn’t finish my sentence. A bitter taste had come to my mouth. “Butwhy?”
Joyce’s voice didn’t waiver. “Because Papa said he was going to vote that day. Mama wanted to vote too.”
I hadn’t really understood what a vote meant that day. I hadn’t understood why anyone would have died to “get” one. And I certainly hadn’t understood why anyone would find someone asking to vote so threatening they were willing to kill for it.
It was several years later I learnt black South Africans didn’t get their right to vote till 1994. I remember seeing photos on TV, photos of people lining for up to twelve hours at times to cast their ballots, a first for many of them, an experience Joyce’s parents never got to have. Imagine that in 1994 the rest of us were watching Forest Gump and Pulp Fiction. This was not long ago.
Universal suffrage, the right of the general adult population in any nation to vote, came early to some countries like New Zealand (1893), Finland (1906) and Denmark (1915). In the aftermath of the first and second world wars, many European countries got on board and extended voting rights to all – Germany (1919), France (1944), and Belgium (1948) – mainly in recognition of the role women played in the wars. North America followed suite, albeit slowly. Aboriginal Canadians were not allowed to vote until 1960 and universal voting rights were not in place formally till 1965 in the USA. Just imagine. This was not too long ago.
What astounds me most though, is how women have been restricted in taking part in the electoral system around the world, and still do today. In Oman, women didn’t gain the right to vote till 1994, 1999 in Qatar, 2006 in UAE and 2015 in Saudi Arabia. I cannot help but wonder, what were they so afraid of? Then again, given most women can’t move freely on their own and are severely restricted by families, communities, and cultural values backed by austere legislation in these places, it is highly doubtful these laws are given any respect. Also given a lack of fair democratic processes in the first place, such laws are dubious at best.
Some nations like Nigeria and India claim vociferously to be democratic with India loudly claiming to anyone who’d listen that they’re the biggest democracy in the world. Yet we hear time and time again of forced voting, of entire villages being persuaded by either threats or bribes to vote for a certain candidate. I wonder how many village women in India know of their right to vote or can even read the ballot. When I hear of wins of 90%+ like in Ethiopia in 2010, I wonder how fair and free the process had really been. The world is still waiting to see how Hong Kong pans out, now it is part of China. Elections are being planned for 2017, though this is shrouded in controversy, protests and arrests. I wonder about Hong Kong but I wonder with hope. Because there are still places like Brunei, Burma, Iran and several other sad countries in this planet of ours where there is no opportunity to vote whatsoever. Elections are simply not held.
So let’s not squander this precious right we have here in the free world, a right that others have died for, that others still want for and fight for. Their deaths and their battles should never be in vain. Let’s not take for granted our right to vote, our right to take part in this democratic process we have. It may not be perfect, and perhaps we can work together to make it better, but it is all we have. It is how we make our voices heard, how we make change, how we make history. One vote at a time.
Here in North America, we’re ramping up for two important elections; the federal elections in Canada on 19 October 2015 and the Presidential Elections in the United States on 8 November 2016. Whatever your stripes or leanings, wherever you fit into the political spectrum, or whether you fit into any label at all, you do have one duty. Do the right thing. Get out and vote.
Like all my international school friends, Joyce moved onto another school and another country, but not before I got to know her better. We hung out and over the next year became friends. She somehow overcame her nightmares and reclaimed her childhood. I remember waving my last goodbye to her as she got on a plane to go to the Netherlands with her adopted parents. That day, her hair was down and her smile was bright. She looked free.
Today, every time I put a cross mark on a ballot, whether it’s for a national election or a local one, I’m grateful that I’m able to do so. I remember the first time I voted. I’ve never missed an election since then. And every time I put that cross, I give silent thanks to Joyce’s parents.
Cover photo courtesy of http://quotes.lifehack.org/quote/martin-luther-king-jr/our-lives-begin-to-end-the-day