Zuriel Oduwole - The young woman forcing world leaders to put girls first
When Zuriel Oduwole was just nine, she entered a competition that would change her life. It was for schools to mark National History Day in the US and was sponsored by the History Channel. The challenge? To come up with a creative presentation about a revolution. Most people focused on the obvious ones in the US or France, but not Zuriel. Instead, she chose to draw inspiration from her African heritage.
“I just wanted to be different and think outside the box, so I chose a revolution in Ghana,” she explains. She decided to do it as a documentary to really capture the judges’ attention, and her family took her to Ghana to film some scenes. It was a trip that would make her see the whole world differently.
“I noticed a lot of girls on the street selling things like oranges and trinkets, and chasing after cars for money,” she says. “I’d seen that kind of thing on the news before, but there’s something about seeing it in person. The girls were my age. But I go to school all day from Monday to Friday. So, seeing them at 1pm during the week not in school, I thought, how do you comprehend that?”
Even after she got back home, Zuriel couldn’t stop thinking about it. She had always been taught by her parents that if you see something you don’t like, you should do something about it. So she did exactly that. A year later, aged 10, she set up a formal education project called Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up, with the aim of encouraging girls in the African continent to go to school and stay there.
Ten years on, Zuriel, 20, has built the organisation into an education advocacy movement. She has spoken to nearly 50,000 young people across 21 countries, countless parents, and 35 world leaders ranging from Egypt and Kenya to Ghana and Jamaica. She puts herself forward as an example of what girls can achieve if they are supported and kept in school. “I try and show them there’s so much more for your girls if you allow them to go to school and get that education,” she says. “It’s not just about being doctors or lawyers or pilots, which they could be, but even from a young age, they can do anything.”
But that’s not all Zuriel had achieved before she even turned 18. While her classmates were busy being ordinary teenagers, she was honing her filmmaking abilities. Her first film for the school competition, The Ghana Revolution, included interviews with two former presidents of the country: Jerry Rawlings and John Kufuor. Her second film, The 1963 OAU Formation, landed her a profile in Forbes Magazine about her being the youngest filmmaker in the world. Her third film, A Promising Africa, was screened in five countries – and she was only 12. She would go on to produce three more films.
All of them were self-produced and selfedited. And all of them were about bringing Zuriel’s outlook to her work. “I tell positive stories,” she explains. “You know, there are just so many negative stories and events going on in the world, but it’s important to sometimes show the good side of humanity ... to encourage and inspire others.”
Right from the start her filmmaking and advocacy were intertwined. She made that first documentary at age nine by Googling how to operate a camera, set up lighting and edit rushes. She quickly realised that, given the same opportunities, other girls her age could do the same. So she decided to set up a programme to teach young, unemployed or out-of-school girls across Africa exactly that.
Her first pilot class was in Namibia. She was 13 and went out to teach a class of 25 younger girls basic filming and editing skills using free software and their phones. “I had a great time with them,” she says. “They were so eager to learn.”
Nine months later she got an email out of the blue. It was from one of the girls she had taught. “She went out, she borrowed a camera, she borrowed some money, and she went into her community to tell the story of her neighbourhood. And she turned that whole project into a 45-minute documentary and shopped it around the TV networks in her area.” This, says Zuriel, is exactly what she wants to do with her work: “Giving [the girls] a tool they can use to support themselves, but also to amplify their voices.”
It’s just one of her many success stories that she can take some credit for already during her young life. She has also been involved in conflict de-escalation and climate change activism, meeting global leaders, from Guyana President David Granger to Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, to spread her message of peace while prioritising education and the welfare of young women.
But although success seems to come easily to Zuriel, she doesn’t see it that way. One of the mantras she shares with people looking for advice about how to make a difference is that success is not about never failing, but getting back up again after each mistake. It’s all about aiming high and not being afraid to fall, she says, recalling a bit of advice given to her by the first elected female head of state in Africa. “I met Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and she said, ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, then they’re not big enough.’ So that’s something I’ve tried to live by,” she explains.
The results can be transformative, as her work so far proves. “Have a big dream that’s not only going to impact you, your family and your community, but also the whole world,” she adds. “If you can apply [that] to whatever avenue you choose to go down – whether it’s advocacy, business, government, leadership, whatever it is – I think you’ll be very successful”.