SPRINGFIELD — As a little girl in the Republic of Benin of West Africa, her nickname was “When, Why, How.”
Angelique Kidjo, now 54, never stopped asking questions. The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and activist urged thousands Friday morning at Bay Path University’s 20th annual Women’s Leadership Conference to thoughtfully examine the world around them – because when we try to understand each other, she explained, we are united.
“We absolutely need to celebrate sisterhood, womanhood, manhood, human-hood,” she told the crowd in her keynote address. “Because we are all part of this big giant plant, which at the same time, is very small.”
Kidjo was one of several influential women who spoke at the conference that aims to honor and foster the growth of women through inspiring talks and professional development workshops. Kathy Giusti, cancer survivor and founder of two myeloma research foundations, and Cuban American singer-songwriter, actress and author Gloria Estefan, were also speakers at the event.
Kidjo’s storytelling was peppered with songs that ranged from Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, Baby, Baby” to traditional African music. At one point, she had the entire crowd on its feet singing and clapping to one of her most popular songs, “Afirika,” as she made her way through the audience. The room buzzed with her infectious energy.
One woman at the conference told Kidjo during a question and answer session, “I’m amazed you got me to sing. I would’ve never done that.”
Kidjo spoke of her work with UNICEF, particularly raising awareness for gender equality and education. In 2007 she founded the Batonga Foundation, which provides and promotes secondary education for African girls.
She said she founded the organization after an African woman in a village she visited told her, “You’ve urged us to put our girls in schools. What about secondary education?”
“Nobody wanted to touch it,” she said of her foundation’s aspirations. “I said, I’m going for it.”
Kidjo stressed that secondary education, especially in Africa, saves young women from early marriage and early motherhood – something she herself escaped.
“Other men in my village would tell my father, ‘It’s stupid for her to be going to school, you can make lots of money and marry her off,'” she said.
Her father would reply, “They have to go to school and decide their own fate.”
Kidjo described helping people as a double-edged sword. She said too many outreach efforts lack the human connection needed to truly make a difference; those who are aided shouldn’t be treated as just another statistic, she said, and should be asked to help implement change rather than simply being told what to do.
She said America has “spent billions trying to help African people with little result” for that reason.
“We shouldn’t fool ourselves to think we’re so virtuous for helping people,” she said. “The truth is, we learn so much from everyone we meet. They help us, too.”