Most of us would never think that five dollars can change a person’s life, but hearing Elizabeth Gore (executive director of global partnerships and Nothing But Nets for the United Nations Foundation) and Season 7 “American Idol” winner David Cook tell their eyewitness accounts of the challenges most teenage girls face in Ethiopia — where only 20% have any semblance of an education — makes you seriously reconsider the four-dollar latte you downed this morning… Or even the one you ordered as the conference call with Cook (who was still in Ethiopia on Wednesday) was happening.
That’s right. This journalist’s question was beamed directly from the drive-thru Starbucks on Tujunga in Studio City to Cook’s ear some 9,000 miles away, with a UN dignitary on the line as well as a couple dozen journalists from all over America. Technology truly is amazing, and the world is indeed small, which is a fitting preamble to this “Idol Gives Back” initiative.
Cook and his guitarist/bestie, Neal Tiemann, went over with the United Nations Foundation and visited the Biruh Tesfa School in Addis Ababa, where they were very much moved by the resilience and enthusiasm of young girls who are eager to learn. The alternative? Without an education, these soon-to-be women, like millions before them, can fall into the sex trade, domestic servitude or any number of lifelong misfortunes.
Read on for David’s Q&A, where he talks about his experience in Ethiopia and addresses whether he might perform on the charity special, airing April 21.
Were there particular exchanges with girls that you met that really drove home what donations could bring to them?
I actually got a chance to meet two girls in particular. One was a 7-year-old named Mekdus. Both of Mekdus’ parents have passed away, and she has been at the school for seven months. Given the circumstances — not having either of her parents, she’s actually living with her aunt now – she is one of the most vibrant, joyous girls that I think I’ve ever met. The girls at the school genuinely want to learn. They want to have that education. They want to have that opportunity, and that’s inspiring to see a 7-year-old girl want to build a better future for herself. I remember being 7 years old, and I didn’t have that foresight. These girls are wise beyond their years, and both fortunately and unfortunately they’ve kind of had to be.
What was your initial impression of Ethiopia and its people?
I have to say, I was completely shocked by this country in an extremely positive way. When you hear Africa, I immediately think impoverished and everything that goes with that. But I came here, and the people here are so amazingly sweet. They are such nice people, very accommodating and get that we are out here trying to help. The city itself, Addis Ababa, is beautiful — really lush, very green. It definitely has an infrastructure in place. I think it’s just a matter that they just need that kind of boost in the right direction.
It would be really hard to fathom that it wouldn’t. I think anybody that isn’t completely self-absorbed, it’s impossible for them to come to this kind of a situation and not be moved by it and not be changed by it. To really drive home the fact that what these girls are dealing with — girls that don’t get an education here are immensely more likely to fall into the sex trade or into domestic servitude and then that opens it up to so many other different things. HIV is one of the main killers here. And so, to see that firsthand, I would almost say it’s a definite that I am going to bring that back, and it will find its way into my career path.
Do they know who David Cook is?
[Laughs] Very few people here know who I am. We had to explain to the little girls who I was and why I was there. But we did get a chance to play some music for them. My guitar player came out here with me, and then they sang for us. It’s always cool to see music be this universal language… but I definitely had to win them over. They didn’t quite know what to do with the tall, tattooed white guy, I guess.
Most of us have no idea what it would be like to live in or let alone travel to a Third World country. Can you tell us, now that you are there and are experiencing it, what is it about your travels that makes you most thankful for what we have in North America?
That’s a tough question. Just being out here for the short time, you immediately kind of appreciate the bubble that you have built for yourself, but also, I feel kind of guilty for the bubble I’ve built for myself. This reality is so far removed from even what we see on TV. What the people here have to deal with on a daily basis is real, and it’s heavy, and it’s something that truly deserves our attention. I’ve said that a lot in conjunction with this trip. If you take on this mantra that we are only as good as the people that we surround ourselves with, you take that on a global level, everybody is struggling right now. But we, as a country, are only as good as the countries that we surround ourselves with. It just becomes more imperative to reach out on an international level and a global level and really promote change. The people here need a helping hand, and I feel like we are in a great position to be able to give that to them.
What was it about Ethiopia that made this appealing to you? Why did you want to go and spend time there and call attention to the plight there?
I wanted to be involved with the Biruh Tesfa School and the initiative set up by the U.N. and the U.N. Foundation specifically because women are the backbone of society, in my opinion. Every family has a matriarch, and they are the glue that holds that family together. You have to give these girls a basis. You have to give them a platform with which to start from. I don’t think anybody can deny that education plays such an important role across the board. And the fact that it’s not a right for these girls, but in a lot of cases it’s a privilege, that’s pretty abhorrent. So that was a major mitigating factor for me. That’s why I wanted to get involved.
Are you going to be performing on the “Idol Gives Back” special?
There’s been no discussion of a performance. I’m going to do everything within my power to be present because I do want to continue to really drive this point home of the help that’s needed out here. So I will definitely be involved in some [capacity], but as far as a performance, I’m not 100% sure. Sorry, that’s a non-answer to your question.
Could you tell us emotionally what went through your mind when you were at “Idol Gives Back” as one of the contestants? What did that stir up in you, and how did that make you want to go further with this?
I actually remember specifically, on my season when we did “Idol Gives Back,” that we all snuck up to the balcony and got a chance to watch Annie Lennox’s performance from the front of the house. It was just her on the piano, and in the background, they were showing images of children, and it just tore me apart. I think to have that kind of visual moment when everything kind of clicks and you realize that my reality is not their reality, it really puts you in a position where you want to help, and so from that point on I was just kind of chomping at the bit to get involved with “Idol Gives Back.” This couldn’t have come at a better time.
Shirley Halperin LA Times