It’s Kusum!

Two months ago, 13-year-old Kusum volunteered to give a talk at TEDx Gateway in Mumbai. Franz had been invited as a speaker, but wanted to pass the opportunity off to one of the girls to talk about Yuwa in her own words.

I explained to Kusum that there would be over 1100 people in the audience and that thousands more might watch it over the internet. The other speakers at the event would include some of the most passionate, intelligent and driven individuals in India. And her talk needed to be English. Kusum’s English is good… but she still has a long road ahead before she reaches fluency. She has never read a chapter book in English.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, after showing her some TEDx videos online.

She hardly paused before looking at me with an expression that clearly said: Well, duh.

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

For 6 weeks leading up to the TEDx event, Kusum and I worked together on her speech. We talked about what details to include, what was important for people to hear, and what fundamental message she wanted to share with everyone. She wrote her story by the light of kerosene lamp. Kusum’s family had electricity installed in their mud house last year, but power is spotty in villages.

After several drafts and revisions, Kusum created a hard copy of her talk. In less than a week, she had it memorized. She practiced in her home in the mornings and in the evenings, in front of her family and friends. She practiced in Yuwa English class and on Skype for my family. She practiced with Franz shining a giant flashlight in her face, to simulate the stage lights. She practiced with a microphone at Jharkhand’s World Toilet Day Event to an audience that wasn’t actually listening. 

Time for TED

We flew to Mumbai several days before the TEDx event to meet the other speakers and rehearse on stage. Kusum navigated a swanky cocktail and dinner party wearing a Yuwa track-suit. She carried around a martini glass of juice with a glowing ice cube and made casual English conversation with adults from around the world. I thought she might get tired or bored after a few hours. She didn’t. She talked with a man who recently became the first Indian in the world to circumnavigate the globe, alone, in a sailboat. It took him 150 days. She introduced herself to an Israeli composer, an acclaimed wildlife conservationist, a 15-year-old who has constructed a 3-D printer, the founder of a micro-enterprise development bank, a National Geographic photographer, and a woman who’s revolutionizing interactive museum technology.

Kusum leaned over to me and commented very seriously, “Everyone here is interesting.”

TEDxGateway Kusum clappingOver and over again, Kusum was asked if she was nervous for her talk. Again and again, she said she wasn’t. We found out that her talk had been scheduled as the last of the day; the organizers wanted her to be the grand finale. 

Raising the roof

Franz took to the stage first to introduce Kusum. He described how in the past year, since the trip to Spain, Kusum and her teammates have become youth icons. They have been featured in every national newspaper, a myriad of magazines and news shows, and acclaimed by Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra. We’ve estimated that in the past few months, their story has reached over 200 million people in India. 

Why is the story of the Yuwa girls so compelling? The struggles Kusum and her teammates face are shared by hundreds of millions of women and girls in rural India. Their struggles are not unique. When the girls of Yuwa confidently share their stories, they give voice to millions more who are not heard. Their triumph over the odds is inspiring.

“Kusum and her teammates are leading a movement of girls who are fighting for and finding their freedom, one football practice at a time. Ladies and gentlemen, my Indian super power…girl power…”, Franz began, attempting to refer back to a Marvel Comics executive’s speech earlier in the day that referred to a new female Indian superhero, “whatever she is, Kusum Kumari!”TEDxGateway Kusum shailesh photo

Franz gave her a high five as he walked off the stage, and Kusum walked into the spotlight. The audience went wild, making Kusum wait, smiling calmly, for at least 20 seconds before beginning.

I am Kusum.

I am 13-years-old.

I’m from Jharkhand.

I want to tell you how football changed my life…”

She shined. Her delivery was flawless and her voice never faltered. Although the auditorium was packed, I believe her when she said she really wasn’t nervous. Although I couldn’t see it from my place in the front row, many people were tearing up throughout Kusum’s talk. I was one of them.

The climax of the talk came when she delivered the following observation:

“In Spain, I saw that girls and boys were the same. There were no differences. Girls went everywhere that boys went, even at night.  [Big cheers and laughter]

“They did everything that boys do. I thought this was very good. [Big cheers]

“I want to feel free like the boys!”  [Audience went wild]

When Kusum came to her conclusion, the audience leaped to their feet and gave a rousing standing ovation, as if they had been waiting on the edge of their seats for their cue. The auditorium was a roar of sound. Kusum stood in the center of it all, beaming.

Back to the village

Weeks before, in preparation for TED, I showed Kusum a video of Malala Yousafzai’s speech at the UN. She was impressed by the story of Malala and excited that a girl was advocating for girls’ education; something Kusum wants to promote as she gets older. I pointed out to Kusum that her own story and her own TED talk held the very same message… and that she too was already reaching thousands of girls.

On the way back to Jharkhand in the airport bookstore, we bought Kusum her first chapter book in English: I am Malala.

As we went through the airport security, a female airline pilot approached us with the enthusiasm of a teenage Bieber fan. She explained that she had flown in from Delhi for the TEDx event and had been extremely moved by Kusum’s talk. As the pilot was speaking, a security attendant approached us, curious about the celebrity attention being given to this young girl, and asked the pilot who she was. The pilot smiled broadly and replied,

“It’s Kusum!”

I will post the video of Kusum’s TED talk when it comes online. In the meantime, you can read the text of her talk here.

Want to support Kusum and her friends? Click here!DSC_0362


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