In an exclusive interview with Msafiri, Angelina Jolie, humanitarian and director, focuses her attention on Africa
Having spent over ten years AS Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie has raised global awareness for the plight of children, the poor, and millions of refugees around the world. Not only has she discussed policy and relief efforts with leading politicians in the affected regions, but she has also donated upwards of US$20 million of her personal fortune to various organisations actively working on the ground towards providing food and shelter to people often caught in the middle of conflict zones or in drought-stricken regions. At least US$5 million of that money has gone directly to the UNHCR alone.
Jolie recently signed on to direct Africa, a new movie financed by David Ellison’s Skydance Productions and written by Oscar winner Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Africa tells the story of paleoarchaeologist Richard Leakey and his battle with ivory poachers in 1980s Kenya. It was a horrific situation, one that threatened the existence of the entire African elephant population.
“I’ve felt a deep connection to Africa and its culture for much of my life, and was much taken with Eric’s beautiful script about a man drawn into the violent conflict with elephant poachers who emerged with a deeper understanding of man’s footprint and a profound sense of responsibility for the world around him,” she said on the announcement of her involvement.
In truth, Angelina has been connected with the African continent long before this film was even in the making, through her extensive charity work.
“People often put down charity as a responsibility, but often the truth is it benefits your own soul and your own knowledge of life,” Jolie, 39, says.
“I’ve learnt more from refugees than anybody in my life, more about being a mother, a stronger person, survival, so I can only hope to give something back.”
“I felt a visceral need to actually do something that matters in the world and escape the bubble I had been living in. Without my work in places like Africa and Cambodia and elsewhere, I would have lived a very shallow life and felt empty. My work for UNHCR has given me so much purpose and I feel honoured to have been able to help bring some relief and hope to the survivors of war and refugees and children who are suffering so much around the world.”
This is the kind of personal commitment that has driven actress/director Angelina Jolie to becoming one of the world’s most prominent humanitarians. Her high profile not only attracts millions in donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, but she has personally lobbied the leaders of both developed and underdeveloped nations to ramp up efforts to take care of the world’s most helpless and defenceless citizens.
Together with her husband Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie has created a family that, itself, is a miniature version of the League of Nations.
Their eldest son Maddox, now 13, was adopted in 2002 while Jolie was visiting his native country of Cambodia. Daughter Zahara comes from Ethiopia, where Jolie spent months working on the relief effort in the drought-stricken and war-ravaged region. Shiloh, the couple’s first biological child, was born in Namibia while she and Brad were exploring Africa together. In 2007 Brad and Angie adopted their son Pax from Vietnam, following which Jolie gave birth to twins Knox and Vivienne.
Together, their six children are “my beautiful world family and my love for them is as great as my love and dedication to children all over the world who have no parents and very little prospect of leading a happy life”.
Jolie has also tried to involve her children in her work, either by inviting them to accompany her on some of her humanitarian trips or at least by encouraging them to be aware of the significance of her official visits: “When I go on UN missions, I always sit down with (the children) and explain where I’m going and they often know about that particular area – especially from watching the news, so they’re pretty well informed. I tell them that I’m going to meet with other kids like them to make sure everyone is OK. Sometimes they give me little things to bring as gifts.”
“I’m trying to make them more global. My mother (the late Marcheline Bertrand), as open as she was, just didn’t take us on travel much, but she always taught me to be a good person and was interested in a lot of things. She took me to my first Amnesty International dinner when I was nine. She was part Native American and always talked to me about those issues, but imaginatively she didn’t live outside America. We weren’t as at home in the world. With my family, I’m trying to raise them to have respect for all people and to make friends around the world and to feel at home around the world. It’s what’s forming them. Of course, I make sure they do their math and their science, but the world perspective is the most important thing.”
“My visits to Ethiopia and other regions in Africa and many war zones have changed me forever,” Jolie explains. “I stopped being selfish and absorbed in petty personal issues. Having my own family has also made me see how lucky I am to be able to give my children every advantage in life and give them peace and security. It’s incredible how our minds can wander and become trapped in thinking about issues that are so unimportant on a practical level. Indulging in one’s perceived neurotic issues is a luxury that people in many regions of the world can’t afford. When it’s a matter of survival, you learn to value the truly important thing in life, which is your family. I try to lead a good, honest life and do the best I can. That’s why I cherish my family and why Brad and my children mean everything to me.”
Having been appointed a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in 2001, Jolie has been very active in that role and has visited over 20 countries across the continent. Husband Brad is one of the founders of Not On Our Watch, an organisation that tries to focus global attention and resources to stop and prevent genocide, such as the one that took place in Darfur. In 2006 Angelina and Brad set up the Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which has donated large sums of money to conservation groups, to ‘Doctors without Borders’, and many others. In 2007 Jolie received the Freedom Award given by the International Rescue Committee.
Jolie is an active campaigner for disaster relief, and the past decade has seen her work on projects to aid vulnerable children, protect the environment, and promote international justice. The Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which she founded in 2003, is an organisation specifically focused on conservation issues in Cambodia, but with additional programmes supporting farming, health care and education.
In 2005, following on from founding the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, Jolie went on to launch the National Centre for Refugee and Immigrant children. This project offers free legal aid to young asylum seekers, and she expanded on this three years later by partnering with Microsoft on Kids in Need of Defence (KIND), working with legal representatives across the United States to advise unaccompanied immigrant children. Somehow, the prolific campaigner also finds time to sit on the board of the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict, providing education resources for children in war zones.
Her unending devotion to humanitarian work is driven by a heartfelt desire to contribute to finding constructive solutions to the ongoing and increasingly desperate refugee crises in Africa, Asia, and now in Syria.
In June 2014 Jolie went to New York to address the United Nations Security Council on the issue of rape and violence against women and children in conflict zones, recounting in particular the tale of a Congolese mother whose five-year-old daughter had been raped outside a police station.
Jolie told the Security Council, at a debate session organised by the United Kingdom, that it must shoulder its responsibility and provide leadership, because “these crimes happen not because they are inherent to war, but because the global climate allows it”.
“Young girls raped and impregnated before their bodies are able to carry a child, causing fistula. Boys held at gunpoint and forced to sexually assault their mothers and sisters. Women raped with bottles, wood branches and knives to cause as much damage as possible. Toddlers and even babies dragged from their homes, and violated,” she said.
Her address attracted world-wide attention and carried the weight of a woman who has visited over thirty refugee camps around the world during her time as a UN Global Ambassador. Jolie went on to explain that while there were hundreds of thousands of survivors of sexual violence there was virtually no judicial mechanism in place to punish rapists and abusers because the world has failed to make the issue a priority.
“They suffer the most at the hands of their rapists, but they are also victims of this culture of impunity. That is the sad, upsetting and indeed shameful reality,” Jolie declared.
At a three-day Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-chaired by Ms Jolie and William Hague, the former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Jolie reiterated her efforts to have governments step in to fight violence against women. “It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict,” she stated in her address to the Summit, which brought together 900 experts, non-governmental organisations, survivors, faith leaders and international organisations from around the globe in an effort to create momentum against sexual violence in times of conflict, and practical action that impacts those on the ground.
“There is nothing inevitable about it,” said Ms Jolie, who is also now serving as Special Envoy for the UNHCR. “(Rape) is a weapon of war, aimed at civilians. It has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with power. It is done to torture and humiliate innocent people, often very young children.”
She noted that the subject itself has been taboo for far too long. “Warzone rape is a crime that thrives on silence and denial. The stigma harms survivors: it causes feelings of shame and worthlessness. It feeds ignorance, such as the notion that rape has anything to do with normal sexual impulses. We need political will, replicated across the world, and we need to treat this subject as a priority. We need to see real commitment to go after the worst perpetrators, to fund proper protection for vulnerable people, and to step in and help the worst affected countries. We need all armies, peacekeeping troops and police forces to have prevention of sexual violence in conflict as part of their training.”
This is merely the most recent stop in Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian journey. Her travels to Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Ethiopia, the Congo and elsewhere around the world are a tribute to one woman who should unquestionably be regarded as one of the most important non-governmental leaders in the fight for refugees and aid for the world’s most despairing populations.
Says Jolie: “I was looking for something which I could point to and find a purpose and direction for myself. I enjoyed acting but it always seemed that the characters I was playing had much more interesting lives than I had. So when I started working with UNESCO and doing humanitarian work I felt that I was finally able to do something very real and constructive with my life and accomplish something. Adopting my children was also a way of trying to provide a good and happy life to them when their future was very bleak and I had so much love and hope to give. And being with Brad made me want to have children of my own. So creating this big family and being able to create a good and happy life for my kids was another important evolution for me. I’ve also been very lucky to have a man in my life who wanted to share all that with me.”