At a time when online activism seems to have become the dominant platform for change, the line between making a difference and liking its progress on Facebook has grown unclear. Not for 18-year-old student Ellen Munari, however, who has bypassed the ‘clicktavists’ to make her own real changes to the world.
Ellen sits across from me and shows me pictures of people she met in Africa — people who have next to nothing but still have so much joy. She tells me stories of how two students were able to make a real difference in these people’s lives, literally from the other side of the world. Ellen and her friend Maddie were able to harness the goodwill and support of their own communities in Melbourne, to make a change in the lives of the people in these pictures.
These two young women then traveled over to a completely different land and worked with the people they’d set out to help, experiencing their culture and their way of life. Ellen and Maddie experienced the sights, smells, sounds and emotions of extreme poverty. They also made some amazing friends, were proposed to by many handsome men and had their own lives transformed along the way. It was quite an inspiring story to hear.
Ellen tells me she’d always had an interest in social justice. She remembers becoming a vegetarian at age 11, but at the time she says her rationale was pretty limited. “I liked animals, so we shouldn’t eat them. That was the extent of my thought,” she recalls. But she also remembers already having a strong sense of empathy — she was unable to tell people to go away because “I could understand how your actions could affect someone else and make them sad” — quite contrary to the views of your average 11-year-old.
She describes a point in her life where she decided to do something. “It wasn’t so much of a turning point as it [was] a point of realisation, that I can do something really productive,” she explains. “It would’ve happened sooner or later.” After watching a documentary in her Year 11 literature class about the Democratic Republic of Congo, she was reduced to tears. “It was possibly the most upset I’ve ever been in my life,” she says, recalling the video which told the stories of rape victims during the war. “I remember thinking that I could just cry and be upset and get really angry at the world, or I could actually do something about it.”
She spent that entire night researching charities that worked in the area, wanting to build a refuge for women who had suffered in the Congo. After some consideration about how she could practically raise support for the issue, she found something that could engage the whole community. In Year 11 herself, she realised that many children and teenagers living in poverty weren’t able to attend school. The contrast between her world and the world of those in the video she had just watched helped her decide what she wanted to do. She was going to build a school.
For three nights, Ellen gathered a folio of information that she presented to her teachers. Acquiring the signatures of the majority of teaching staff, she walked right up to the principal and demanded the creation of a new social justice group at school. It was instantly given the stamp of approval.
“My goal was always to raise $10,000 by the time I finished Year 12,” she says. This amount of money would build a classroom in a school being planned for the rural town of N’Galamatiebougou in Mali, located in West Africa. “Everyone told me that I couldn’t do it… At that time it was just me, so it was a pretty realistic opinion.”
Ellen gathered a few people and in their first three months, they’d already exceeded everyone’s expectations — they reached the halfway mark, raising $5,000. “None of my friends ever came at the start,” she recalls. “We put up a lot of posters and spoke at assemblies and then finally, people started coming.” Students ranging from Year Eight to Year 12 came to the meetings, though one thing that Ellen realised was that it wasn’t all due to the posters and speeches; it was because of that ancient phenomenon, word of mouth. “It is really hard to just walk into something new, so a lot of people came with their friends and that just made it better.”
The group also started holding events such as cake stalls, which easily involved many younger students. Towards the end of 2011 they were having a cake stall every couple of weeks, which helped rake in both money and support. What Ellen was discovering was that the more activities and awareness events that they did, the more students, teachers and even parents were willing to assist. But more than that, people were learning about the situation in Africa and why a bunch of teenagers were so eager to help.
“I’d always said that the ultimate goal was to get every single student to be able to point to Mali on the map and say this is where we built our school. Whilst that may have been a big dream to have, they all now know that Mali is in Africa.”
During 2011 Ellen’s group held many events besides the cake stalls; students tried living on two dollars a day, they sold rice alongside a concert hosted by a guy in a purple suit and they even organised a readathon (which failed miserably). But in the end, after everyone had told them that it could not be done, Ellen’s social justice group raised just over $10,000 and built a classroom in Mali. This classroom now shelters over 70 children in a school located in a region where almost every person lives below the global poverty line.
After high school, Ellen and Maddie traveled to Mali to witness the building of their primary school and even helped teach there. They had made a difference.