Writers are often told 'Write what you know.' In writing holocaust fiction, I’d clung to that rule, drawing on my father’s story and the stories of the survivors I’d grown up with to write my first two YA novels, The Wrong Boy and Alexander Altmann A10567.
The 2014 terrorist abduction of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in Nigeria by armed militants of Boko Haram, changed that. The attackers stormed the school, set it on fire, herded the girls into trucks and disappeared.
The kidnapping haunted me. I wondered what I could do. Not just for the 200 terrified girls held at gunpoint but for the 200 million girls scattered around the globe who were being denied an education. Girls kept home from school to cook and clean while their brothers sat at desks; girls forced to stay home because they couldn’t afford sanitary pads; girls sold into prostitution and girls sold into marriage to men twice their age for a cow or a goat.
And then, by chance, I met Nakamya Lilian, a 29-year-old Ugandan girl visiting Australia. We spent an afternoon together and as soon as she told me her story about growing up in a small impoverished village, desperate for an education, I knew my next novel would lay bare a story that was being played out across the globe, hurting the most vulnerable among us: girls. Girls, who with our help, could soar, transforming their lives and the lives of those around them.
But Lilian’s story was only one story, one voice. I needed to learn more so I flew to Uganda. I didn't know what it felt like to be a poor African girl without shoes or schoolbooks, so I spoke to young Ugandan girls. I went to their villages, visited their huts, walked to the wells where they gathered water and visited the dusty schools where they learned to speak English until one by one they dropped out. They told me about forgoing meals to pay for textbooks and trading their bodies for school fees. They told me about the lessons their aunts taught them about their bodies and about men.
None of the girls I interviewed had both their parents. Many were orphans, their mothers dying of diseases the witch-doctors couldn’t cure and their fathers abandoning them for second and third wives. They lived without running water or electricity. A lucky few were in secondary school, on scholarships, the only girls in their class. They lived in concrete boxes in the city’s slums, walking an hour to school on an empty stomach and they considered themselves blessed. They were lucky to be learning, they told me, their faces lit by smiles. “If you can read and write you can get a good job and you won’t be hungry.”
I gave them sugar, flour, soap and pencils, but it wasn’t enough. Every girl, regardless of where she lives, deserves the chance to go to school and live a life of her own choosing. I am Change is my attempt to incite an army for change by giving my readers a character to care about; a girl to inspire them to speak out for those who have been silenced by their fathers and brothers, their religion and culture. I am Change is their story, their pain and joy and fear and bravery.