Ethiopia, in the eyes of Freida Pinto

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Freida Pinto, an actress and model, who is also the Goodwill Ambassador of Plan International, paid a visit to Plan Ethiopia’s projects in Addis Ababa and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional state (SNNPR) last week. Freida spoke to Capital’s Aderajew Asfaw about her ‘fascinating’ visit and her plan to come back to see more. She also communicated her desire to learn more about Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

Capital: How did you start traveling?
Freida Pinto:
I am a traveler. I love traveling. I call myself an urban nomad as I have been to various countries. The trips I took before 2012 were not under the auspices of Plan [International], but were prompted by my curiosity and interest in the world I live in. Every time I travel to a certain place, it is essential for me to actually get into or melt into the local scenery and way of life. Those visits have taken me to places like Afghanistan, Tunisia, and then with Plan I visited Sierra Leone. I have also been to the India projects [of Plan International].
Capital: How do you compare the projects you visited so far in different countries?
Pinto:
I have to say, we cannot compare the programs in one country to another’s, because the situations are not the same everywhere. There are similarities of course, but the problems might significantly differ from place to place. That is why comparisons are not possible, but I have to say the enthusiasm of the volunteers, the commitment that people have for such endeavors and the various girl ambassadors I have met, was so spectacular. And I make a point of including the boys, because we cannot talk about moving forward in society or in a country without including the boys, which is one of the things I like about Plan. Even though this is the ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign, we are not ignoring the boys; we are just mentioning and focusing on the girls more because of the fact that they are marginalized in most societies and in the world in general. At Plan they have a big ambition to address and rectify this issue in ways that are practical. But because their ambition is huge, it doesn’t necessarily mean they get lost in it or lose sight of the objective. They start with smaller problems that need to be resolved and I do understand why they have to do this. They can’t focus on everything at the same time; nobody can. When they focus on one thing, it doesn’t mean they are ignoring four or five other problems out there. Sometimes, for a person like me or maybe some donors, when we visit the projects, we might not be able to immediately see the reasons why some things are done in a certain way, and ask questions like: “Why are you doing this?”, “Why aren’t you doing that?” I guess we all need to understand that we cannot make big waves unless and until tiny ripples are created first.
I have to say that Plan Ethiopia has taught me a lot and that when I go back to, for example, Plan Sierra Leone, we can exchange ideas.
Capital:  What is your outlook in regards to the role media play, especially when countries and communities have being wrongly pictured by the world as a result of their reports?
Pinto: I feel sadness at the fact and I believe that media are meant to be very responsible. But sometimes I feel they do misuse their power and set a certain mindset or a stereotype in the minds of people that this particular country or that country is not free.
For example, I have had four friends email me when they knew that I was in Ethiopia and said: “Be safe.” And I don’t understand why I should not feel safe. I feel really safe here. I emailed them back saying I am absolutely safe and not to worry about me.
My first trip was actually to Afghanistan. And I remember a lot of people saying: “Are you sure you want to make this trip? You are silly; how can you go to Afghanistan when there’s too much turmoil over there.” I kind of refused to read all the recent happenings there at the time and believe ignorance is a blessing sometimes. Therefore, I went to Afghanistan. And I have to say, even with all the unrest and tensions in the society and the political situation over there, the people were the warmest I have met. They were very welcoming and I didn’t feel unsafe for even a minute in their presence. So my humble plea to the media is to use your power very responsibly and, hopefully, we can dispel a lot of myths and misconceptions that people have about certain countries, including my own [India].
Capital:  Do you remember how you got interested and started to get involved in charity or related activities?
Pinto: I don’t like calling it charity to be honest, because it is very demeaning sometimes, to certain people. I would rather call it voluntary work that actually needs a voice. I think it just simply started from what I saw as a child in Mumbai. I saw a lot of things happening. I traveled a lot in India and felt that certain children were treated more favorably than others. I think it was a natural instinct. It really had nothing to do with playing a part in a film and being inspired by it. The film gave me the capacity to do something on a larger scale, but definitely it was natural instinct; the kind that my mother actually always had.
Capital: Who is your role model?
Pinto
: A lot of people have inspired me. I don’t particularly call them role models. But I definitely feel they filled me with inspiration. I could never ever in my dreams imagine how Mother Teresa did what she did. It’s truly incredible. And actually, to be honest, Ammanuel Teferi [who is head of the Communication and Promotion at Plan Ethiopia] is my role model now after seeing how he works in quite difficult situations, through thick and thin, exerting so much effort. Sometimes it is not famous people who end up being role models. It could be a simple young girl in a village who wants to make a difference. It is people like Ammanuel who go out there where it matters. It is people like David Troph from the UK who come here and dedicate their time and energy towards helping Plan Ethiopia in whatever they might be doing. They are my role models.
Capital: Do you work only with Plan or do you also participate in the initiatives of other similar organizations?
Pinto: I am the Global Goodwill Ambassador of Plan International and currently I happily work with whoever Plan is associated with.
Capital: What is your plan in relation to such activities?
Pinto: My plan is to spread these messages to as many people as possible. To be able to do everything within my power, however little it might be, in inspiring people to want to contribute and join such efforts. I think the only way we can see a whole new world, a bright new world for children, is if we all take it upon ourselves to want to do something for them. Because, honestly, what can the children do on their own? They need adults, people who are educated, to help them out, and my job is to share my experiences with everyone and guarantee those who want to join that the money they donate and the voluntary work that they do is all going in the right direction.
Capital: What were your impressions about Ethiopia before you came?
Pinto: I just knew that Ethiopian food is fantastic and Ethiopians I have met on my travels were wonderful people. So I had no misconceptions about Ethiopia.
Capital: I understand you plan to come back to Ethiopia. What will you miss about the country until your return?
Pinto:
I will miss meeting all those wonderful girls who had so much to say. I really feel bad that we come here only once a year or two. By the time I come back, these children will be all grown up, and we don’t really get to chart their growth and how much Plan helped them every step of the way which is obviously why Plan provides us with updates. But I feel I am going to miss people like Ammanuel and Abebech Gobena; I missed out on really getting to know her story. She’s quite inspirational and I like her positive outlook. I really do hope that during my next trip I will be learning more about that and what she has accomplished with the Abebech Gobena Mother and Child Health Special Hospital (AGMCHSH.)
It is a great example for a lot of communities that don’t really focus on mother and child care.
Capital: What did you visit during your brief stay and what has marked you most?
Pinto:
I have been to a lot of school projects, water and sanitation projects, and a solar power project.  The one thing that I saw in common in all these projects is that all these areas require more work, more money, but they all are not giving up hope. I honestly don’t want this to sound like a cliché, but that happens to be the truth. When you look at these people and when those girls started singing, I felt so much happiness. They started singing a song and I was dancing with them.
Capital: Can you tell us about your childhood in Mumbai?
Pinto:
I was fortunate in having a happy childhood. I grew up in a middle class family and had a very good education. That was partly one of the reasons that I felt, ‘why just me?’
Capital: What were you engaged in prior to joining the film industry?
Pinto:
I hosted a travel show. I travelled all over Southeast Asia and that is the reason why I said I am a traveler. I love traveling. In fact after I leave Ethiopia, I will continue traveling.
It was by no means an accident that I joined the film industry, although a lot of people at the time thought it so. It was just something I always wanted to do; to become an actress.
Capital: Which of your movies do you like the most, and will you be making films in Africa?
Pinto:
Actually, there is no comparison to the experience that the Slum Dog Millionaire gave me. It was out of the ordinary. It was my first film and it propelled me into the spotlight so quickly, which was quite scary, to be honest. It was not very easy dealing with all of that. So definitely that experience is special. And I have to say “Trishna” and “Miral” provided me with good experience too. I have participated twice in film shootings in North Africa. I do feel that, with all the amazing natural scenery over here in Ethiopia, I hope the film industry blossoms, which could be another way of generating revenue for the country.
Capital: What movie of yours should we expect to come out next?
Pinto:
The one called ‘Desert Dancer’. I don’t specifically know when, but somewhere around September or something, it should be out.
Capital: Any final comment?
Pinto:
Yes. As much as tiring the travel might have been, I feel rejuvenated and refreshed every time I met people over here. It has been a long journey, but speaking with the media over here has actually been a wonderful experience and I hope that they will put my and Ammanuel’s message out there in a responsible manner.