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Podcast / January 29 2020

Georgie Badiel: Journey to the Well

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As a girl, Georgie Badiel walked three hours every morning to get clean water for her family in Burkina Faso. Host Nelufar Hedayat talks to Badiel, who today is a fashion model and an activist for clean water access in her home country, about the right to clean water and why it’s a matter of gender equity in sub-Saharan countries.

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Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.



This is “Course Correction” from the Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and each episode we’ll look at one big global problem — and meet the people who are actively working to fix it.

We’re not just a podcast — we make a bunch of wondrous digital films and create stuff for our socials. We also put on a series of big live debates, with speakers who have inspiring ideas about how to change the world.

Unlike other debates, we try to build bridges between people with different opinions, not pit them against one another. We’re looking for what connects us, rather than separates us. And we want to focus on the solutions.

In our second debate, we tackled one of the greatest global crises you don’t know about — water scarcity. And we did it in a city that lives the problem: Cape Town, South Africa.


NELUFAR: OK, so to paint you a picture of exactly what the scale of our global water crisis is: Global water usage is growing twice as fast as the population. Right now, a quarter of humanity is at risk of running out of clean water. It’s projected that two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water stress by 2025. That’s only five years away.

And the climate crisis is only making it worse, with hotter days, erratic rainfall, droughts and fires. And of course, water scarcity isn’t just about drinking water. It’s also about food — about livestock and the crops that feed the livestock and produce. It all depends on clean water.

So what can we do to fix this? At our debate, each speaker presented a possible path forward for solving the water crisis.


The only way to truly resolve the water conflict is cooperation. It isn’t easy.

In terms of limited access to water, the rich are very much protected by their privilege, allowing them the exact same comforts that they’re used to.

Water is still the woman’s responsibility in my country and in much of the developing world. Every day woman like me spend 266 million hours to walk for water.

NELUFAR: That last speaker was Georgie Badiel. Georgie is a model from Burkina Faso. And she’s the founder of the Georgie Badiel Foundation, which builds wells and provides sanitation facilities for communities in sub-Saharan Africa. I wanted to really understand what she’s seen and why she wants to fix this problem. So we sat down to talk.

NELUFAR: You have cheekbones that could cut a man!


NELUFAR: They are hurting my feelings. Keep them away! I’m sorry — I want to make you laugh, you’re beautiful when you laugh.

Just for the purposes of our interview, can you state your full name and what is it that you do?

I am Georgie Badiel-Liberty. I am a model, and activist and an author.

NELUFAR: How did you even become a model?

GEORGIE: Yes, so at 14 years old, my father told me that he won’t be able to afford for my education, and the only hope that I have to get out of poverty was my education. And at 14 years old it was kind of like, what do I do? I just couldn’t picture myself doing something else other than go to school.

And around me, I had a lot of girlfriends that the parents was, were giving them to kind of like a false marriage. It’s like, OK, do I find someone? Do I get married or — like at 14 years old, I just… People will tell me, “You’re tall, you’re skinny, you can become a model.” And I was kind of — there was money in modeling? It pay? Like, “Yes, of course, you can become like this supermodel — Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss.” Like whoa, OK! I went on to knock on designers’ doors. I would walk miles to reach the designers’ offices and ask them, “Please take me.”

NELUFAR: As a teenager —

GEORGIE: As a teenager!

NELUFAR: — as a young girl?

GEORGIE: Yes, yes. Actually, the first designer that I worked with, his name is Pathé’O. He just did a collaboration with Dior. I remember the first time, before I reached to his office, I did not know where it was. I walked three hours from this area to another one to another one to another one. Finally I reached his office, and I introduced myself. I said, “Just try clothes on me and pay me so I can go to school.” So, you know —

NELUFAR: You said this to him?

GEORGIE: — so I can pay—

Yes, I told him that.

NELUFAR: The thing that I love about you — and just spending just a few minutes with you, and reading about you — is you’re so honest about how you have suffered and the pain you have gone through. And you are, you- you- are not embarrassed or ashamed of being poor, or your father having to make very tough decisions about your education. He simply couldn’t afford it.

GEORGIE: He couldn’t afford it. I am proud — I would say that I am proud of where I’m coming from. You know, because I strongly believe that no one in this world decide on which family they will be born. Now what is the most important is what you do after — how you try to become the person you want to be.

NELUFAR: Mmmhmm.

GEORGIE: That’s the most important.

NELUFAR: That’s not just talk. For the last decade, Georgie’s been working tirelessly to provide clean water in her homeland, Burkina Faso.

NELUFAR: Your passion for, for this basic human rights comes from your experiences living in, growing up as a child in Burkina Faso. What do you remember of this idea of water being precious and scarce and something that has to be struggled and fought for?

GEORGIE: How can you thrive without access to clean drinking water? And most of the people in Burkina Faso, they live by agriculture — you know, farming. So my father decided to immigrate in Ivory Coast so that he can have a better life for himself and his children. But still, life was — I would say dry.

My strongest memories of my childhood was — why do we have to walk so far to get to the water?

NELUFAR: Did you have to walk for — ?

GEORGIE: Three hours.

NELUFAR: You had to walk for three hours? What did you do on your journey? What did you do? Did you — I’m just thinking, I don’t do anythingfor three hours.


NELUFAR: What did you do when you were fetching water?

GEORGIE: Well, you sing on the road. I was with my grandmother, my cousin girls. We sing, we play sometimes. When we get to the well, we tired, we rest for a little bit. We fill a bucket and we walk back to the village. You know, you do what you have to do because what would you do without water? If you had no choice — basically, water enslaved people because they have no choice. They just have to do it. You know? And to me that is why clean water is a human right.

NELUFAR: Without clean water there’s no liberty, you’re saying —

GEORGIE: No, there’s no freedom. You can’t go to school. You can’t walk. Woman don’t have that freedom to have the possibility to do other things for themselves and for their children.

NELUFAR: You last went to Burkina Faso very recently?


NELUFAR: How has your activism changed your experience of, of going back home?

GEORGIE: You know, every time I go back home — all I’m thinking and all I’m seeing is how can I do more. It’s never enough, whatever I do. Before when I was going, I would spend time with my friends, my family, I was surrounded by love and, you know, all the greatness. Now when I go to Burkina Faso, all I want to do is to find the solution. The solution on how we can bring clean drinking water to my country. Because when I go to villages, I see woman like me, I see young girls like me, that have to spend three hours, four hours — some of them sleep on the road, just to bring back a bucket of water for their family.

You know, if we really want to solve poverty, we need to start from the basic. And to me the basic is water. This is where life start.

It’s been more than 10 years now that I’m working on the water issue. And I co-founded an organization with a friend, Models 4 Water. I was so excited about it. I was like, “Oh my god, finally I will use my platform as a model to help and give back.”

So we start building the first wells outside my village. We raise the funds and we partner with other organizations. Until my friend told me that, “I am so sorry. We have to stop the organization” — because, you know, it is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work and at times — she was in Australia, I’m in London, we have to call — it’s a full time work having an organization. So it was hard for us. So she decided to stop. I was hurt.


GEORGIE: Oh my god. I was depressed.

NELUFAR: Because this was your dream!

GEORGIE: Oh my god, I was so depressed. That is when I decided to — want to share my- my childhood story with the world. And that’s when we came up with “The Water Princess.”

NELUFAR: “The Water Princess” is a children’s book based on Georgie’s experience as a girl fetching water for her family. Instead of a crown, the water princess carries a heavy water bucket on her head.

GEORGIE: I wanted to use the funds of my book deal to build the first well in my grandmother’s village. So we went on and look for different organization that could do that. So we give the funds to one of the organizations. They say, “OK, yes, no problem, we’ll build the well in your grandmother’s village.” And finally they say, “No, we want to build the well somewhere else.”


GEORGIE: I was, again, hurt. That’s when I decided to found the Georgie Badiel Foundation, because I was kind of like, if I don’t stand up for the people, nobody will do. So I have to do it myself.


GEORGIE: And to me it’s very important that I live for something. It’s very important that my life means something to somebody else, so that they can — they can try, too.


GEORGIE: Yes, that’s why I founded the George Badiel Foundation.

NELUFAR: I mean, I’ve not heard of many people turning that many setbacks into a positive, but here you are. What is the hope and dream and aspiration of your foundation? And when you — you keep talking about solving the water crisis, so what does it mean to you to solve the water crisis in Burkina Faso?

GEORGIE: Well, to me, I believe in one country at a time. This is why my main focus is in Burkina Faso. The population is growing every day. We almost — we’re about 18 million. And about 60 and more percent of the population don’t have access to clean drinking water. That’s a lot.


GEORGIE: So to me, my dream is to bring clean drinking water to whole country, which mean that I want every person in Burkina Faso to have access to clean drinking water in their home, or at least, near their home — like five minutes away from their home. And to me, the way that we can solve it is if we can have the rich people help, that would be great. Rich people in the sense that if we have powerful countries around the world that can dedicate at least 0.5 percent of their GDP to solve the water crisis around the world — I think that will be amazing. But for Burkina Faso, I’m partnering with the government of Burkina Faso, and we are doing a study between the students of Columbia University and the students of 2iE in Ouagadougou so that we can find a real solution —


GEORGIE: — to bring clean drinking water to the whole country.

NELUFAR: Data is power.

GEORGIE: Data is power.

NELUFAR: What do you want to tell people with the water privilege that they have, what could we do as individuals to try and fix and tackle this problem?

GEORGIE: So, I wanted to say that to every human being, to use a sense of compassion. To give back. To help someone have the most basic human need, clean drinking water. Because water is everything. We can’t educate a young girl without water. We cannot empower a woman without water. So as human being, let’s use our sense of compassion.

NELUFAR: A lot of people don’t even — they just think, “Oh, this was a problem of the past. Water scarcity, what are you talking about? You know, people used to do that in the ’80s and ’90s. Water scarcity is not an issue,” they’d say to you.

GEORGIE: Yes, for sure. I was arguing as well with my husband, who was saying that he think that clean drinking water is not a human right. I’m like, all right, well, “What I’m going to do with you one day, I will take you to the desert of Burkina Faso, leave you there for four hours without a glass of clean drinking water. Then your thoughts will change!”


NELUFAR: I think essentially what you’re saying is that is people need to check their privilege.

GEORGIE: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. And as you can see, we in Cape Town, everywhere you go, they have been saying how much, you know, they start to run out of water. How can you imagine a city like that can run out of water? But this problem would be global.


GEORGIE: It will be global, because sometimes we think that it only happened to others. Unfortunately not.

NELUFAR: Georgie Badiel. Thank you so much for talking to the Doha Debates.

GEORGIE: Oh my god, thank you for having me! Thank you so much. Thank you.

NELUFAR: Can I just shake your hand? Let me hug you, oh god.


That’s all for the show today. To watch the full live debate, go to YouTube and search for “Doha Debates water scarcity.” You can see all of the speakers’ proposed solutions, and tell us what you think. What are your ideas about ways we can improve the situation for people facing water scarcity? I want to hear from you. Tweet us at @DohaDebates. Or reach me @nelufar.h.


“Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. This episode was mixed by Dara Hirsch. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.