The Emmy-nominated actress, human rights activist and Oxfam ambassador shares the story of how she went from tourist to advocate in Kenya and Tanzania.
Actress Kristin DavisOriginally aired on August 31, 2011
Tavis: Kristin Davis is an Emmy-nominated actress and star, of course, of the very popular “Sex and the City” franchise. She’s also, though, a dedicated human rights advocate and ambassador for Oxfam. Recently she traveled to Tanzania and to Kenya to meet with women whose lives have been torn apart due to unrest, famine and disease. Kristin, an honor to have you on this program.
Kristin Davis: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Davis: I’m doing great, yes, thank you.
Tavis: Was that your first time to Africa?
Davis: No, no.
Tavis: You’ve been many times before.
Davis: Possibly my tenth time, I want to say. I love it. I go every year, if I can.
Tavis: Take me back – I’m asking this for selfish reasons – I think I’ve asked this question many times of persons who have come on to talk about Africa in a variety of ways. Take me back to your very, very, very first trip to Africa. I recall mine like it was yesterday.
Davis: Yes, yes, absolutely, me too.
Tavis: Take me to the first time you went and what you thought.
Davis: Okay, sure.
Tavis: I want to hear it – the first time.
Davis: Well, I’d wanted to go my whole life, but I come from a family that’s not really a traveling family, and they would all just look at me like “Really? Really?” and I’d be like, “Oh, yeah.” I just felt the pull to go. So I was busy, busy, busy and I finally had this window of time in 2001 in January, early 2001, and I thought, I’m just going to go, I’m going to go.
No planning, I barely had my shots, whatever, none of my friends could go with me, so I ended up going alone.
Davis: I know. I didn’t understand that that was odd.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Brave white woman, goes to Africa by herself.
Davis: I just, I had no idea. I had no idea.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Davis: So there I am, because I had been to many places, I thought yeah, why not? I want to go and no one can go, so I went. I was with a very nice, posh safari company that took me around from Tanzania to Kenya, and I had this wonderful guide the whole time named Elvis, and Elvis couldn’t figure me out either.
He was very confused, why was I there alone, where was my husband, and then where was my father, and then where was my husband and then where was my father. (Laughter) This was the whole two weeks, right? Then I felt I really passionately, passionately loved it. I responded to the people, to the place, to the sounds, to the animals.
Every time we would drive between the different places I was going – we went through Arusha, Tanzania, on market day, and there were just tons of people and obviously tons of goats, and I saw a lot of people who looked extremely poor, and some of them looked in what we would consider to be a wasting situation, and AIDS wasting state. But they were just walking around like regular.
So by this time I’d been with Elvis for a while and I said, “Elvis, do these people who look really sick, do you think that they have AIDS?” He was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” I was like, “Really? Maybe they might have AIDS. I think in Tanzania right now it’s pretty bad.”
He was like, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” I was like, “Okay, this is not going to – I’m not going to get very far here.” I think because when you’re with a safari company they don’t want to tell you the truth. They think you’re there for safari; you don’t want to know about the problems, you don’t want to know what’s really going on.
So I thought to myself, I’m going to have to find a way to come here and really get the truth of what’s happening with these people’s lives, the differences, the gap between not just money, that’s only one thing, but the gap in education, the gap in healthcare, the gap in just having a voice in your own lives is just shocking and interesting.
Yet at the same time you see these people who in our world have nothing – “nothing” – but they’re just filled with joy. I find that fascinating.
Tavis: What did you make of that?
Davis: Well, what I make of it, I make many things. I make that it reminds you that things really don’t matter. That even the kind of basic human rights that obviously we believe are fundamental to how you live, even without that you can have a pure kind of a joy in the way that you live every day, and you can live with respect for yourself and the people who are in your world.
I met people who were just so kind and so – they’re filled with their own respect, even though they don’t even know that they have rights. They’re being kind of walked all over by the circumstances they’re in, yet the way that they’re going through life on a day-to-day basis is very inspiring.
Plus joy – just joy. They would sing when you got there and then they sing a different song that they wrote when you leave. (Laughter) You’ve experienced it, right?
Tavis: Many times, yeah.
Davis: It’s pretty special. It’s pretty amazing.
Tavis: What happens inside of Kristin Davis specifically that allows you to go from being a tourist to being an advocate? Because the majority of people that go to Africa go there, they experience the same thing.
You experience – they come back and they tell all their friends, “What a shame.” What a shame this, what a shame that. I saw this and this was fun, this is exciting, but for the people, I saw this, and what a shame.
Tavis: Something has to happen where you go from tourist to advocate. How’d that happen?
Davis: Well, I think inside me that possibility would be there because my parents were always very much into volunteering and very politically active.
Tavis: Just not traveling.
Davis: Not traveling, exactly. We come from the South, so there’s a lot to be doing there. So I think that seed was planted in me anyway. Then that’s another kind of a great thing about what we do, is that we’re exposed to these kind of amazing experiences and what’s the word – like you have access to people that you might not normally have access to.
So soon after that trip I was at a party that George Clooney threw for the Oscars, strangely enough, and he chose to have it benefit Oxfam. So I’m at this party and they have this beautiful little children’s choir from Kenya, and I’m like oh, I just love everything to do with it.
I’m there and I’m at the party and I meet this woman who works for Oxfam and I say, “Oh, I was just in Tanzania and Kenya and it was so fascinating,” and I told her the whole experience and how I couldn’t really get any true information.
She said, “Well, you should definitely come on a trip with us, because we can absolutely fill you in on what’s actually going on.” I said, “That would be great. You should let me know when you need me,” and she said, “Oh, well, we need you now.”
I said, “Well, okay, where? Where do you need me?” She said, “You name a place and we need you to go.” I was like, “Wow, okay.” I didn’t realize that Oxfam was really basically working in everywhere that has extreme poverty, which is many, many places, unfortunately.
So that was how it all began, and my first trip with them was to South Africa and Mozambique, I believe, and it was supposed to be just like we wanted to go and see – we kind of just wanted to experience it. I didn’t necessarily want to publicize it, I wasn’t trying to do that, but then it was so amazing and fascinating that we ended up just going ahead and just doing the whole thing and doing magazine pieces about it and everything.
Tavis: If you, to your point now, because there’s so much travail, so much trouble, and Oxfam is trying to work on so many different fronts around the issue of poverty, if you could change one or two things in the parts of Africa – it’s not true all over Africa, as you know, but in the parts of Africa where people are suffering, if you could impact through your work one or two things, what would you like that to be?
Davis: Well, I think part of my work is focused on women and women’s issues partly because of what I do in life, and I think that in all the communities I’ve seen the women are holding them together in a lot of ways – I don’t mean to offend anyone.
But the men sometimes have had to go to cities to find work because things are so challenging. I would give women a louder voice. That is one of the things we’ve seen as kind of an ongoing theme, is that they’re there, they’re raising the children, they’re trying to get the food, they’re giving their own clothes off their back, they’re sacrificing and yet sometimes they don’t get to have a voice in their community because of the traditional structure of their community.
One of the things that Oxfam does is try to encourage the women to have a voice, and we’ve had many experiences where we’ll go to see a project and everyone will gather together and they’re going to give us a report, and a man will stand up to give a report on the women’s projects.
We have to say, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” (Laughter) Then once you give the women a chance, they’ve got their notes, they’re so excited. They’re so filled with their own possibility that they can actually do this and succeed and make money.
The first – I think we were in the Manica province of Mozambique, which is right on the border with Zimbabwe, and because of the unrest in Zimbabwe the government of Mozambique had stopped giving aid to this area because they didn’t want it to go to the rebels. So there’s this gorgeous area that we call Shangri-La – just so beautiful, mountains and palm trees and just gorgeousness, and they’re all living on less than a dollar a month.
Just unbelievable poverty, but it’s just gorgeous. So this group had taught them about, through Oxfam, our partner, had taught them about raising chickens, so that then they have the eggs, they can cook and feed their children and they can also sell them at market, and the husbands had been against it.
They were like, “No, no, no, no, no, our wives,” and also they can also raise their children, and even if they have AIDS they can kind of raise chickens and it’s not hard work.
So the husbands were against it, and I think only 10 women had succeeded in convincing their husbands to do it. Then when they sold their first batch of chickens they came home with a $20 bill. Then, of course, everybody was excited. (Laughter)
Tavis: Amazing how money does that to people.
Davis: It’s true, and then these women got to speak up and say – and we asked them, “What did you buy with your $20?” and this one woman, she said, “I bought soap.” They don’t even have soap. These are people who are taking care of people with AIDS with nothing.
Then we asked this other woman, “What did you buy?” and she said, “Stationery,” and we were all like, “Stationery? What does she mean?” She meant paper, because she couldn’t send her child to school because you have to send them with their own supplies.
Tavis: Their own paper, yeah.
Davis: We were just so – to me, that’s so inspiring.
Tavis: Let me close –
Davis: Oh, no. (Laughter)
Tavis: I know, I could do this for hours.
Davis: I’m sorry.
Tavis: No, no, I could do it for hours.
Davis: I’m sorry. OK.
Tavis: I love the subject matter. You say something a moment ago that caught my attention – you started to make a point and you said, “I don’t mean to offend anybody,” the point about empowering women, so I didn’t take any offense by that. As a matter of fact, you should say that loudly and clearly and boldly –
Tavis: – with clarity.
Davis: Thank you.
Tavis: No reason to back off of that at all.
Tavis: With me or anybody else for that matter, I would think. But it does raise a fascinating question for me, which is what you have to say about the fact that unless and until around the globe we understand that it is the empowerment of women that will help to change the world –
Davis: Right, right.
Tavis: – because of the role that women do play in the world – see, that’s why I don’t think you ought to back off of that.
Davis: You’re absolutely right.
Tavis: I think that’s a legitimate issue.
Davis: You’re absolutely right.
Tavis: So do you want to speak to that right quick?
Davis: I think you’re right, and I think it is one thing that Kristof has written this beautiful book about it. If you try to think about okay, there are huge problems in the world and it can seem really daunting and overwhelming, but it does seem that the one issue, which is shifting how a woman feels about herself and her life can affect the next generation because she is raising those children, and that will change their perspective and that will open up the world to them. So if there’s one thing that you can do, that’s one thing that’s worth doing.
Tavis: So now we agree.
Davis: (Laughs) Totally.
Tavis: Kristin Davis is now an ambassador for Oxfam, and I’m fascinated by the conversation and by your work. Maybe one day you’ll come back and we’ll talk about some Hollywood stuff.
Davis: That would be great. Ah.
Tavis: This thing is a lot more important in some ways, though.
Davis: Yes, yes.
Tavis: But we’ll talk about that.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Davis: Nice to see you, thank you.
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