Following is the full transcript of ballet dancer Michaela DePrince’s TEDx Talk titled ‘From ‘devil’s child’ to star ballerina’ at TEDxAmsterdam 2014 conference.
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Michaela DePrince – Ballet dancer
My name is Michaela DePrince. When I first started to write my speech, I thought, maybe, I could give it a fairytale kind of twist. But only because most people tell me that my life is a fairytale. But I have to say I strongly disagree.
Yes, I got what I’ve always dreamed of, but I had to fight for it. I wasn’t always called Michaela DePrince. My original name is Mabinty Bangura, and I was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa in 1995, four years after the bloody civil war. This war would displace thousands of men, it would cause thousands of women and children to be raped, and over 50,000 people would be killed. My parents were among them.
I was born with vitiligo, a skin condition. It left white patches all over my body. I was different. In Sierra Leone, they didn’t understand the fact that just because I had white patches on my skin, that I was just born this way, they thought I was a curse. They started to call me “the devil’s child,” because anybody who would look like this would be the child of the devil.
I was ridiculed and harassed, because I looked different. My parents tried to defend me as much as they could, but they understood that I’d never get married because of the way I looked. They tried to educate me, they taught me to read, and they started to save money for my education.
But when my parents passed away, I was defenseless and alone. I’ve never been so scared in my life. My uncle took me to the orphanage, knowing that he could never get a good price for me as a bride, and never came back for me.
In the orphanage we were taken care of by aunties, not like the aunties you have at home, the aunties who love you. They care about you no matter what you do. But these aunties were uneducated women who only took care us to bring food home for their kids. They would wash our clothes and give us food. But these aunties had their favorites.
There were 27 kids in the orphanage. Number 1 got the biggest portion of food and the first choice of clothes. Number 27 got the smallest portion of food and the last choice of clothes. I was number 27.
Everyday in the orphanage, I was starving. I have never felt so alone before. How could this happen to me? This is when I realized it was much easier to not care about anybody because they always ended up leaving me. But then I made a friend in the orphanage. Her name was Mabinty, Mabinty Suma. Number 26 was always in ill health, sick, but she always had a kind heart. And she was always good of full cheer.
Number 26 would always listen to all my fears, and all my dreams. Whenever I was scared, she would sing to me. When I couldn’t fall asleep, she would tell me a bedtime story. And Number 26 is still doing that 15 years later, as my sister Mia. And one day, the big wind threw a magazine right onto the gate at the orphanage. I reached out, and I grabbed it. And I saw something. This amazing creature, this person I have never seen before, she is on her tippytoes, and in this beautiful pink costume. But what really struck me the most was the fact that she looked so happy. I hadn’t been happy in a long time.
So I thought to myself, if she is happy because this is what she is doing, then, maybe, I could be happy too someday. I had to be this person, I just had to be, in order to become something. So I ripped the cover off the magazine, and I put it in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it. Because as number 27, I didn’t have anything to do, they would never give me toys or any clothes, so where else could I put it?
And then, a teacher came to the orphanage to teach us English. She was also pregnant at that time. I showed teacher Sarah the magazine cover, and she explained to me this person was dancing ballet. She was a ballerina. I was going to be this ballerina, I just had to be. I’d always go onto my tippytoes everyday and practice just like the ballerina. I thought, maybe, one day, with everything going so well, I finally had somebody who cared about me, maybe one day I could be this ballerina.
Teacher Sarah cared about me so much, and she knew how important it was for me to get a good education, so she would always give me extra lessons. After a few extra lessons, teacher Sarah and I started to walk towards the gate. Me twirling around, trying to be the ballerina on the magazine. And all of a sudden, two rebels come towards the gate, and a little rebel lagging behind them. And around the corner, a truck full of them. They were laughing and cheering. They must have been drinking a lot or under some type of drug. And they saw us. They saw that teacher Sarah was pregnant.