It’s easy to see why Hannah Simone radiates that effortlessly cool vibe—she’s an actress, former MuchMusic VJ and passionate about girls’ education—not to mention she also happens to be Canadian. For those reasons and many more, she’s also a Free The Children celebrity ambassador. On her recent travels to India and Kenya with ME to WE, Hannah reveals her most powerful moments and how her trip experiences have shaped her worldly perspective. Despite being a celebrity who now calls LA home, her down-to-earth sensibility and candid conversation will leave you inspired (and may lead you to binge-watch more New Girl episodes!). Read on for Hannah’s ME to WE Trips insights.
Q: What was it like when you first visited the Maasai Mara?
It was a long drive to Bogani, where we stayed, and I had no idea that the ride would basically be an impromptu safari! I had never seen a zebra or giraffe in the wild before, so I quickly turned into a 4-year-old, fully freaking out at the sight of every animal because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! It was such a cool way to be introduced to the area and see how integrated the animals are with the people.
Q: The first class at Free The Children`s Kisaruni All Girls Secondary School graduated while you were in Kenya and you got to attend the ceremony. Tell us a bit about that experience.
It was an interesting day for me because so many people had a direct relationship with the graduates and had been to Kenya before. But for me—it was my first trip—I actually didn’t know how I belonged. It kind of felt like I was crashing someone’s wedding! The fact that they invited me and wanted to include me was a shock because I knew I was going to be a part of the history of girls’ education in the region. It was an honour to bear witness to it and really exciting.
Q: How did you feel when you presented your graduate with a rafiki?
It was a beautiful moment—I made the rafiki and a card for her. After the ceremony, she came and found me and introduced me to her mom and aunt. Her mom gave me a huge hug and said, ‘thank you for being here for my daughter and showing up.’ It gave such gravity and importance for me. I knew instantly in that moment why I was supposed to be there and not anywhere else. We bonded and became fast friends.
Q: What was is like to celebrate New Year’s in Kenya and watch Nelly Furtado perform?
New Year’s Eve was so incredible, dancing under the stars with the Kenyan Boys Choir in the Maasai Mara—nothing will compare. It’s ruined all of my future New Year’s because I will never have a better one!
Watching Nelly with the Kenyan Boys Choir was emotional. I felt empathy for her as she was moved by the song they sang to her—there was no way not to be moved when you see someone have that honest and raw emotion. And it relates to the entire trip and the once in a lifetime experience I was having. When it’s all over, the only people who really understand are the ones who were on that journey with you. We were all with Nelly in that moment, witnessing her connection to Kenya and its people.
Q: Previously, you travelled with ME to WE to India. How did that trip compare to your experience in Kenya this year?
The only difference between the two was the physical landscape. India in the desert is very harsh and before the monsoon, everything is extremely dry. The need for water was a huge issue and if they don’t get a good monsoon, it can impact everything, including children’s education. In Kenya, the Mara is so lush and green but water sources are far. When I did the Water Walk, I realized the need for water is an obstacle for children’s education in both places. And that’s the brilliance of Free The Children’s Adopt a Village development model because it’s successful in combatting similar issues in multiple countries around the world.
Q: Can you explain more about your Indian heritage and what it was like to return to India?
I was in India when I was 16 and I did a lot of work on the HIV AIDS epidemic because it was an issue happening to my people, but ignored. I left for 15 years after that and I’ve always wanted to return to contribute something more. When I was asked to travel on the first celebrity ambassador trip to India at WE Day, I knew I would go with a great purpose. The coolest thing was hanging out with the students at the elementary school. Once our translator explained what I did and that I had gone to university and received two degrees, I seemed to have blown these little girls’ minds! They were shocked that an Indian woman could be successful and then return to help. It was an incredible full circle moment.
Q: On either trip, what was your most powerful moment?
In both Kenya and India, I enjoyed spending time with students the most and understanding how natural obstacles like access to clean water, had prevented the previous generation from getting an education. Coming from an Indian family, education is paramount. For my dad, it was the most important—he said it was the one thing he could give me as a girl that no matter what, no one could take away from me. In having these powerful experiences, you kind of get depressed—not because of what you’ve seen, it’s inspiring and exciting—but because you want to do things when you return home and you realize how much you miss it. It’s this mutual inspiration of figuring out how we can all make things work a little better on this planet. Just by talking about your experiences, you can get others excited and inspired, too.
Q: What did you learn that you’d like to share with others about your trip experiences?
We’ve created these constructs of how this planet works but really, we’re all just neighbours. We’re all people, trying to make it through the day. We need to break down the idea of ‘us’ and ‘the other’. I think people get very overwhelmed when travelling, but in reality, there aren’t many differences between you, me and Mama Jane in Kenya. I’ve laughed more with the mamas as much as anyone else—they are funny, cool women just trying to make a better life for their kids, just like us here. I think changing the conversation to giving back while you travel is going to turn the tide. To realize we’re all on this planet, together, is powerful. We may speak different languages and live in different cities, but we’re all the same. Just go travel and see what you can give.
Follow in Hannah’s footsteps on your own unique trip to Kenya/Tanzania or India. Click here to learn more.