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Powerful Pairs

Explore four different stories about Rebel Girls who followed their passions. And they did it with their moms! Hear the stories of Beyoncé Knowles and Blue Ivy Carter, Briana Sullivan and Cambyr Sullivan, Leena Sharma and Bhakti Sharma, and Portia Mbau and Lumai de Smidt. Each of these powerful pairs faced different challenges, but they’re connected to each other by their rebel spirit and vision.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Bianca Salinas. It was written by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Bianca Salinas. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Hey Rebels, sit back, relax, close your eyes if you want to.

We’re about to explore four different stories about Rebel Girls who followed a shared passion. And they did it with their moms! Each of these powerful pairs climbed different heights and faced different challenges, but they’re connected to each other by their rebel spirit and vision.

 While you listen, see if you can find the connections between these stories as we take you around the world and back again, traveling through time, space and possibilities…

First up, we take you to an elementary school classroom in Houston, Texas, where a young rebel girl is just learning how powerful she can become…
Once upon a time there was a girl named Beyoncé who just wanted to disappear. She always looked down at the ground, never raised her hand in class, and barely spoke. Why? Because mean girls at her school didn’t like her light brown skin.

One day, Beyoncé’s first grade teacher taught the class a song. When Beyoncé went home that night and sang it for her family, she felt a rush of excitement charge through her body. Her voice was strong and loud and carried her into all these new places in her heart. Still, that night, as she sang to her mom while she washed the dishes, Beyoncé had no idea how inspiring her voice would become or that she would one day dazzle millions of fans around the world.

The first time Beyoncé stepped on stage to sing, it was for a children’s talent show. Beyoncé was terrified. Her heart was hammering inside her chest. The hot lights were blinding, and the microphone seemed to be laughing at her. But then, Beyoncé took a deep breath. She thought about how the music felt inside her — powerful, fierce, beautiful. And when she opened her mouth, her voice was like a magic spell, the audience hypnotized. 

After that first talent show —which she won!— Beyoncé was hooked. She sang and danced in pageants and competitions. Soon, trophies lined her bedroom walls. Some were even taller than she was!

Beyoncé’s parents spent hours helping her practice. Her mom Tina made her costumes. They hired a live-in vocal coach. Eventually, they even built a big stage in their backyard!

Then, Beyoncé was asked to be part of a girls’ singing group. They practiced day and night and gave everything they had to making their music bold and catchy. The first few years for the group were rough though, and they had a bunch of very painful rejections. But soon, they got signed to a record label and recorded their first album! They sold 60 million records together. And from there, Beyoncé’s career kept soaring, as she recorded solo albums and performed for sold out shows worldwide. 

Still, Beyoncé has never forgotten who she was when she first sang in her mother’s kitchen. And because of that, when Beyoncé became a mom, she wanted to make sure her daughter, Blue Ivy, knew she never had to make herself small so others could feel big.

When Blue was old enough to express her opinion, Beyoncé started asking what she thought about her work. To Beyoncé’s relief, Blue said she’s always proud of her mom—except when she tells corny jokes.

By eight years old, Blue was singing on Beyoncé’s hit song, “Brown Skin Girl.” The song celebrates the power of girls who often get overlooked or bullied for their skin color. And it earned Blue her first Grammy award! 

Beyoncé and Blue continue to collaborate as a dynamic mother-daughter duo. They sing and dance together and Blue can be spotted twirling midair in an acrobat’s hoop in her mom’s latest visual album.

Whatever the future holds for this talented team of two, they will always be cheering each other on, making sure they feel loved, supported and strong. Together, they celebrate the power of music, and the strength we can all find in our voices.

Wow. The idea of Beyoncé being shy still surprises me. Finding her inner strength and passing it onto her daughter is an incredible gift. And speaking of inner strength, we now go to a little town in Massachusetts where we’ll meet another mother-daughter powerful pair…
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Briana who loved hiking and exploring nature. Briana grew up on the West Coast and was always looking for new places to discover. As a young adult, she traveled to 28 different countries in Europe, Asia, North America and South America. She dreamed of traveling the entire world with whatever she could squeeze into her backpack. And when she had kids, she planned to pass that love of exploration on to them too.

When Briana’s daughter Cambyr was 13 years old, they decided they were going to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, which is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, running through fourteen states and covering over two thousand miles. First, they had to do a lot of training. Their goal was to finish the trail in six months, so that meant they would have to hike about 13.5 miles each day. They got large backpacks that they filled with food and clothes so they knew how heavy it would feel as they walked, and they camped out on different mountains, trying to get faster at pitching their tent in the dark or on rocky soil.  

It was fun, but it wasn’t easy. Some of the trails were mucky from the rain, the mosquitos buzzed and bit, and Cambyr was not used to navigating all the stones and twigs. There were thick tree roots sticking out of the ground and ziggety zaggety slopes that her mom called switchbacks. At one point in their training, Cambyr slipped and broke her elbow! The first thing she was worried about was whether they’d have to postpone their plans. But after surgery and physical therapy, she was back on the trail again.

Hiking for six months is more than just a test of physical endurance. Cambyr would need to keep up with her schoolwork somehow. So she and her mom met with her teachers to come up with a plan for her last few months of eighth grade. As for Briana, she took a class in herbalism so she’d know which plants were safe to eat like fiddleheads and wild leeks, and which ones they needed to avoid, like hemlock and poison ivy. Briana also got certified in wilderness first aid, so she could help keep them both safe and healthy. And she decided that she had to bring her guitar with her on the trip to keep them in good spirits. 

As the weather got warmer, both Cambyr and Briana felt more and more excited and confident. And on March 1, 2020, they headed to Springer Mountain in Georgia, where the trail begins! 

Cambyr and Briana were in good spirits, keeping a steady pace and meeting lots of fun people along the trail. But pretty soon they came head on with a cold, driving rain and got really soaked. Of course, this was part of the deal. They just had to keep going. By day three, though, they were completely drenched. Their socks, their shoes, their packs — all a soggy mess. When they finally made it to the hostel where they were supposed to stay for the night, all the beds were full!

It was hard not to be discouraged. But they slogged through and tried to cheer each other up by talking in funny accents or pulling out Briana’s guitar. They also gave each other trail names. Trail names are like nicknames that people call each other on the trail. While Cambyr and Briana were hiking and climbing, they met lots of people with funny trail names like Pop Rocks, Umbrella, and Wack-a-Mole. Briana took the trail name Chickweed, because chickweed is a plant she loves that helps soothe aches and pains. Cambyr decided to take the trail name Kaleidoscope because her personality is all the colors of the rainbow.

The next six months were a wild adventure for Chickweed and Kaleidoscope. Each morning, they woke up in a new place — surrounded by miles of giant pines, craggy peaks, and mist-covered glens — with a chorus of birds cheering them on. They tried to get in a good breakfast that would energize them for the day — like oatmeal with dehydrated fruits and nuts or granola bars and precooked bacon. Cambyr loved anything with bacon. In fact, by the end of the first week, she decided she was going to take a picture of herself in every state they traveled through with a piece of bacon.

Once they were both fueled up for the morning, they packed all their things and headed out. Every day they were stepping into the unknown. There would be new heights to climb, new forests to navigate, new rivers to circle or wade through, in all kinds of weather — the blazing sun, the pouring rain, snow, sleet and even hail!

They hiked anywhere from ten to thirty miles each day, depending on where they wanted to spend the night. One day they actually went 46 miles, and wound up using the stars as their guides. Their feet stung, their bodies ached, and every root and rock felt like a challenge. But even when it hurt so much that they felt like they couldn’t take one more step, they kept on going. 

Each night, they found a new spot to lay down their weary heads. Sometimes it was an outdoor shelter with lots of other hikers all packed in their sleeping bags. Or they’d go to a hostel which had rows of cots in a giant room and people could pick out where they wanted to sleep. They bought groceries and shared meals whenever they were near a food store. Cambyr also used the evenings to do school work and write in her blog. Every once in a while, they splurged for a hotel room and pretended they were glamorous queens, feasting on pancakes and laying in big beds with pillows as fluffy as clouds.

Wherever they were, Briana always made sure to pull out her guitar as the sun went down. She taught herself scales and chords and channeled whatever energy she had left into making a song. Cambyr loved these moments of stillness and calm, both of their bodies finally resting, drifting off to sleep inside the music. 

On August  22, 2020, Cambyr and Briana set out for their last day on the Appalachian Trail. After five and a half months in the wilderness, they had made it to Maine. All they had to do was get up Mount Katahdin, which is where the trail officially ends. It was a brilliantly sunny morning and they were so excited, they could barely catch their breath. 

And then…there it was. The famous sign that says KATADHIN: Baxter Peak, Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Cambyr and Briana were giddy with joy. They couldn’t believe they were actually here! They’d hiked 2,190 miles. Two thousand one hundred and ninety miles of singing, laughing, crying, eating bacon, studying maps, putting on socks that felt like they would never dry, searching for the strength to keep going.

When they got to the sign, Briana pulled out her guitar and raised it above her head. After all, that guitar was a huge part of their journey. Then, she and Cambyr yelled YAHOOOOOOO up at the sky. They didn’t know what else to say. There were no words that could equal all these feelings of joy and relief, love and triumph. They had done it! They had risen to the challenge and surprised even themselves with their stamina and courage. 

They had done it as a mighty mother-daughter team, with and for each other.

Incredible, right? 

What do you think your trail name would be?

Go ahead and think about it while we go to the other side of the globe where this mother-daughter duo is setting out on a different kind of adventure…

Bhakti Sharma was born in India, and grew up in a city called Udaipur: the “City of Lakes” – nestled in the mountains of the Thar Desert. 

Bhakti’s mother, Leena Sharma, loved to swim. That might not sound so unusual to you, but in India, especially in the desert climate where they lived, swimming wasn’t a popular sport. It was even more unusual for girls to be swimmers. Girls were expected to dress modestly – and often swam in their clothes rather than in bathing suits. 

Leena joined a swim team in college, and trained with great coaches. Her family thought it was a strange hobby, but Leena didn’t care. And once she had kids, she hoped they would inherit her love of the water.

When Bhakti was two years old, Leena put her right into the deep end of a swimming pool, and helped her learn to float. Bhakti was a natural from day one! Just like her mother, she loved to swim. As she grew older, Leena was amazed to find that Bhakti could swim for hours at a time.

The two swam together whenever they could, and with Leena as her coach, Bhakti began to train for swimming competitions. Pretty soon she wasn’t just finishing the races, she was winning them! By the time Bhakti was a teenager, she and Leena were swimming all over

the world. They were even the first mother-daughter duo to swim across the English Channel! Bhakti was proud of her achievements, but there was something else she wanted to do—something so difficult only a few people had tried it before. Bhakti wanted to swim in the Southern Ocean.

As Bhakti’s mother, Leena felt nervous. The water would be dangerously cold. But as Bhakti’s coach, Leena knew she had to help her daughter achieve her dream.

Leena would fill a pool with ice. Then Bhakti would swim in the frigid water for 20 minutes before crawling out, her hands and feet numb. Leena would fill a blanket with hot water bags and help her daughter get warm again. This is how they trained for two years.

When Bhakti finally went to the Antarctic and plunged in, the water was so thick, it felt like she was swimming in oil. It was so cold, that within the first minute, her arms and legs went numb! But just when she was about to signal for help, a little black and white penguin slid right underneath her belly, popped up on the other side, and then swam alongside her in the dark waters. Bhakti laughed – she took it as a sign from the universe – right when she was about to give up, here was a little helper to keep her going. Her own personal cheerleader from the Antarctic! 

Bhakti Sharma swam for a total of 41 minutes, and the little penguin stayed with her almost the whole way! 

That day she became the youngest person to ever swim all five oceans. She was also the youngest, and the only Asian woman, to ever swim in the Antarctic Ocean, and she learned she had stayed in the cold icy water, longer than anyone else in the world.

Bhakti truly made a name for herself that day. She became a role model for girls who might want to try something new, something hard, or unusual. But behind all of her records, and all of her success, was her own role model – her mother, Leena.

Okay, everyone needs a penguin cheerleader, am I right?

For our final story, we take you to a land full of amazing wildlife and landscapes. The sights, smells, sounds and tastes of Africa are the inspiration behind these two amazing rebels…

Growing up in Swaziland, South Africa, Portia Mbau had itchy feet. That means, she was always hungry for adventure, always wanting to explore new places and experience different cultures. Swaziland is beautiful, filled with majestic mountain ranges, gigantic waterfalls, wandering rivers, and tall crests of ancient rocks. There are also beautiful wildlife sanctuaries where Portia could see hippos, rhinos, elephants, and over 500 different kinds of birds. As a child, Portia travelled a lot with her family all over South Africa. She was amazed by the sights and sounds of all the different landscapes. She also fell in love with Africa’s different foods, festivals, and traditions. Her favorite food was  her mom’s pickled mango relish. Portia could still remember that first spoonful of salty sweetness like it was yesterday.

Portia followed her explorer’s spirit all the way to America for college. She studied at Oregon University, where she made a lot of friends from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Mali. One day, when the university was celebrating African culture, Portia’s friends made traditional dishes from their homelands and she was amazed! How had she lived so close to them and never experienced these mouth-watering flavors before?! Mbanga soup and cassava leaf; fakoye and jollof rice. Every time she took a bite, Portia felt like she was being transported back to South Africa, the Ngwempisi Wilderness rising up around her, the Hadeda Ibis squawking overhead, or the rush of Victoria Falls coursing through her veins. All of these sights and sensations  were somehow inside the herbs and spices, the butter sauces and lemon dressings.

Portia had never realized how powerful foods could be, connecting her to all of her other senses. She was so inspired. She needed to share this discovery.

After college, Portia moved back home to South Africa and there she fell in love with a man named Jason de Smidt. The two of them got married and moved to Cape Town, where they started cooking for people in their neighborhood. They wanted to make a place where people from all over could gather together and share delicious meals and traditions. In 1992, they started a family restaurant in their dining room, called The Africa Cafe. They only had enough room for ten people to sit around the table and an old gas stove to cook on, but they were thrilled to give it a try.

1992 was a very big year for Portia and Jason. Not only did they open up their dining room to be a restaurant, but they also had a baby girl! They named her Lumai, which means the humming of birds wings, and Lumai is just that — a force of nature, calm and yet, adventurous. From the very start, Lumai was filled with creative energy. She loved decorating the restaurant with bright fabrics and dishes. As she got older, she traveled with her mom to gather ingredients and was fascinated by the stories that went into each recipe. 

Soon, the cafe became a hotspot not only with the locals, but also with visitors from all over the globe! Everyone who walked through the doors of the Africa Cafe got to experience the tastes, smells, stories, and songs from different parts of Africa. They served Moroccan herb salad, Malawi mbatata, Soweto chakalaka, Nigerian suya, and Malagasy calamari. The Africa Cafe had a constantly changing menu, but a few things always stayed the same — everyone was a welcome guest and every drop of food was delectable. 

Customers kept coming back and asking, Can you give us your recipe? What’s the secret ingredient?

Portia smiled. It wasn’t a secret ingredient that made her food so special. It was the whole process of exploring Africa, discovering new plants and wildlife, talking to people about their different cultures and traditions and then bringing that to the food on their plate. But how could Portia possibly put all that into words?

I know how, said Lumai. What if we write a cookbook together? Lumai had already been studying design and photography. She loved taking pictures of all the exotic places they traveled together as a family and the light coming through the restaurant’s large windows. Putting this together with her mom’s recipes seemed like the perfect way to share these experiences.

Lumai went to work, designing the book from cover to cover. She took pictures of her mom in action at the kitchen counter — sometimes sprinkling bits of spiced sugar on a cookie or slicing open a ripe pineapple. Lumai arranged all the food on different plates, decorating it with bright lilies or stalks of maize. She spent days styling the foods, making sure all of the colors and textures complemented each other. Each dish photographed was so yummy looking, it felt like you could eat it off the page. Lumai also included photographs of herself and her mom on all of their journeys, standing in front of majestic trees, mountain ranges, or markets piled high with melons and bananas. She even wrote poetry to include in the book. It was about the honor of sharing Africa through these tastes and smells. 

The Africa Cookbook came out in 2019 and it has been a great success. Each story they’ve included about their relationship to the food feels meaningful and unique. Today, Portia and Lumai continue to create art and food and food that is art together. They’ve recently started their own brand called Food of Africa. They make special sauces, relishes, teas, chutneys, and spice mixes for people to buy so they can cook delicious African meals at home. 

Whether you’re walking through their front door or opening a jar of their special jungle dressing, you are always welcome in Portia and Lumai’s colorful, delicious world. This has been their mission from the start — to share and celebrate the beauty of Africa and its women, past, present and future.

Hey Rebels!

What do you think?

Did you find the common thread between our four stories? The way that each of these powerful pairs shares their passions is unique and inspiring, isn’t it?

Which of these stories sounds the most like something you might do? Which of them gave you a new idea for something to try? And who do you want to share these stories with next?

Give it a think, and let us know how you liked this and all of our stories. And until next time, follow your dreams and staaaaaaay rebel!