It occurred to me recently, during a phone conversation with my cousin Vive, that though I had talked a lot about TEDxDar on Facebook and Twitter before it happened, I never came back to you, my readers, to tell you how it went. Better late than never, here’s that story…
TEDxDar began early on a Saturday morning (registration ended at 10:00 a.m.). Thank God, the event organizers had foreseen that many of us would have left home without eating breakfast (as was my case), so the first item on the agenda was an eat-and-mingle breakfast. Well fed and with chatting out of the way, we settled down in the new auditorium at the National Museum and waited for our minds to be blown away by innovative ideas. Innovative ideas? Hold on. Am I getting ahead of myself? Are you familiar with TED, TEDx, and TEDTalks? In case you’re not, let me give you a little background. From the TED website:
TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer — TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.
The ‘x’ in TEDxDar tells you that it was an independently organized TED event, through the TEDx program. According to TED:
TEDx was created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading.” The program is designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. At TEDx events, a screening of TEDTalks videos — or a combination of live presenters and TEDTalks videos — sparks deep conversation and connections. TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis.
The last piece of the puzzle is TEDTalks, probably the best known aspect of TED. In case you are not already one of the millions of people who watch TEDTalks online…
TEDTalks began as a simple attempt to share what happens at TED with the world. Under the moniker “ideas worth spreading,” talks were released online. They rapidly attracted a global audience in the millions. Indeed, the reaction was so enthusiastic that the entire TED website has been reengineered around TEDTalks, with the goal of giving everyone on-demand access to the world’s most inspiring voices.
And then, I woke up the next morning and started to do the math. How much exactly was this going to set me back financially? I checked online and realized that a return ticket to Johannesburg would set me back upwards of US$ 700. And that was just the flight. Oops, it was time for me to start backpedaling.
Now, that you are up to speed on TED, TEDx, and TEDTalks, let me tell you more about TEDxDar 2011.
The theme of TEDxDar 2011 was “Who Killed Zinjanthropus?”, Zinjanthropus being a fossil of early man, said to have lived 1.75 million years ago, that was discovered in Tanzania (and is currently housed at the National Museum where TEDxDar 2011 took place). In 2011, as mainland Tanzania celebrated the 50th anniversary of her independence–December 9, 2011–this question served as a metaphor for the fragile balance needed “to navigate the clung-to and foresaken past as well as the future [that]…[Tanzania] seems to be striving for”.
The first speaker of the day was Roland Valckenborg, founder and managing director of the Tanzanian start-up company Windpower Serengeti Ltd. Dr. Valckenborg spoke about our ever growing addiction to energy and said that though the little things we do as individuals to curb our power consumption (such as switching off lights in rooms that are not being used) were a good start, he explained that they were not enough. To make a meaningful difference, we needed to consider doing something bigger. As a wind power specialist, Dr. Valckenborg, told us how easily we could harness the power of the wind to generate our own alternative renewable source of power. On a larger scale, he suggested that this could also be done in rural areas in Africa that were not yet on national power grids. As though to support Dr. Valckenborg’s point, the electricity went out several times during his presentation.
Following Dr. Valckenborg, we heard from Erasto Mpemba, a Tanzanian physicist-turned-herbalist credited with discovering the Mpemba effect: the observation that warm liquid freezes faster than cold liquid under certain conditions. I had learned about the Mpemba effect in high-school physics at the American-curriculum high school I attended (and use it daily to justify pouring water from my kettle straight into the ice tray 🙂 ), but I’d never heard that this observation was attributed to a Tanzanian who observed it while only in high school himself. Curious to know how? Here’s his story (as shared on the Lancaster University website):
Whilst making ice-cream at school with fellow students, Erasto Mpemba placed a hot mixture for making ice-cream into a refrigerator even though he was supposed to wait for it to cool. He placed his mixture next to that of a student that had not used boiling milk whilst rushing to ensure that he would get his into the fridge before space had run out. Later on when he returned, he noticed that his mixture had frozen first. When he asked his teacher about what he had seen his teacher that said he must have been confused and that it couldn’t freeze faster. However, Mpemba decided to do his own experiments with both milk and water and continued to see similar results. When a professor from a nearby university, Dr. Osborne, came to visit the school, Mpemba questioned him about what he had seen. At the time, he was unable to give an explanation for the effect but when he returned to the university he asked one of the technicians to try the experiment and report the results. “The technician reported that the water that started hot did indeed freeze first and added in a moment of unscientific enthusiasm “But we’ll keep on repeating the experiment until we get the right result” (E. B. Mpemba and D. G. Osborne, “Cool?,” Phys. Educ.4, 172-175 (1969).) When Dr. Osborne continued to get similar results, he and Mpemba together published the paper from which the above quote is taken. When this was published in New Scientist, readers began to write in in support of this claim with other stories.
Mr. Mpemba told us a sad story of how, despite his scientific discovery, he did not go on to enjoy a lucrative career in physics. Disenchanted with science which, according to him, claims to have all the answers but often doesn’t—although the Mpemba effect has repeatedly been observed, science is yet to explain why it occurs— Mr. Mpemba’s new passion is herbal medicine. With herbal medicine, Mr. Mpemba said he didn’t need to understand why certain herbs cured specific diseases; rather, all he knew for sure was that they did because he’d seen them work time and time again.
The next talk began with a poignant statement (originally in Swahili but translated here in English):
The speaker was Msafiri Zawose, a young Tanzanian musician who, unlike many of his peers that embrace foreign styles of music, creates music rooted in the traditional style of his own Gogo culture. Mr. Zawose, son of the late Dr. Hukwe Zawose (also a famous traditional Tanzanian musician) shared many pearls of wisdom during his talk, including:
He then went on to do what he does best—perform—eliciting reactions such as this one from Kathleen Bomani, the TEDxDar event curator:
I felt the same.
After the musical interlude, it was time to hear from someone who I was very surprised to see speaking at TEDxDar because the rules of TEDx clearly stipulate that “TEDx events may not be used to promote spiritual or religious beliefs, commercial products or political agendas”. The next speaker was Tanzanian Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Minerals, January Makamba. In my experience, East African politicians are gifted at turning any gathering into a political rally, so for Mr. Makamba not to do this, I’d have to first see it to believe it.
To his credit, Mr. Makamba gave a fascinating non-political talk on the concept of sameness, based on statistics taken from the Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey 2010. His talk began by describing the statistically typical Tanzanian: a poor 17-year-old girl, living in rural Tanzania, whom he called Zawadi. Zawadi lived in a mud hut, had no secondary school education, would marry at the age of nineteen, and would begin having children during her first year of marriage. Mr. Makamba then compared Zawadi’s life to that of another 17-year-old girl, more like the audience at TEDxDar, i.e., the 20% wealthiest Tanzanians. This girl he called Vanessa. Unlike Zawadi, Vanessa would grow up in a 4-bedroom house in a city, with running water and electricity, be assured of a university education, and not get married until she was done with university at the age of 23. Zawadi’s and Vanessa’s lives were starkly different. In fact, the only thing they shared in common (other than their age and gender) was that they would both get married while already pregnant (go figure!). Statistics show that the gap between the likes of Zawadi and of Vanessa, in Tanzania, would only continue to grow over the next few decades. Mr. Makamba posed the question: “What could be done to make Zawadi’s and Vanessa’s lives more the same?”, while encouraging the audience to consider non-obvious solutions.
After a short break, TEDxDar continued with a talk by Richard Mabala, a Tanzanian (of British descent) educator-turned-activist, who spoke about how the Tanzanian education system kills imagination. Imagination, Mr. Mabala argued, was fundamental to growth and development because someone first had to imagine something new before they could turn it into reality. His talk was one of the most humorous of the day, and it was clear from the bursts of applause during his presentation that the audience agreed with what he said. According to Mr. Mabala, Zinjathropus killed himself because he was unwilling to open up and change, so instead, he shut down and died.
The next speaker mentioned early in her talk that she was a product of the kind of schools Mr. Mabala referred to in his talk: schools where bricks served as seats and where students learned about Bunsen burners without ever seeing one. Nonetheless, she rose to become the first female Tanzanian FAA (American Federal Aviation Administration)-certified commercial pilot and maintenance engineer. Owner of two Tanzanian aviation companies and named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2011, the next speaker was none other than Susan Mashibe. Ms. Mashibe’s talk was particularly inspiring to me, possibly because like me, she is a young, black, Tanzanian woman, with a background in science & engineering. The thing that stood out most for me, from Ms. Mashibe’s talk, was the idea that our lives are not defined by the circumstances we are born in; rather, we can become whatever we choose to be, as long as we are determined and stay the course in the face of obstacles we encounter.
The rules of TEDx state that 25% of the total number of talks at any TEDx event must be official, pre-recorded TEDTalks. After hearing from Ms. Mashibe, the audience at TEDxDar watched 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Orgasm by writer and humorist, Mary Roach. The TEDxDar organizers caught a lot of flak on social media for choosing this particular talk. Personally, I thought it was a light and interesting diversion from all we’d heard until then, and the subject matter was guaranteed to keep everyone awake.
Fully caught up on obscure facts about orgasms, we then heard from Bobb Muchiri, a young self-taught Kenyan animation and film director. Mr. Muchiri spoke about the importance of not only telling African stories, but of telling them in an African way which, according to him, is not necessarily the linear way of Western storytelling. Mr. Muchiri told us about his past and how he came to be the animator and film director that he is today. He spoke at length about “Kichwateli”, an Afro-sci-fi music-mentary that he directed, but sadly, the power went out just as he began playing it for the audience. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch this very cool music-mentary when I got home later in the day.
We then broke for lunch. After a delicious meal and lots of discussion about the morning-session talks, we made our way back to the auditorium to hear more. However, listening to talks and full stomachs do not go hand in hand. Thankfully, the TEDxDar organizers had already thought of this, so the first presentation after lunch was a lively music-and-dance performance by Sanaa Sana Band. Energetic and very rhythmical, this was the perfect antidote to the afternoon slump.
Dr. Julie Makani
Wide awake after Sanaa Sana’s lively performance, the next presentation was a pre-recorded talk by Dr. Julie Makani, award-winning Tanzanian medical researcher in the field of sickle-cell disease. I learned, from Dr. Makani’s talk, that Tanzania has one of the highest annual birth rates of sickle-cell disease in the world. With Tanzania, and the rest of Africa, being so strongly affected by sickle-cell and other diseases, Dr. Makani stressed the importance of Africans being involved in scientific and medical research to help find solutions to ease their great disease burden.
Leaving the world of medicine, the next speaker came from the Tanzanian world of sports. Sports?! Yes. Before I go any further, please watch this video.
John Stephen Akhwari
The next speaker was none other than John Stephen Akhwari, who as Answers.com will tell you is…
a Tanzanian athlete who ran the marathon at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. During the race he fell and severely cut and injured his right knee. Instead of dropping out, since he no longer had a chance to win a medal, he trudged on, limping noticably. He would alternate trotting and walking. The winner of the marathon, Mamo Walde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished in 3:25:27, more than an hour after the winner, when there were only a few thousand people left in the Olympic Stadium and the sun had set. 17 of the 74 competitors in the marathon that day did not finish the race. John Stephen Akhwari, bloodied and injured, was not one of them.
Now an elderly man, John Akhwari told us about his life, starting from his earliest days when his motivation to run was winning a bottle of soda, which he would jealously ration out and share with his friends. He spoke to us about winning international races, when he was a little older, and of winning prize money greater than the president’s then-monthly salary. Unfortunately, he also told us of a time when $US 1,000 prize money was surreptitiously taken from him by a Tanzanian government official, under the guise that the money rightfully belonged to the Ministry of Culture and Sports since Mr. Akhwari was still only a student. The injustice of that story spurred the TEDxDar audience to action (incited by this tweet…I believe).
And so, a voluntary collection was taken up to right the wrong committed against Mr. Akhwari so many years ago.
Naturally, Mr. Akhwari also told us about the race in Mexico City and the events which led to him uttering these famous words:
When he was done speaking, the money collected by the audience (not quite US$ 1,000) was presented to him by Mr. Bomani, a former classmate and father of two members of the TEDxDar organizing team.
After a long round of applause, the next presenter, self-proclaimed feminist and human rights activist Leila Sheikh, took the stage with a controversial presentation entitled: “Women: Who Owns Our Bodies?”. Leila Sheikh asked this fundamental question in relation to sex work. According to her, if women truly owned their own bodies, then they would be able to choose to earn a living through the consensual exchange of sex for money, i.e., prostitution. She shared her experiences of working with commercial sex workers, many of whom chose the profession because it allowed them to earn a good living by doing something they were skilled at. In her presentation, she shared concepts such as “sex work is work” and “Sex workers’ rights=Human rights”.
The last talk of the day came from theologian-cum-investigative-journalist Evans Rubara, who spoke about the evils of the Tanzanian mining industry. Mr. Rubara spoke of the massive corruption in Tanzania’s mining sector and shared negative effects that mining in Tanzania had on miners and on communities surrounding mines. Though Mr. Rubara had evidence to support his claims, I felt that his vitriol was misdirected at private mining companies instead of at the Tanzanian government, which holds the rights to Tanzania’s mineral wealth and whose responsibility it is to safeguard and ensure the well-being and prosperity of all Tanzanians
Bi. Kidude (& Ashimba)
Living in Tanzania, I had heard of Bi. Kidude before but had never had the chance to see her perform. I was excited to be watching her live for the first time. She arrived on stage accompanied by Ashimba, a good-in-his-own-right musician that I knew from past performances. All eyes focused on her, Bi. Kidude began to sing. At first, I wondered what all the hype was about: she sounded like any other old lady to me. The rest of the crowd might have felt the same because they quickly started to clap along (encouragingly?) while she sang. Bi. Kidude would have none of that. She authoritatively motioned to the crowd to cut it out, and cut it out we did! 🙂
We listened to her in silence. After a while, something changed. As though she had only been warming up earlier, she began to sing in a most haunting, lamenting, wail-like manner, masterfully playing with her voice in the typical style of Arabic-inspired Taarab music. The crowd was captivated. Were it not for the music being produced on stage, you’d have been able to hear a pin drop.
She performed a few songs, some of which were obvious classics, judging from the way the crowd sang along. But mostly, we simply stared and listened in amazement. Then, it was time for her to leave. Respectfully, Ashimba began to steer her to close her set and leave the stage. Again, Bi. Kidude would have none of that. Instead, she decided to chat with the crowd, telling us of past exploits and of her travels around the world. When she had no more to say, she began to sing again. It was irreverent, I know, but still, I had to say it:
Eventually, after an encore, Bi. Kidude ended her set. And with that, TEDxDar came to an end.
I was on a high for a couple of days after TEDxDar. In an effort to understand why, I realized it had a lot to do with the same sentiments expressed in this tweet:
That’s what it was: I felt so proudly Tanzanian. I had spent the day, for once, not listening to all the problems that plague my country and continent. The talks I’d heard hadn’t focused on bad governance, corruption, poor health infrastructure, or endless traffic. I hadn’t heard about the passivity of my countrymen or the shortcomings of Africans in general. Instead, I’d heard about Tanzanian achievers in science, sports, and the arts. I’d heard stories and seen examples of Tanzanians being excellent, courageous, brave, honorable, analytical and full of integrity. I saw young Tanzanians come together in an attempt to repair an injustice committed by their government so many years ago. And if I, in my early thirties, was so profoundly affected, I wonder how much more those younger than me would be affected by hearing these same empowering stories.
I can’t say it enough: congratulations to the TEDxDar organizing team for putting together such a wonderful event. I look forward to many more!
If you’d like to know if there’s a TEDx event coming soon to an East African city near you (or if you are interested in organizing a TEDx event yourself), visit the official TEDx Events page to find out more.
Until the next time,
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This post is dedicated to my cousin Vive, with whom I share both a love of knowledge and of TEDTalks.