On February 7th 2017, TED came to Nairobi. The ubiquitous platform that brings together a heady mix of science, tech, dreaming, possibility and pluralism, was in Nairobi searching for African ideas ahead of the 2017 TED Global, slated for Arusha Tanzania later this year.
As always, the speakers were a smorgasbord of individuals tied together by a single thread – that they see the world's problems as possibilities, opportunities to influence change and engender new directions. The event brought together a carefully curated group of African speakers, many speaking for the first time in a public forum as the lure of TED drew them out of their worlds and onto its global stage. Speakers spanned the continent – from Egypt to South Africa and everywhere in between, from millennials to baby boomers, confirming the notion that changing society is not the purview of any one group, or any specific discipline.
Therein lies the magic of TED, and it was a live in the East Africa capital.
At the forum there was Ghada Wali, an Egyptian designer who used Arabic script to engage with children from refugee communities by unlocking dialogue in language brought alive through Lego blocks. There was Nabila Abilha a young Kenyan who uses large scale painting projects to bring harmony into conflict ridden communities. Her latest project – painting houses of multiple faiths in yellow in Likoni, Kenya. Because yellow is the colour of pluralism. Yellow is the colour of the sun, which shines on us all. There is no discrimination, only equality and love and the community came to experience it through Colour in Faith.
Words were woven by Zimbabwean author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga as she spoke on the untapped power of Africa’s creative economy, both as an influencer for the change we seek and as a financial reservoir that lies untapped in many of our countries.
There was Mutua Matheka, the hip Kenyan photographer who began taking photographs of his hometown of Nairobi to teach westerners the other side of his city, beyond the slums that comes up on a Google search of Nairobi. Instead he has learnt how profound his images have been on the city’s residents, helping them find a beauty they never knew existed. His counterpart Kenyan – the petite Georgina Goodwin, who has used her lens to bring to the fore the challenges rural women across the country face, but more importantly the resilience of African women as they have overcome breast cancer, fistula, FGM and more.
These visual storytellers wove cityscapes and humanity together as they shared the poetry of their lenses.
There were scientists and explorers – Nat Geo’s youngest explorer who has discovered Goldie – a new species of spider in the space like environment of MARS-abit in Northern Kenya, the veterinarian who is working determinedly to eradicate rabies in Kenya, the most infectious disease in our region; and the feathermaker, who is learning about Africa’s birds and how are humanness relies so deeply on them.
The day hosted changemakers like Jay Lain the cyclist South African – whose traumatic cycling injuries started him on a quest that led to the development of a new 3D printing system. One that enables the reproduction of organic bone material – inside one’s own body, changing the way bone recovery and grafting happens. Pioneering biosciences in the form of medical breakthroughs are coming out of South Africa in a post Barnard era. Gautam Shah on the other hand is a techie turned conservationist who married his two worlds and is changing the face of wildlife conservation by introducing gaming as a technique to promote elephant conservation through the Internet of Elephants.
The diaspora came too! Represented by “returnees” Nomusa Daniels and Adedana Ashebir who run the podcast Afracanah, an irreverent journey of life in the in-between lane, second generation Africans who have moved to mother Africa, but find themselves caught between two worlds. Chris Mukasa and his crew from Fatuma’s Voice brought sweet sounds and powerful poetry reminding us of the unfinished agenda and sense of hopelessness that faces many of Africa’s youth.
There is still work to do – but the vibrancy, energy and power that was shared by the speakers is what defined the day.
These stories and more made up TED Nairobi Ideas Search 2017. Perhaps most inspiring was that these stories represented but a snapshot of nominated, suggested, and reviewed ideas in the run up to the event.
Many did not make it to the TED stage. However those stories are still happening out there, across communities, laboratories, in wide open spaces, on rooftops and on the savannah. The activities represented by these stories are real-time, alive. A reminder of how our world is changing through the tenacity, thoughtfulness, willpower and hope of so many individuals across our African landscape. As exciting as TED was, its that reality which shines a light into our future.
Images: Kevin Gitonga