A day at TEDxEuston: Celebrating Unconventional Wisdom
Earlier this year, I got an invitation to an event on Facebook. It was for TEDxEuston and was set for the 1st of December at the Mermaid, in London’s Blackfriars. Though I’d heard of TED and even watched videos of previous talks including the very popular ‘The danger of a single story’ by Chimamanda Adichie, I had never actually attended a TED event.
Reading up on it, I found out that TEDxEuston, now in its fourth year, is an organisation which aims to reflect ideas and inspired thinking of a new generation of African leaders and they partnered with Shell International LTD, CDC and a few other companies for this year’s event.
At the risk of being accused of stereotyping, I must confess to being a bit apprehensive about an event organised by Africans, particularly Nigerians, as we usually exhibit a lackadaisical attitude in matters of punctuality and good organisation. However, I was pleasantly surprised and suitably impressed at the high level of professionalism and organisation evident in every aspect of the event right from the advertising, ticket sales, registration of delegates, the polite and helpful demeanour of the team and the smooth flow of proceedings on the day.
I have to say that after sitting for over 8 hours listening to 13 speakers including JepChumba, Amina Mohammed (Az Zubair), Jacqueline Novogratz, Queen Sylvia Nagginda Luswata of Buganda and Alcinda Honwana, my mind was reeling from the kaleidoscope of ideas and perspectives I heard. This post is an attempt to document what I picked up. I will paraphrase some of the speakers’ talks and then share my thoughts. Also, instead of introducing each speaker in fine detail, I will hyperlink their names to a site where you can read up on them (if I find one) otherwise this will be a looooooong post as some of their credentials will take up numerous pages.
South African judge Albie Sachs, in his talk titled ‘We are all leaders’ spoke of the spirit of Ubuntu and the soft vengeance of a freedom fighter. “It is more important to live in a country where there is rule of law than to put one person in jail,” he said, encouraging us to leave the past behind and strive to improve our world rather than seek revenge.
Dr Frank Njenga, a consultant psychiatrist, anecdotally mused on being a grandfather and how the changes in society will affect posterity. With the help of startling research findings, he talked about the marked increase in mental health issues in immigrant Africans living abroad. He called on leadership to ‘think like a grandfather, not a despot’ and design policy which will benefit generations yet unborn.
British writer and broadcaster, Faith Jegede told moving stories of her autistic brothers and what they taught her via video clip. You can watch the clip – Autism through a sibling’s eyes. She said her one request is, “Please don’t tell me I’m normal.” The chance for greatness, for progress and for change dies the moment we try to be like someone else. You don’t have to be ‘normal’. You can be extraordinary. The pursuit of normality is the sacrifice of greatness.”
Jason Njoku, CEO Iroko TV, talked about his phenomenal failure which eventually led to his success with Iroko partners, the largest distributor of Nigerian music and movies online. He said, “from 2005-2010 I was a complete failure. What is failure? It’s personal. People are afraid to fail, they fear the shame. Human beings have an amazing capacity to normalise things. If they fail, it becomes normal. I embraced failure. It became normal. I learned to live with it. With nothing to lose, I was unshackled from risk. Our culture, our parentage, discourages us from doing what we, as African children, really want to do. I’m a certified failure.” He ended his talk with this benediction; “ You are smarter than me. Go out there and be brilliant.”
Director of Sahel Capital Partners, Ndidi Nwuneli, told us how she used her anger to facilitate change in Nigeria via her not-for-profit organisation, LEAP in her talk titled ‘Rage for change’. Stating that we are the elite, among the 5% of the Nigerian population which has a university education, she challenged us to do less complaining on social media but instead to act by channelling “your rage and anger into positive change. How do we keep angry enough to want to change this country? By working together.” She rounded up by quoting her favourite African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.” Get angry, stay angry and let’s go far together.”
Trevor Ncube, chairman of Alpha Media Holdings in Zimbabwe, whose life has been remarkably unconventional, had us in stitches and tears all at once as he recounted his difficult childhood. His talk, ‘Life is uncoventional, embrace it,’ was replete with tales of the severe psychological abuse at the hands of some teachers due to his undiagnosed dyslexia and malapropism. He spoke about growing up poor; how being fired from work served as a catalyst, leading him to start his publication; of peddling the newspapers himself when the Zimbabwean government banned vendors from selling it. He concluded by highlighting that technology is presenting boundless potential for change in Africa now. Hear him tell it in his own words;
“I was consistently dull at school. When you’re dull, the teachers hate you. My teachers hated me. It turns out I had dyslexia and malapropism. Teachers matter. The words we say to others can build or destroy. We all need people who believe in us. It took two years of one teacher consistently telling me I had potential for me to believe it. Sometimes it’s important to get fired or deposed so that we can move out of our comfort zones so we can achieve. When we are going through tough times, like my daughter would say “it’s the worst day of my life” but guess what, there are worse times ahead. Right now there are over 750 million Africans with mobile phones – technology is a powerful vehicle for positive change”
Born blind, singer/songwriter and producer, Cobhams Asuquo had this to say;
“I am a dreamer. One of the things that has fuelled my ability to dream has been the gift of blindness. I was born blind so never worried about not being able to see. To a child born blind, blindness has no psychological or sociological meaning. However, as I grew older, I faced challenges as a sightless person living in a sight-ful world. People would have excused my failure on account of my blindness. Failure will come but the same way that it comes, we must see to it that it goes. We treat the African continent like a disabled child and are quick to excuse the failures of the child when we can’t afford to. DO NOT indulge failure. Three lessons I’ve learnt from blindness; 1) Do not excuse failure for any reason or any account. 2)Trust people, even when you have no reason to; 3) Sight can sometimes be a distraction, be ‘blind’ to be focused.”
The BBC presenter, Komla Dumor, led us in a spontaneous and rousing rendition of the Nigerian national anthem then proceeded to tell us he’s Ghanaian. He also regaled us with several anecdotes about being mistaken for Nigerian. Amidst the laughter, he shared some home truths.
“Yes, there’s a lot of good news about Africa, but there has to be balance, please don’t patronise. When in doubt, ask an African expert. You are now talented and enlightened enough to work anywhere in the world. You are no longer limited. There comes a point when you realise that Africa is not the same and the story cannot be told in the same way. The narrative will always glorify the hunter until the lion learns how to write. It’s not so much about what the international media does but about what you write about yourself.”
By the time the last speaker, renowned novelist and Orange prize for fiction winner, Chimamanda Adichie, came on, you could feel the buzz of excitement zinging around the auditorium. Our expectations were high and we were not disappointed. In her signature conversational-style delivery, she spoke about issues surrounding gender inequality in Africa. Punctuating her speech with familiar Nigerianisms like ‘bottom power’, she said;
“We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them, to be macho! Then we raise our women to cater to our men’s fragile egos. Why should a woman’s success be intimidating to a man? A man who would be intimidated by me is a man I will have no interest in. Why do we put so much effort into preparing women for marriage, but not same for men? The problem with gender is that it prescribes who we should be instead of recognising who we are. Imagine how much freer we would be if we did not have to live under the weight of gender expectations. Culture does not make people; people make culture. A feminist is a man or a woman who says there’s a problem with gender and we must fix it.”
My first TEDx experience was truly heartening. I was equally encouraged and challenged to contribute; not just to the conversation on moving Africa forward but also to find practical ways in which to actually do so.
The TEDxEuston team set the bar exceptionally high with this year’s event and the mind boggles as to how they can top it next year. Whatever the case, God willing, I will definitely be there to see how they do it for myself.