By Omar Mohammed
In 1984, Richard Saul Wurman, a self-proclaimed “information architect”, and Harry Marks decided to create an exclusive platform that will assemble people from the world of technology, entertainment and design. The concept was simple: speakers will be given a maximum of 18 minutes where they can present their “ideas worth spreading.” Since 1990, when the first conference took place in Monterrey, California, TED, as it is now known, has become a global phenomenon where, as one writer has put it, “the great and the good c[o]me to hear Al Gore talk about climate change and Bill Gates about computing.”
TED Conference, held in Long Beach, California with a simulcast in Palm Springs, and TEDGlobal, hosted in Edinburgh, Scotland, take place annually and are invitee-only events with tickets costing $6,000. However, the talks are available online at TED.com and YouTube for free where they have become immensely popular. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on ’The Danger of a Single Story‘ at a 2009 TEDGlobal has attracted over two million views on TED.com and close to five hundred thousand hits on YouTube. All together, the more than a thousand talks currently available on TED.com, have been viewed by at least 300 million people around the world.
In 2009, to open TED up even more, the ‘principals’ introduced a new concept: TEDx. These events, while still retaining the spirit of a TED conference, would be independently organized. “It wasn’t clear at all that it would work,” Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, who bought it from Mr. Wurman in 2002 for his non-profit organization The Sapling Foundation, told The New York Times. “How do you avoid damaging the TED brand? Can you package TED in a box?”, he asked.
Rather than damage the brand, the introduction of TEDx has globalised it. Since 2009, there have been thousands of TEDx events across the globe. In East Africa, there was TEDxKibera two years ago and every three Saturdays a month, at TEDxCinemaNairobi, attendees watch TEDTalks on a big screen and discuss what they’ve seen.
And in 2010, TEDx came to Dar es Salaam.
The inaugural TEDxDAR proved a hit. The theme of ‘What Would Nyerere Do?‘ resonated with attendees and provoked wide-ranging discussions in the blogosphere. But this year’s TEDxDAR is when the event truly came to its own.
Who Killed Zinjanthropus?
The 2011 TEDxDar took place on the 29th of November inside the beautiful new spaces of the National Theatre. Asked why they chose to hold the event there, Hafiz Juma one of the organisers, said, via email, “it is a technically sophisticated location, probably one of the best theater spaces in the country. It is also an under-valued and under-utilized place of national heritage and it was great to try and do something about that.”
Zinjanthropus – a fossil of early man discovered in Tanzania – was a useful metaphor for reflecting on the state of our nation, Nadeem Juma the host of TEDxDAR told the 300 attendees. As Tanzania is celebrating it’s semi-centennial this year, it was an opportune time to ask: “What is a modern Tanzania, what’s the difference between modernity and development? And what is the intersection?”
What followed was a compelling attempt at answering these questions. There were eleven talks over-all, punctuated by three musical performances and one pre-recorded TEDTalk. The presentations were an intriguing mixture of big ideas, personal narratives and activism. What was also fascinating for the audience was how, throughout the day, the talks echoed and sometimes re-enforced and amplified each other’s ideas.
The environmentalist Roland Valckenborg, founder of ‘I Love Windpower – Tanzania’, warned that man’s addiction to electricity is straining our natural resources. ‘We are energy junkies’, he declared. And unless we rethink our approach, we are going to run out of energy within fifty years, he said. Solutions lie in alternative energy: wind, solar, hydro. “We need to exploit all these alternative energy sources to the maximum”, said Mr. Valckenborg.
The existential warnings from Mr. Valckenborg were re-enforced later in the afternoon by January Makamba, the CCM Member of Parliament from Bumbuli, in his talk about the demographics of democracy. ‘My presentation [is] about consumption,’ said Mr. Makamba. What will happen when the poor 80% start to consume at similar levels to those of the rich 20%? Will it be sustainable? Can we achieve economic development without exhausting our resources? These ethical questions were at the core of Mr. Makamba’s talk. While Zinjanthropus’s spirit connects us all, to return to that original state of ‘sameness’, as Mr. Makamba called it, may destroy us, he said.
This echoing and conversing across talks continued throughout the day. The scientist Erasto Mpemba, who in 1960s discovered the phenomenon that warm objects freeze quicker than cooler ones, now commonly referred to as the ‘Mpemba Effect‘, told the story of how dismissive his teachers were of his observations. This theme of educators stifling a child’s creativity found its re-articulation in the writer Richard Mabala‘s talk, who complained about the death of the imagination in Tanzania’s educational system. “How can you imagine a new science, if you don’t have imagination?”, he asked.
But then Mr. Mabala’s criticism of Tanzania’s insistence of using English as the primary mode of instruction in secondary schools received a powerful counterpoint in Susan Mashibe. Miss Mashibe, the founder of the corporate aviation firm TanJet and who was recently named by The East African as one of the 43 most influential women in the region, told the story of how she struggled during her flight training course in the US due to her then poor English.
Meanwhile, the musician Msafiri Zawose, one of the few contemporary artists in Tanzania working within a traditional aesthetic, bemoaned the lack of value placed in traditional music by young people. Msafiri’s talk gained even deeper poignancy at the end of the day when the legendary Taarab singer Bi Kidude performed beautiful acoustic versions of her classic love songs, ‘Ya Laiti‘ and ‘Muhogo wa Jangombe.’
This call-and-response between talks gave the day an almost jazz-like quality, with speakers referencing each other, amplifying the other’s messages and in the process creating a powerful echo chamber of ideas.
A Multimedia Event
One of the more fascinating things about TEDxDAR was how multimedia and multi-platform it was and as a result this expanded the audience was beyond those sitting at the National Theatre. To begin with, the event was live-streamed throughout. “[We wanted] to ensure that we could have a broad audience and showcase what was happening here to people beyond Tanzania,” Hafiz said.
Furthermore, the event was live-blogged and Tweeted and Facebooked. The writer Elsie Eyakuze, for example, provided prolific summaries and commentaries of the talks, as they were being delivered, on her blog The Mikocheni Report. These posts were then amplified on to a wider readership through her Twitter account @MikocheniReport using the Twitter hashtag #TEDxDAR.
This was significant. “In terms of Twitter, it was of huge importance to TEDxDar. It played the part of an inner monologue of the collective conscience of the attendees of the event as well as a mode of interaction,” Hafiz said. So, while the event was happening, it was at the same time entering the zeitgeist.
According to Kathleen Bomani, the curator of TEDxDAR, using figures from the Twitter monitoring tool SocialPing, the event managed to achieve “95, 900 unique reaches, 161, 358 re-tweets. TEDxDar’s absolute reach was 827, 674, and our Retweets…well 1, 123, 393,” she said.
A Call To Action
For the organizers of TEDxDAR, the event is more than simply about bringing the experience of TED to Dar es Salaam. As Hafiz told me, they wanted to prove a point. “Tanzania and Tanzanians are not perpetually mediocre as many often tend to presume. There are exceptionally talented, intelligent, courageous and inspiring people and [there are] things happening here,” he said.
For Miss Bomani, who lives in Philadelphia, USA, TEDxDAR provided an opportunity to demonstrate what could happen when Tanzanians in and out of the country collaborate. “Many a times Tanzanians in the diaspora feel helpless when it comes to engaging with the on-goings on the ground in Tanzania…Lately the buzzword has been around the diaspora financially contributing through remittances estimated at $200 billion. It doesn’t have to end there,” she said.