letters from nairobi


TEDx Conferences Explore Big Ideas
May 8, 2012, 11:52
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The piece on TEDx I wrote — which references my visit to Kibera — appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post, on page four of the Business section (/front page of the Technology section!):

In four corners of the world, TEDx conferences explore big ideas

By Hannah Rubenstein

NAIROBI — From Dakar to Des Moines, they landed in Doha determined to change the world. The crowd of 650 gathered in the Qatar capital’s cavernous Katara cultural village to attend the first summit for TEDx organizers — a group bound by a passion for sharing “ideas worth spreading.”

The crowd included the head of communications at an Armenian news agency, a Dutch hospital worker who believes in self-empowerment for terminally ill cancer patients, a Serbian psychologist and translator, an Ohio-based school design planner who can type 100 words a minute and a Pakistani telecom engineer who says he prefers fighter jets to women.

TEDx, a program of locally organized events inspired by TED Talks, has spread rapidly from the hills of Silicon Valley to the nooks and crannies of African slums, remote Indian villages and rural Chinese schools. TED derives from the words technology, entertainment and design. In three years, nearly 3,500 events have been held in more than 800 cities in 126 countries, with topics ranging from how young people can shape the post-revolutionary future of Tunisia to why stark economic inequality exists in Colombia.

“While we all come from different cultures, what binds the TED and TEDx organizers is the belief that we can change the world through ideas,” said Lara Stein, director of TEDx worldwide. “Inspiration and passion transcend cultures and cultural barriers. ”

In Doha, the organizers were artists, writers, and thinkers, previously known to each other only through the online TEDx community forum. They had come together to learn from one another and create opportunities for future collaboration.

They were ready to engage, inspire and provoke conversation — much like others had in Kenya a week earlier.

* * *

On a stifling Saturday afternoon, in a ramshackle meeting hall off a dead-end dirt road in Kenya’s Kibera slum, dozens of people sat in plastic lawn chairs, fanning themselves. Mothers wearing headscarves and flowing robes held squirming babies in their laps. Teenagers buried their faces in mobile phones, and a trio of middle-age men conversed in low tones. In the front of the room, a hand-painted, vinyl sign fluttered in the intermittent breeze: TEDxSilanga, it read, in crisp red letters.

Within moments, a microphone was switched on, a laptop and projector plugged in, and Chris Makau, the 26-year-old university student from Kibera who organized the event, asked the assembled group: “Why can’t Africa produce enough food to sustain itself?”

For three hours, community members, students and NGO workers tackled the question. They discussed government infrastructure, the generational division of labor in Kenya, sustainability and investment in technology. Ideas were proposed, debated, encouraged, rejected.

As the sun set, Makau asked another question: “What legacy are we leaving our children?”

Especially in impoverished areas like Kibera, Stein explained, the chance for people to connect in such an egalitarian forum is limited. “We find that there is often a lack of opportunity for people in the developing world to share their ideas and also be inspired by listening to the ideas of others,” she said.

This sense of empowerment is key, Makau said. “No one is going to come into Kibera and solve our problems,” he said. “We have to figure out what the problems are and solve them ourselves.”

TEDx has left its mark on communities worldwide. At an all-girls college in Pakistan, a TEDx event marked the first time men and women were allowed to participate in a forum together. In a juvenile prison in Lipcani, Moldova, known for its innovative rehabilitation efforts, a TEDx event prompted prisoners to reconsider the concept of freedom. And in Dallas, several hundred middle-school students attended TEDxSMU after participating in community service projects that benefited local and international charities. The success of the program is tangible, creating networks of inspiration that give rise to measurable change.

Makau’s goal in the slums of Nairobi, he said, is “to turn thinkers into doers.”

As the sun dips below the horizon, illuminating the corrugated steel roofs of Kibera with blazing flames, 23-year-old John Peter Okoth is talking a mile a minute. Gesticulating with a glass Coke bottle in his grip, his words tumble out, English punctuated with lilting Swahili.

“I was keen to hear the ideas here today because I believe they can lead to change,” he said. The mechanic had given up a day of work to participate in the TEDx event.

And what will he do now that the event has ended? Go back to work? Head home? Stop by the local pub for a Tusker beer?

“Now,” he said, a wide grin spreading across his cheeks, “I will tell my friends what I have learned.”

It is an idea worth spreading.

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