Interview

10 Years Later: TEDGlobal Curator Emeka Okafor on Malawi's Windmill Kid and Bringing Africa's Best Minds to a World Stage

We speak to TEDGlobal curator Emeka Okafor on the impact gathering Africa's amazing minds has on the continent.

DIASPORA—In anticipation and excitement for TED’s return to Arusha, Tanzania for the TEDGlobal Conference 2017 this August, we’ve celebrated the many African innovators who are among the new fellows, as well as highlight the trailblazers who will be speaking at the conference.


We now touch base with curator, Emeka Okafor, who joined the TED team to put on the history-making conference 10 years ago. Amy Novogratz, former director of the TED Prize, approached him for the opportunity to assist curating the conference, especially from a content perspective. Chris Anderson, the head of TED, then followed suit with an interview.

For Okafor, this was an opportunity to frame the continent in a way that’s the opposite of the norm when it comes to the world’s perception of Africa.

“I felt it was an opportunity to present a view of the continent that wasn't traditional and highlight voices that would not necessarily be given the time of day,” he says.

Read more in our conversation below where Okafor touches on the impact TEDGlobal had on the continent then, its impact now and more below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

OkayAfrica: A memorable moment from the Arusha conference in 2007 was learning about William Kamkwamba's windmill that provided electricity to his family in Malawi. Do you know what he's been up to since then?

Emeka Okafor: I knew the William story really well because it might have been in late 2006, that I came across a blog post referring to an article in a newspaper about this young man, well, young boy at the time, who had done what he did. Then we did everything we could to identify him and ultimately bring him to the conference. Most of his story is public but coming to where we are today—he went to school in the United States. He went to Dartmouth. He did some work, I think, on the West Coast for a bit and I believe that he is spending more time in Malawi.

William encapsulates, for many people, the potential of the continent—the idea that you don't really need to have anything to solve problems. The fact that if, I remember at the time saying that if we had more individuals who just got about doing things as opposed to complaining about those who are not doing things, like the way William was able to solve problems, we would be much further along than we are today. In many way, I think he is, for me at least, an example of what the continent needs fundamentally at every level. He's a hands-on problem-solver that didn't allow challenges to get in his way. For me that's a very simple philosophy that we need so much more of. If our universities in Africa or our institutions in Africa rather than say that this isn't working, they were like William, how much further along we would be.

I think for those who say we don't have this, we don't have that, people who have a propensity to play the victim, I think people like William, essentially is the story we just need to put in front of them and say, "Well, explain this?" I think metaphorically, this is my personal opinion, he occupies to me is sort of central important philosophy that more people in Africa need to take on and become themselves. His interest in Africa remains very strong—he remains committed to the continent and he still speaks to his work and where he wants to go with it.

OKA: How did you choose the first class of fellows?

EO: At the time TED didn't have a fellowship program. My role was to identify individuals that we felt would compliment the conference in terms of what they brought to the table—people who might not necessarily have the material resources to afford the conference itself, but in terms of what they had achieved or what they were doing could be seen as equivalent as those on stage and those who were paying.

I was given a lot of leeway in terms of the types of people we wanted. In my mind it wasn't about my personal choices, it was more about is this person making impact? Are they a leader as opposed to being a follower? Is it interesting in the truest sense of the word? To some degree, the success of those choices showed us what the TED fellowship program could look like.

OKA: In your Euston TEDx talk in 2014, you referred to the fellows and speakers as 'points of light'—how have those that have followed Arusha 2007 continued on this track?

EO: I think my reason for using that phrase or that metaphor was the need for not just having individual examples of success, excellence and ability. On their own, they can easily flicker out like fireflies. But if you find ways to connect them, or they find ways to connect themselves using self-emergent qualities and network effect that feed off each other, then they begin to form a membrane of activity that over time begins to feed off itself.

If you look at the activity over the past 10 years, the argument can be made that the meeting up of those individuals in 2007 in some cases accelerated the effect, in some cases strengthened the effect, in some cases was the beginnings of fruitful partnership and collaboration.

But beyond the definitive, tangible interactions, I think that one of the other main areas I would argue we made this collective impact, was in highlighting thinking that wasn't commonly the case at the time. A thinking that made a very strong argument for the continent needing to bootstrap itself, the continent needing to look inwards at what it had, and approaching problems less from finger-wagging—things are problematic and you have to fix it—and more towards a hands-on let's do it and think our way through it point-of-view.

It was also the first conference, I would argue, that was looking at things from an interdisciplinary standpoint. In Africa up until 2007, if you had an event it was very domain specific. It was the scientists getting together, the writers getting together, or the bankers, or the business people, etc. You didn't really have a platform that looked to bring together individuals that spanned the entire landscape of human endeavor. When I say entire, I'm not for one minute saying that it was a complete landscape. You can bring in everything and everybody but we did make an effort, at the time at least, to bring in conversations that ranged from the medical field, to finance, into the arts and beyond. It's important for a number of reasons, one being a lot of the interesting and innovative activity that's taking place today, actually happens at the overlap—the edges of interaction.

The artist isn't going to survive on their own if they don't find a way to build some sort of sustainable business activity. The private equity person who is looking to build or support companies isn't going to have a pipeline of successful companies if someone else or other people are not nurturing that pipeline. The medical individual is not going to be able to treat more people or look for cures if there is not a good connection to what's happening in the research institute. It's critical that we have interdisciplinary approaches to the challenges the continent and the first TED sought to do that. I think what if someone is a physicist or a poet, if they are at the top of their game and they are creative, curious, and ingenious, they generally find some sort of common ground. That way, at least, I think what TED did was pioneering.

 

Emeka Okafor at TEDGlobal 2007. Photo by Andrew Heavens/TED.

OKA: How do you foresee TEDGlobal’s continued impact on the continent after this August?

EO: In some ways it will be a punctuation of what we did in 2007. But in more ways than that, it would be looking at what isn't working—what should we be looking at that could be working better? How can we look at the continent from the standpoint of what it can teach the rest of the world? How honest should we be about things ranging from governance to education? To what extent can we look at things from a pan-African standpoint that isn't just rhetoric but actually leads to success that is meaningful.

One of the differences between the continent of Africa and other comparisons like India and possibly China, is that those are unitary countries that share one language. Not only do they share one language, they share one government and they have similar size populations. They're able, because of the fact that they're unitary nation states, to direct themselves in ways that a conglomeration of 54 countries cannot. How can we look at where things are working in Senegal and apply them to Mauritius, or where things are working in Morocco and look at them differently in Botswana. Does it necessarily need to be governmental, president-to-president, or could we start looking at institute-to-institute or business-to-business, or individual-to-individual. And understand that if we begin to see the Pan-African space as one that can feed off the solutions that are occurring in certain areas and apply them from a frictionless standpoint, might that be a way to accelerate some of the problem-solving issues that we face.

There's a huge sense of urgency that is required to solve the problems that we have. We don't have the luxury of time that we thought we once did. Not to say we ever did. That sense of urgency, I think, is one of the themes that we want to address in more ways than one at the conference. Why is it urgent? Well, we have this burgeoning population of young people and not so young people that have no means of employment or are underemployed. We need to find a way to figure that out, we need to find a way to do these things fairly quickly but sustainably. The degree to which the speakers, and the audience, and the participants of this upcoming conference can help map practical ways of solving these issues is something that individually and collectively we'll be looking at.

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Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

'The Spread' Is the Sex-Positive Kenyan Podcast Offering a Safe Space for Women and LGBTQIA+ Issues

'The Spread' is the podcast dedicated to "decolonizing" the way Africans talk about sex and sexuality, say it's creator Karen Kaz Lucas.

Karen Kaz Lucas is the revolutionary brainchild behind Africa's best-known sex positive podcast, The Spread. Three years in, the 52 podcast episodes, covering a range of diverse topics including: The Male-Female Pleasure Gap, Sex positive parenting, LGBTQIA+ issues, Kink, Reproductive Rights, and Porn vs. Reality, has listeners ranging from 6,000 to 21,000 and episode on SoundCloud.

Recently, The Spread had its first major event TheSpreadFest, a day-long event attracting over 600 people with diverse panels, workshops and more. It's been hailed as a truly safe and inclusive space for people of all sexual identities. Okayafrica contributor, Ciku Kimeria speaks to The Spread creator Kaz on her journey to decolonize sexuality, her motivation, and her hopes for the continent relating to matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the conversation below.

Karen Kaz LucasImage courtesy of 'The Spread'

What made you start The Spread podcast?

It was to address the key gaps in discussions around sex and sexuality and to create a safe space to discuss them. Younger people were either learning about sex from porn or on the flip side from a religious standpoint or the education system, where the focus is on the risks of engaging in sex (teen pregnancy, STIs etc). As such they were either getting information from a fear-based system, shame-based system or porn that has very little to do with real life sexual situations and intimacy. I wanted to create a safe space where people could talk about all issues related to sexuality but in an open, accepting and enlightening way. For me, this is an informal form of sex education that allows people to explore their sexuality from an unbiased perspective—no judgement, no shaming.

What's the reception been like so far?

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. I had no idea that the podcast would grow and be as successful as it is now. People are hungry to meet similar people and have discussions without judgement. Of course, there are also people who react negatively to my work and say that this is a result of "Western influence." To those people, I say that they should know that the majority of my work is focused on decolonizing sexuality.

Great transition. I first saw the term "decolonizing sexuality" in your Instagram bio. What exactly does that mean?

Prior to Western intrusion, we already had our own sexual culture. I'm trying to remind people that certain things we embrace as "African" and defend when it comes to sex and sexuality, are elements that came to us through religion, Westernized education etc. The shame associated with sex and sexuality on the continent are remnants of Western teachings.

Prior to colonization many ethnic groups had religious healers who were neither considered male nor female but were gender fluid or intersex. There were ethnic groups that didn't base gender on anatomy but on energy. Gender fluidity on the continent was observed even more than you would find in the most liberal country right now. For some, you could physically have male features but possess female energy and live as a woman. Some people worshipped androgynous or intersex deities and believed that the perfect human being is both male and female. Certain tribes did not ascribe a gender to anyone until the age of puberty. In other communities, their priests were transgender, and they were the only ones who could conduct certain spiritual ceremonies. There is evidence that for several ethnic groups gay and lesbian relationships were not taboo. Unfortunately, a lot of this history has not been publicized or it is being revised as it does not fit in well with the idea that the continent is trying to now uphold as a patriarchal, heteronormative society. That is why the work of decolonizing sexuality is extremely important as we now have a generation that is open to questioning themselves. The generation of our parents lived in a time of oppressed and suppressed sexuality (among other things) as they themselves or their parents had suffered the colonial rape and pillage [both literally and metaphorically] of their lives. All they could carry was anger and fear. To survive they had to conform to what the oppressor enforced on them through religion, western education etc.

[Recently deceased] Kenyan writer and gay activist, Binyavanga Wainaina clearly outlines how it is only former British colonies that have anti-sodomy laws, which came during colonial times from the fear that British soldiers and colonial administrators would be corrupted by the natives while they were away from their wives. The law, the fears by the British government at the time, really are proof that some of the natives were already practicing sodomy.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What for you is the link between sex positive work and women's empowerment?

The average person might think that the type of work I'm doing is frivolous, but the reality is that when a society believes they have any right over women's bodies, we see all the terrible things that happen to women: rape, rampant femicide, violence against women and more. Reclaiming your sexuality as a woman is about asserting your own authority over your body—declaring the right to fulfilling, consensual sex of your own liking, the right to having children, or not having children if you don't want to, postponing or terminating a pregnancy. Once we accept the policing of women's bodies, it's a slippery slope.

Feminism is about women having equal rights and opportunities as men, and that also extends to their sex lives. My body, my choice. For those who are always ready to bash feminism, seeing it as women somehow trying to take over, dominate men, oppress men etc. They should realize that the only reason feminism exists, is because we live in a patriarchal world. Women are at the bottom of the rung, oppressed in thousands of ways. All we are trying to do, is get the same rights that men take for granted. Of course, to the ones who hold power, it will feel like a loss of power.

This is the reason why the topics we cover span everything from women's sexual pleasure to gender-based violence to LGBTQIA+ rights to women's reproductive health. All these discussions must happen in tandem.

Let's talk about the state of affairs in Kenya around various key issues, starting with female reproductive rights.

I'm working very closely with two organizations working on women's reproductive rights and abortion rights. The problem in Kenya is that there is so much misinformation. I plan to release a video very soon on the topic. I only recently found out all public hospitals in Kenya provide post-abortal care. Even though, abortions are illegal except in certain circumstances, post-abortal care is available throughout the country. Lack of information makes women especially vulnerable to the influence of quacks, back-alley doctors, or police who threaten them with imprisonment if they don't pay exorbitant bribes. The Kenyan law is that you are not allowed to administer an abortion unless the health of the mother or child is in danger. Health also includes mental health. As such, people with severe depression or suicidal thoughts do legally qualify for abortions, but most people don't know this.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about on the issue of sexual violence against women and children?

Sexual violence against women and children isn't taken as seriously as it should be. Sensitivity training across police stations is still lacking. Rape is extremely underreported in the country as most people don't expect to be treated with discretion, sensitivity or any consideration once they do get into the system. I did a whole video series years back interviewing female rape survivors and their experiences highlight the challenges with our police system including the trivialization of the crime by police officers who consider rape almost routine, given how often this happens. The statistics are masking the issue, rape survivors don't know who to turn to and feel completely isolated. The issues of male sexual violence against men isn't even spoken about as the survivors fear further shunning and stigmatization from society. Kenya doesn't yet have the right structures—including mental health structures—to deal with the normalization of rape and sexual violence against women.

In 2015 three men gangraped a teenage girl as she was on her way home from her grandfather's funeral. After the attack, they dumped her in an open sewer, leaving her with a spinal injury that has confined her to a wheelchair. When the men were taken to the police station, their punishment was to cut the grass around the police station. The incident made it to the news, sparking international outrage, resulting in a signed petition and leading to protests in the country demanding #justiceforliz. As a result, the men were eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. While we can celebrate this particular win, it also makes us reflect on all the other hundreds of thousands of cases, where the survivors remain silent or seek justice, but never get it.

What about LGBTQIA+ rights?

The definition I adhere to for this group is actually a longer, more confusing acronym, but also one I hope makes more people feel included. LGBTQQIAPPK, which is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual & transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, polyamourous, pansexual and kink.

We have some cause for celebration, but also a very long way to go. We were hopeful recently when the High Court reviewed the key law banning gay sex, but unfortunately, they chose to uphold it. Last year, we did have a small win when the courts deemed unlawful the use of forced anal exams to test whether two men had sex.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights commission of Kenya are doing a really great job in trying to get colonial era penal codes repealed. They are the legal team behind the court cases for the repeal of these laws. From a legal standpoint it's great, but from a social standpoint, it's still so sad that our binary understanding of gender is tied to what the colonizers forced on us. The worst argument is when people say that any deviation from the heteronormative narrative is "un-African." My question then is "Do you really know your history? Are you willing to educate yourself and to take off the yoke of colonialism and even consider the idea that what you consider normal is based on systems that came to you through oppression and repression?

For a country that is so progressive in many ways, this particular issue still remains an uphill battle.

Image courtesy of 'The Spread'

What about women's sexuality, sexual pleasure?

All the events we have are 95% women. Men are scared to admit they might not know it all. Society paints them to be macho and [makes them think] that they should somehow know it all, but they are scared to learn about their sexuality as they feel that it will take away from their masculinity. For women, it's empowering. Men are frightened about women learning and embracing their sexuality.

I want to be a part of this revolution, spearheading it on the continent.

Finally, tell us about The Spread Fest and your plans for it?

Our objective for the festival is to foster learning, inspiration and wonder—and to spark conversations that matter. The aim is to be more empathetic about our diversity, but also to leave people knowing more about sex and sexuality. This year we had 600 people in attendance, 5 panels, one workshop and it was a full day event. Next year, we plan to double everything.

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Photos by Getty Images for BET.

Africa at the BET Awards 2019: Dispatches from the Blue Carpet

We talked to Burna Boy, AKA, DJ Cuppy and more about representing their people and remembering Nipsey Hussle.

We were at the 19th annual BET Awards this past Sunday to check out the ceremonies and chat up the international artists walking the blue carpet.

BET is the world's biggest platform for Black music and it has officially gone global. If you've never been, there's a feeling of organized chaos in the air that makes you feel like you're a part of something big. Artists from Africa and the diaspora have come a long way at the award show—once relegated to a non-televised role, the "Best International Act" award is now part of the 3-hour televised main ceremony for the second year.

This year the nominees contained many of OkayAfrica's favorites, including this year's winner, Burna Boywhose award was accepted by his mom, with a message of connectedness to the continent: "Remember you were Africans before you became anything else."

READ: The Internet Doesn't Know Mama Burna At All

Held at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, the BET Awards hosted over 30 artists from the African continent. We caught up with many of them on the blue carpet including AKA, DJ Cuppy, Mr Eazi, Nomzamo Mbatha and Monalonga Shozi just to name a few. Under the June heat, African performers, presenters and nominees came to show out.

One of the big themes of the night was honoring slain Eritrean-American hip hop star Nipsey Hussle's life and legacy.

Burna Boy and Stefflon Don at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

When we asked him about it on the blue carpet, Burna Boy—dressed in an elegant Dolce and Gabbana two piece ensemble in emerald green and golden overtones—says:

"You never stop wanting to hear the work of black artists do you? After Nipsey's death, it was both an inspiration and a wake up call. This is the time to spread positivity and love because you never know man, you could be gone tomorrow. He left behind a great legacy and we're just going to carry it forward."

"Nipsey's death was really felt all over Africa," South African personality Mbatha tells us. Dressed in an original full floor length A-line dress made by South African designer Loin Cloth & Ashes, she remembers, "It wasn't just that he was an African, which he was, but he showed us that we still have flames in our community that we hope will never burn out. Thank God that flames like Nelson Mandela lived for as long as it has, because each generation picked up that flame and was able to believe we can make it out and when we do make it out, we can fight to make other people's lives better."

Nomzamo Mbatha at the 2019 BET Awards 2019. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

AKA at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

South African rap superstar AKA tells us just before the opening to the ceremony, "With me coming from South Africa, BET is all about black excellence and of course Black excellence is all about Africa. Everybody is on a wave right now recognizing the importance of African culture and the importance of where it comes from. Africa is the source of Black excellence."

The Nigerian Afro-fusion star Mr Eazi, another Best International Act nominee also met up with us outside. "As long as music is being made by Black people, African people will never stop being brilliant," he told us. "Most of the people from Africa that come to the BET Awards, about a good 60 percent come from Nigeria. I feel like this needs to be a Nigerian awards show. Maybe next year we'll just buy it up and make it a Nigerian show."

Mr Eazi at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

DJ Cuppy at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET.

Nomalanga Shozi at the 2019 BET Awards. Photo by Getty Images for BET

Another big Nigerian name, DJ Cuppy, acted as a blue carpet host. "When I travel around the world," she says, "I feel like people are more invested in their roots. People are more engaged with where they come from and where they families come from and they're interested in learning about other cultures like never before."

"I'm all about taking Africa to the world but it think its just as important to bring the world back to Africa," Cuppy continues. "It's important that we're stressing connecting and do what we can to keep a strong community and making sure people know that we're all in this together."

TV personality and actress, Nomalanga Shozi tells us, "You have to recognize yourself as who you are. Honor yourself first then you can project that to the world. I think it's very important for us to honor ourselves and the BET Awards does that is such a grand fashion every year."

In the BET International section of the blue carpet, Nigeria-native Alex Okosi, the head of BET International shared a final thought on the important of awards shows. "It's a platform to elevate our people," he says. "Being able to showcase to the world our true power which is the power of Black culture is as important now then ever before."

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Seba Kaapstad Is the Genre-Bending South African Jazz Band Spreading a Message of Optimism

We speak to two of the quartet's members about their latest album 'Thina.'

This profile is part of OkayAfrica's ongoing series on South Africa's new wave of young artists shaping the future of the country's music scene. You can read more profiles and interviews here.

Thina, Seba Kaapstad's sophomore album, is an anomalous body of work that smudges the lines between genres effortlessly. It's a huge departure from the South African four-member jazz group's debut album, 2016's Tagore's. "We are people that are genuinely interested in music and the impact that music has, and we are people that love to experiment and explore," says group member Zoë Modiga. "With Pheel (the group's newest member) hopping onto the band for production, it created so much more color than there was before."

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