As I walked into the Mermaid Conference Centre in London on that chilly December morning, I expected the pervasive theme that has recently featured in other Africa-focused talk shoppes: of the vast potentials within Africa, of Africa Rising, and I wasn't off the mark. As the day wore on, there was an unmistakable Afro-Optimism vibe in the air.
In this case though, the people who are actually making a difference in Africa, those who have distinguished themselves as achievers, professionals, humanitarians, philanthropists, writers and entrepreneurs told their amazing stories themselves - of how they defied the odds and became successful (however so defined). This was at TEDxEuston 2012, and these are people who are challenging conventional wisdom.
TEDxEuston was an all-day event. We dined with most of the speakers, we heard their riveting and inspiring stories, we were enthused by their witty anecdotes, we briefly shared their pain as they recounted the problems they encountered and celebrated their perseverance which resulted in what they are today. We were all left with a lasting impression -- that hope lies in Africa, that the best of Africa is yet to come and that being a change agent requires a thinking-out-of-the-box mindset to defy known norms.
As with all TED talks, speakers were from all walks of life - public service, academia, the NGO sector, the business world, film and the arts - their stories were as diverse as they were intriguing. Some speakers acknowledged their life of privilege yet they used this privilege as an opportunity for effecting change. Mrs. Amina J. Mohammed, the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General on post-2015 Development Planning is one of such. She served 3 Nigerian presidents as Senior Special Adviser on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), successfully managing a fund of $1billion per annum which led to giant strides in combating maternal mortality in Nigeria. She left the Nigerian government with a blemish-free reputation, which you have to agree is a rare feat in Nigeria. Similarly, Queen Sylvia Nagginda Luswata of the Baganda kingdom is using her privileged position for philanthropic activity, empowering women and youth in many ways, and is a firm advocate of preserving and ensuring traditional institutions play a role in 21st century African development.
At the other extreme are those from very very humble beginnings. Take Trevor Ncube, the Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) who had a rural upbringing and severe learning difficulties as a child, was abused by his teachers, lost his job at some point, was imprisoned severally yet, he's one of southern Africa's most powerful media moguls today. Or Jason Njoku, the CEO of iROKOTV who as at 2010, in his own words, was "...broke... a failure and lived on my mother's couch..." He persevered, set up Iroko partners, his 11th company, and now at age 31, Njoku is an Internet multimillionaire listed by Forbes as one of Africa's 10 Young Millionaires to Watch.
Although I was fascinated by every story and inspired by every speaker, I had some favourites. The best speaker in my opinion in terms of delivery of a crucial message -- on the role of young people in the post MDGs -- in a witty and engaging manner is Mrs. Amina Mohammed. The most inspiring talk was Jason Njoku's, who had hit rock bottom but like a phoenix, was able to turn his bad fortune around, into thriving entrepreneurial success.
In terms of content, I loved Chimamanda Adichie's feminist talk which tackled the contentious challenge faced by ambitious women across the continent. The speaker I found most fascinating is Queen Sylvia whose sincerity was unmistakable. She made an indelible impression because rather than being just another beautiful royal socialite, she chose to achieve bigger and greater things, by helping others. I was also moved by Trevor Ncube's talk and really appreciated the thrust of Professor Alcinda Honwana's, on African youth and social change.
The biggest take away message from these divergent stories is that as an individual you shouldn't let your circumstances hinder you - neither should your privilege background be a burden, nor should your humble beginnings be an obstacle. A disability need not be a disadvantage either, as blind singer/songwriter Cobhams Asuquo proves. In fact, Asuquo proclaims that "...sight is a distraction... When you're heading somewhere, you (might) need to be blind to be focused". Clearly, you have to get your hands dirty, put in a bit of sweat and tears and do the time before you reap those ripe harvests of success - whether this means fame or effecting change in your environment, helping others or becoming a rich entrepreneur or whether success simply means becoming a responsible and productive member of society.
Along the way, you will fail once, several times or many times, but that shouldn't deter or derail you, rather, you should learn from the disappointments and move on. Failure is oft times a stern teacher, imparting valuable lessons to prepare you for the enormous responsibility that comes with success; because success, whatever its variant, is a huge responsibility.
Overall for Africa, it is really time for a paradigm shift. Those who can change Africa for the better are not only aid agencies or governments, but ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These are people who, dissatisfied with the state of things decide to do something about it. As several of the speakers noted, it is okay to be angry. However, being angry shouldn't make you permanently cynical; it should motivate you to address those issues that make you angry.
Finally, as is typical with TED talks, they inspire you, and leave you hungry... hungry to make your own change.