Tag: TED

Mukra, Inshallah

As with Part One of this feature, fate kindly provided me with the perfect intro for the next part of my Q&A with Project Diaspora co-founder and photographer Teddy (TMS) Ruge. The past week’s momentous events in Egypt are astonishing, inspiring, overwhelming, and frankly… past all the puny adjectives I can muster.

Past that astonishment, one of the first things I wondered was, how will this affect the rest of the continent? As politicians and pundits wring their hands (rightly) over the effect the Egyptian revolution will have on the Arab world, I sat this past Friday afternoon, squinting at the television, and wondering how it’ll affect the African one. Media outlets love to treat Africa as one big blob, not particularly differentiating between people, culture, customs, language, and histories. Right now it feels like so many are forgetting that Egypt, for all its ties to the Arab world, is still in Africa, its culture very much very much a demonstration of an artistic and historical fluidity not specifically tied to geographic regionalism.
The effects of what’s unfolded across Egypt will unquestionably be felt just as much in the Sub-Saharan part of the continent as they will in the sandier regions of the Mediterannean. One blog post from Nancy Birdsall at the Center For Global Development does a good job of introducing ideas around how events in Egypt might affect various governments and development organizations, specifically within an African context. Hopefully we’ll see a great examination of this as the weeks unfold.
With all that in mind, I present the second part of my chat with the ever-indefatigable, super-accomplished Mr. Ruge. He thoughtfully addresses the “Africa-as-a-big-amorphous-continent” perception that’s is sometimes frustratingly perpetuated by media and popular culture in North America, and he also explores the reasons behind his starting Villages In Action, an idea that was born, interestingly, on the ashes of another idea called TEDx Poor.
Now, you might recall I interviewed one of the co-founders of TEDx Toronto last fall about the reasons behind starting an outpost locale for the immensely popular TED series of talks. Dig a little bit into TED, note the participants in those videos online, and draw your own conclusions (or big question marks) about why TEDx Poor didn’t work; you may understand Ruge’s reasons for choosing to reject the TED model -or not. It’s all up to you – kind of like the way you view events -revolutionary, quiet, virtual -halfway across the world. They’re always a bit closer than you might think.
Why do you think Africa is referred to as a whole, and to Africans as one giant collection of peoples and perceived problems by some North American media outlets?

Because it easier to say Africa than to name 53 countries or make the distinction between North Africa and where the sub-Saharan states begin. It’s that place over there full of famine, hunger, genocide, and militaristic genocide. To isolate a country. After all, isn’t one poor malnourished African as true as the next? What’s it matter what country they are from? They are from Africa, aren’t they?

I am not really sure how we got stuck with that homogenous identity, but if anyone is going to change it, we have to do that and demand that our voices beheard. Each individual nation has to stand up and say, “our identity counts” and defend their country’s right to exist, not simply as an afterthought, but as an integral part of a whole. You don’t simplify Europeans into one description or all of North America as Americans. Mexicans and Canadians have a problem with that. So why should we be ok with simply being African?

How does VIA aim to correct (or gently adjust) these perceptions?
The VIA platform helps to break down some of those misconceptions. (VIA presented) one particular Ugandan after another standing up and saying, “Hey, wait a minute. I am not poor just because you label me as poor. I may have less, but I am content. And like all people, rich and poor. I am struggling just like you are.”
I was happy the conversation wasn’t about this conference in Africa. Instead, it was a conversation about village voices in Kikuube, Uganda being heard. Purposefully, a very specific place on a map. We put a very particular dot on the map of Africa with video, and pictures. We put real live faces and voices to the generally accepted stats and figures.

As the platform grows, I hope it is not a “gentle” nudge, I hope it is a five-fingered slap in the face of the status quo: Hey look over here, we can express ourselves, and oh look, we are not all sitting around in poverty, genocide and helplessness waiting for knights in shinning white SUVs to come and rescue us. We can and are doing that for ourselves thank you very much.

Why do you think TEDx Poor fell through? Why do you think its model didn’t work for what you wanted to accomplish?


TEDx Poor fell through because it had to in order for Villages In Action to be born. My frustration was with TED’s restrictive terms on what and how one could hold the event; TED turned out to not really address what I wanted to achieve. At Project Diaspora, we are about elevating those Africans that are doing for Africa in hopes that it’ll inspire other Africans to do more. TEDxPoor didn’t really lend itself to supporting that really. It would have been yet another Western platform that Africa was being forced to adapt.

On reflection, perhaps “poor” didn’t suit their tastes. For me it was a jab at the faceless individuals that the CGI and the UN MDG summits kept referring to but were never handed the microphone. I think the VIA platform does a much better job of dispelling that label.

I spoke at TEDx Kigali and I got a feeling that the model was a little restrictive. Perhaps it was the location, or the way I delivered my talk. But, I don’t think anyone was expecting me to me as brazen as I was going after politicians in their failings to address our woefully inadequate education systems across the continent. And I purposefully went over my 20-minute time limit because I had a point to make and I wasn’t done.

As I’ve said before, TED has a highly successful platform in its own right, but we needed to run with our own map, in-line with our home-grown solutions. No more top-downism. And I hope that VIA is one of those home-grown solutions that does make a difference.

All photos by TMS Ruge Photography.

Artists. Period.

After trying desperately -and unsuccessfully -to think up a suitable introduction for this blog, voila… The New York Times did it for me.

The grey lady of print featured an article relating to a highly contentious art exhibit in Zimbabwe. I had read the piece recently, but stupidly hadn’t bookmarked it for a second go-through. When I wanted to find it again, I looked, naturally, under the Arts section. And kept looking. And looking. A meticulous comb through the Art and Design section produced a frustrating zero. Forty minutes of fruitless searching came and went, and then, finally, I found it -in the Africa section. Because why would an Arts story that happens in Africa be classified as anything other than “African news“?

Teddy (TMS) Ruge is working to change this perception, one story at a time. Born in Uganda and educated in North Texas, Teddy’s impressive online presence, including his dedicated work with Project Diaspora and Villages in Action, has played a huge (dare I say life-changing) role in opening up my eyes to the complex realities surrounding trade, development, and the outmoded, dangerous perceptions of Africa as a gigantic, monolithic continent of pain, suffering, AIDS and poverty.

Along with running a photography and design business, Ruge has an indigenous farmers’ business in Masindi, Uganda, and also advises a women’s jewelry-making co-operative in Kampala. I never fail to be astonished and inspired by his activities, whether it’s blogging, tweeting, or even interacting and commenting on others’ posts. I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging ideas with Teddy and have always been compelled by the thoughtfulness of his responses. The ones below, on the role of the arts in development, are no exception.
But a confession of sorts is in order before getting down to business. This blog has taken a long time to produce, partly because I was toying with the idea of starting another development-focused blog centering on women’s issues (something close to my heart), and partly because I worry about being seen as tokenistic in my interest. But I realize, after much soul-searching (that, I should add, is ongoing), it’s my wish to blend my passion for the arts with my passion for development issues.
And so it was that Teddy and I exchanged thoughts about the role of the arts in bringing about change. I’m going to post our discussion in two parts, because there are so many good ideas here, and it’s worth digesting them all fully. See what you think about what’s being said. You might look at those charity singles -and that big, monolithic thing we North Americans think of as “Africa” – a bit differently afterwards. You’ll want to know more about artists like Fred Mutebi too. I fully expect to see his name in the Arts section in future, by the way -him, and his fellow artists. Because that’s precisely where they belong.

The arts is my passion, as you know, and I was thinking a lot lately about culture’s connection with social issues: artists’ roles in trying to instigate change, if artists should feel compelled to make their work political, what kind of responsibility exists to their communities.

It leads me to question what role art might play as it specifically relates to the work you do with Project Diaspora.

I think artists are unnecessarily encumbered by social issues, and they bend towards that will for fear of not being accepted anymore. They are turned into mouth-pieces and spokespersons when their greatest weapon of choice should have been their unadulterated interpretation of what art is through their chosen medium.

Some artists choose social commentary as their subject matter, like Fred Mutebi here in Uganda. Others choose to be unbending in their adherence their artistic style like Bjork, Radiohead and hopefully Uganda’s Maurice Kirya.
I think the best thing artists can do is continue to focus on being the best you can be at your chosen medium of expression. Don’t be something you are not because you are looking to score cool points. It is okay if you are a movie star and you do a piece that highlights the plight of a marginalized population of the human race, but I think it is going too far if you are all of a sudden packing heat in Haiti, and trying to make a difference because you are trying to feel good about yourself. Some things aren’t your responsibility.
We had student performances at our first Villages In Action conference. Their piece dealt with the cultural perception of polygamy and its effect on children and their education. The kids did a really good job of expressing the current socio-economic pressures placed on the balance between tradition and the demands of modernity. It was topical and relevant, where as the band that performed later that evening was purely entertainment and added little to the topical conversation.

Why do you think there’s a Western insistence to keep referring to Africa as a whole, and to Africans as one giant collection of peoples and perceived problems?

Because it easier to say Africa than to name 53 countries or make the distinction between North Africa and where the sub-Saharan states begin. It’s that place over there full of famine, hunger, genocide, and militaristic genocide. Isn’t one poor malnourished African as true as the next? What does it matter what country they are from? They are from Africa, aren’t they?

I am not really sure how we got stuck with that homogenous identity, but if anyone is going to change it, we have to do that and demand that our voices be heard. Each individual nation has to stand up and say, “Our Identity Counts” and defend their country’s right to exist, not simply as an afterthought, but as an integral part of a whole.

You don’t simplify Europeans into one description or all of North America as Americans; Mexicans and Canadians have a problem with that. So why should we be ok with simply being African?
How do you think art can help to improve the economic development and social welfare of the community?

From an artistic stand point, I think it is important to show that those called to be artists are still able to create even without the access, the privilege, or the fancy tools. We had a kid that had a full-size replica of a motorcycle. I asked him what he needed to keep creating. He said, “I need an engine to put in there.”

This was topical social commentary on how life was going on around him. Because of economic development brought on by subsistent farmers turning to commercial sugar cane farming – a lot more of them were buying motorcycles.

As mentioned before, Fred Mutebi has great woodcut pieces that are basically two-dimensional documentaries on various social subjects. If VIA had happened in his village, I would have loved to have him give a talk about the life he documents.

____

The next blog with Teddy will feature more of Teddy’s thoughts on the West’s perceptions of Africa, how Villages In Action (which happened last November) might help to change ideas around development there, and why TED isn’t always as welcoming to new ideas as you might think. Stay tuned.

Artists works:

Top painting by Eria Solomon Nsubuga, Untitled.

Middle painting by David Kikuuba, “Proud Heritage”.

Bottom painting by Fred Mutebi, “Abannyunyunsi”.

Photo of Maurice Kirya courtesy of RFI Musique

TED’s My X -Or Not.

The famed TED has come to Toronto -or rather, it did last year, in “X” form. Those who’ve attended Idea City for a while might argue the brainy TED idea arrived in this city a long time ago -but as Dan Jacob pointed out to me in a recent broadcast chat, TEDx Toronto is a free event. Free, if also chosen by committee.

Jacob is the co-founder of TEDx Toronto, happening Thursday. Attendance to the conference is free, but potential attendees had to fill out a questionnaire and prove why they should be there. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of this being any less elite than a hefty price tag, but taking a look at the eclectic roster of speakers, it must be conceded that the event is truly a good-hearted, well-intended celebration of Toronto in all its various shades and angles. Why would you want people there who only know how to draw in one colour (or worse, can’t draw at all?) There’s a poet, a playwright, a CEO, an author, an adventurer… and much more. The frisson of creative, seeming-opposites in a room-full of young, curious people committed to ideological exploration feels like it might produce something… good.

Speaking with Jacob was a fantastic experience, especially since (big reveal) I have attended Idea City in the past, and been invited to a TED in the United States. I’m always intrigued by why people want to jump, feet first, into such a heady (or seemingly-heady) event. The young co-founder was clear about the intentions behind starting TEDx here, and about why the city needed it. I admire his bright-eyed optimism and open embrace of the unknown -I’m sure those qualities have -and will -colour TEDx Toronto.

TEDX Toronto, Two Years On by CateKusti

On the outside, sure these kinds of conferences do seem like a bunch of geeks (or snoots, or hipsters, or all three) talking about SEO and online ventures, and throwing around buzzwords like social engineering and crowdsourcing. Occasionally, they are -but more often, they’re not. And the theme of this year’s TEDx Toronto conference might pull you away from that horn-rimmed/I-pod-toting/American-Apparel-wearing stereotype; it’s called “A Call To Action” -and the breadth of speakers Jacob has lined up feels like a fulfillment of that call. I think Jacob’s answers will surprise and inspire, just like the event itself will for those lucky enough to be going.

For those who aren’t, video from the conference will be posted soon. Hold your TEDs -not your noses. It doesn’t cost anything to get a bigger brain.

Let Me In

Balance is difficult -and I don’t just mean the standing-on-one-foot variety. Staying aware of reactions can be a trying endeavor -and balancing opposing reactions is an even greater challenge, particularly in the face of what I’d term Generally Bad Sh*t That Sometimes Happens. But it is wise to consider the Generally Bad from different viewpoints. So it was with a lot of courage and deep breathing that I managed to pull myself out of a black hole of feeling-left-out-ness lately. Recognizing the let-in-ness has been difficult, sure, because it’s meant a total re-adjustment of perception and attitude to outer circumstances; change is never comfortable, particularly as one gets older. But the adjustment, while strange, has also been a real blessing, thank in no small part to the truly big hearts of good friends, and more than a few incredible experiences that I’ve able to view as proof that Good Stuff Happens Too.

First of all, I recently had the opportunity to see an incredibly beautiful film, Amreeka, the first feature film by director/writer Cherien Dabis. It’s a really heartfelt look at the experiences of a mother and son from the West Bank who emigrate to the American Midwest. I interviewed Dabis about the work, and we discussed ideas around family, politics, and being an outsider. In a film where maudlin emotion easily could’ve trumped authenticity, Dabis touches all the right emotions, gently, while telling a compelling, involving story. Oh, and she told me she “hates” sentimentality. Hallelujah. None of her characters are victims, but rather, survivors, loving, living, and muddling their way through like the rest of us. Amreeka served as a wonderful reminder to me of the importance of relationships -to friends, family, work, and life itself.

Second good thing: the recent launch of AUX. The Canadian music station has been operating online for several months, but will be making its formal televised launch October 1st. I couldn’t help but think back to the early days of Muchmusic in watching chief AUX-ster Raja Khanna speak at the event Wednesday night. With a beguiling combination of sincere enthusiasm and music geek fondness, he excitedly outlined the station’s programming, and introduced its hosts, which included Explore Music‘s Alan Cross.

Lead singer Kenny Bridges of the Canadian indie rock group Moneen helps kick off the launch event for AUX music television September 23rd at Supermarket in Toronto. Photo courtesy of AUX.TV.

Amidst the total breakdown of the ways in which music is being created, shared, and consumed these days, it was refreshing to see such a great blend of faith, dedication and passion for artistry on display. No more “Pimp my Ride” or “Pimp My Bedroom” or any other inane nonsense that seems to occupy so many supposedly-cultural television stations on AUX -just music, examined and explored through various lenses, some fun, some serious, some playful, some challenging. Along with original programming, AUX is bringing Jools Holland’s totally excellent chat show to these shores (finally!) -proof-positive that Khanna and his team take music, and the artistry behind it, very seriously. In this world of media meltdown and of taking artists for granted, it’s refreshing to see there are still solid music lovers out there willing to bet they can build something beautiful.

Within the vein of building -and by extension, artistry -I’m really happy to announce that I’m part of a team organizing a salon speaking series in Toronto called Heads. I was approached by my fellow Heads-ster (and outright genius, frankly) Simon a few week ago, and … lo and behold, we have speakers, a venue, and even an art battle (think Iron Chef, with paint in place of food). TED (and its Canadian counterpart, Idea City) has the market cornered in terms of brainy speaking engagements, sure, but we aim for Heads to be more inclusive, less formal, and more in the tradition of the great French salons of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people of all stripes and backgrounds gathered to yap about culturally interesting, relevant topics. Simon likes to say it’ll be “more think, less drink” -because as fun as the odd piss-up is, this isn’t aiming to be that, but rather, a solid gathering of people who want to discuss and debate ideas -in Heads’ first outing, those ideas will revolve around the validity (or not) of Canadian dairy laws, advances in neuroscience, and lo and behold, online arts patronage. All this for $5. I mean, really? This feels so right for right now, right here, and being involved in this project has yielded so many new blessings and inspirations, opening the way for me to think about my own pursuits in entirely new ways.

The glass is really half-full. It’s all in how you look at it -with head and heart equally, is, I suspect, the best approach.

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