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[TEDGlobal 2007] Session 2: Looking Back to Look Forward

We began session two looking back to … session one. Bono offered an unscheduled talk, taking on the anti-aid stance of journalist Andrew Mwenda, articulated earlier that day. (A bit of background: Bono’s moving 2005 TED Prize acceptance speech helped ignite within the TED Community a heightened interest in Africa, and led quite directly to the planning of this conference.)

Bono led off with a video greeting from German chancellor Angela Merkel; a reminder that, in a parallel universe, the G-8 Summit also convenes this week, focusing in part on what some have called an African Marshall Plan. “Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan,” Bono began. “I was going to talk about the Marshall Plan. But instead I’ll talk about the Mwenda Plan, inaugurated today.” He challenged Mwenda on multiple fronts, emphasizing the still-relevant role of aid in saving and improving lives, and the imperative of debt relief for nations who suffered corrupt regimes. I have a strong sense that the aid vs. investment debate is only just getting started …

We then returned to our regularly scheduled program, looking to Africa’s past to inform the future. Paleontologist Zeresenay “Zeray” Alemseged took us deep into our history, shedding light on human evolution through the fossil of Salam, a 3-million-year-old toddler he discovered in Ethiopia. (Fascinating fact: The shape of the skull indicated a brain closer to humans than chimps. But the vocal box was distinctly monkey-like, meaning this 3-year-old hominid may well have used language, but would have sounded more like a chimp than a child.) Historian Kenneth Vickery brought us into the recent past, offering snapshots of key moments in African history, which have resonance today.

Then the program leapt unexpectedly from our heads to our hearts (as so many memorably TED sessions do). Nigerian-born, Paris-based filmmaker Newton Aduaka shared an extraordinarily moving clip from Ezra, the Sundance-nominated film about child soldiers in the Sierra Leone. Then the magnificent Rokia Traore took the stage again (visibly moved by Aduaka’s film), and enchanted us with her voice, which alternately floated and soared. Mali-born and Paris-based, Traore brings traditional music (and instruments) into a modern context, creating a sound all her own. Audience reaction: Not one, but two standing ovations.

For more extensive descriptions of each speaker, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s real-time posts on Bono, Zeresenay “Zeray” Alemseged, Kenneth Vickery and Newton Aduaka.

Watch for these talks on TED.com beginning midsummer 2007.