Among other accomplishments, you’re a published poet, a TV/film director and producer, and creator of the African Movie Academy Awards. Of all that you do, what are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). They are one of the things that has changed African cinema in a very positive way. The AMAAs started in 2005, and as I travel more, as I meet more people, I’m suddenly realizing, “Wow, I actually did do something.” People talk about the AMAAs as an event that brings all fillmmakers in Africa and from the African diaspora together.
With the AMAAs, we have an award where we recognize ourselves amongst ourselves, and there’s a stimulated competition between the African countries over who’s going to win the next one. So it makes better films for us. People actually go out of their way to make films for the AMAA awards.
It started out just as something I was going to do, so that we could have one day as filmmakers to meet and sit down together. But now it’s something that everybody looks forward to. So when I look back, I think that’s my biggest achievement.
Tell us about your other projects.
Africadopt is one of the projects that the AMAAs started as a Corporate Social Responsibility effort. It tries to get people to do virtual adoptions, in which they financially support a child in an orphanage. It’s slow work, but I think it will pick up. We try to make people understand that as little as a dollar makes a difference in a child’s life.
My business partner Dayo Ogunyemi and I are also building cinemas throughout Africa. These “Cinemarts” are community centers in rural and low income urban areas, anchored by digital cinemas fitting an average of three hundred people, with indoor and outdoor refreshments areas. Each ticket to a show will cost one dollar or less. We have a lack of cinema halls on the continent now. We’re building them so that there is a form of distribution for African films that can make some money for the filmmaker.
Over the last four years Dayo and I have raised funds and have built four cinema halls this year with several more rented. We eventually hope to build five thousand screens on the continent. What we’re trying to do is make sure every village, every local community, has a small cinema hall that can also be used during the day time to teach young people how to use the Internet.
And as another a project of the AMAAs, on October 17 we launched the African Cinema Film Fund. The fund will be a grant for filmmakers who don’t have the initial capital to make a movie. But it will be a revolving grant: filmmakers will have to give up a percentage their film makes, until it pays back the grant, and they own their film.
Why is bringing cinema to rural areas in Africa important?
Africa has a knowledge and history of storytelling, and this is just moving it to the next stage. These are films made for Africans, by Africans. One of the saddest things for us as African filmmakers, is that a lot of the films that are made in Africa — with the exception of Nollywood films — don’t get seen in Africa. Some of the historical filmmakers — like Ousmane Sembène — a lot of people on the continent have not seen.
There are so many positive things that come out of Africa that never get said or never get talked about. Most of the things we see on TV are the problems that we already know we have. There is poverty in Africa, there is illness, there is homelessness, but there are still a lot of good things in Africa — a lot of beautiful people in Africa that make the world go around in terms of their industry.
One of the best things coming out of Africa right now are the creative industries. We have a lot of brilliant writers, filmmakers and musicians. P-Square, for example, comes to America from Nigeria and sells out shows. We have dressmakers like Tiffany Amber who are now internationally renowned. All these young entrepreneurs are succeeding in the face of so much adversity. There is a vibrant youth culture going on in Africa, and these things need to be talked about, these things need to be shown.
Also, for the first time in Nigeria right now, we are asking that our votes count. We are actually making sure, using the social network media, to make people want to register to vote. Everybody is talking about it — so that we can get the right leadership we need in our country. With the right leadership, we’ll get the infrastructure that we need, and it will be easier for the world to see the positive things. That goes back to one of the reasons why we’re building the cinemas: so that we can also use them to show the other side of Africa, and make people more aware of all these things.
You’ve said your father and his unique philosophy was a major influence as you grew up.
Yes, I’m an only girl with seven older brothers, who are all tough, big guys. And I had the most amazing father who treated my brothers and I the same. In Africa it’s really unusual to have a father that would recognize his female child as equal.
My dad is today being studied by many universities across the world as a philosopher who had his own understanding. He had a philosophy that he called the “Holistic Approach to Human Existence.” He brought us up with the philosophy that money was not the biggest thing in the world. Money is the commonest commodity: everybody has it. So you don’t look down on people because you have money and they don’t. He taught us to respect all people.
My dad made me believe that if I wanted to climb the highest mountain, I could do it if I had a will to do it. He also gave me an understanding of the spiritual side of life, which has helped me create a balance in everything I do. At some points in my life when I floated away from Christianity, he said to me, “It’s all right to experiment. When you’re ready, you’ll come back and find yourself and you’ll know that everything is the same. But you have to have tolerance for every religion, because it’s almost all the same.” That was important growing up in a mixed environment, where you are surrounded by many different beliefs.
Tell us about Clicks, the magazine you started when you were 16 years old.
When I went to school in England, there were hardly any magazines that spoke to me — there was a void. Seventeen and the other magazines never talked about makeup for my skin. Clicks was about a mix of different people, of different shades of color, with different needs. It was about makeup for everybody’s skin, and it talked about what young people could do. That went on for about three years, and then I had to go to university and my mom insisted that I needed to concentrate on doing law.
You’ve written three poetry books. Can you describe your style?
Yes, the third one is almost finished. My poetry is just generally about things around me. Observations I make about things, or noises I hear around me, I try to put down into my own words. It’s about everyday stuff that I see. I get motivated to write when things happen around me or I feel I need to speak about something that’s really disturbing me. If I find that I’m not able to say it out, I write it. Sometimes when I get angry, sometimes when I get moody, or when I’m extremely happy, I’ll put it down on paper. And I think that’s one of the easiest ways — especially when you have seven brothers and a tough mother. [Laughs]
Tell us about the talk show you hosted in the 1990s.
The talk show for me was the same thing as my poetry. It was called “Piece Off My Mind.” I got people to talk about things that really bothered them, and they wanted to get it off their chest. We discussed things that sometimes taboos wouldn’t let us talk about. Just everyday people discussing issues like female circumcision, with people on all sides of the issues. We would just discuss things as openly as we could.
A lot of things get hidden. The talk show was about giving voice to voiceless issues. One of the reasons why I went into film was because I think it’s important to bring to view things that people don’t want to talk about. Some of my films have dealt with Africa’s outcast system. My next big project is a film on women and child trafficking.
There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes?
Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.
I think you need to just keep going at it. Don’t give up.
You also need to follow the rules, so make sure you have answers to most of the questions you’re going to be asked. Do your homework. Be as prepared as you can be.
Most people who you will do presentations for expect you to be extremely good at them. Your presentations have to be short, concise, and to the point. For my presentation, I did a lot of homework, I studied different learning procedures, and I got somebody to teach me how to make presentations that would work. At first, I felt my presentations weren’t up to par, so I got people to show me how to put the presentations together. And I got some help TED from as well.
If you’re able to have the tenacity to keep going, be patient, and don’t expect miracles to happen overnight, you’ll actually make it. It’s a lot about working and not giving up on your dream. For me it’s been all about just keeping going.
You mentioned TED helped you with your work. Can you explain that?
Some of the presentation workshops were quite good for me because it helped me with what I’m presenting. I’m looking forward to when I get to do my first TEDtalk.
I also met some very interesting people at TED who are still my friends, and we still talk to each other. I wish there were more hours in the day so I could communicate with people more.
TED was an experience where I met a lot of people, and I felt I wasn’t doing enough. You meet all these great people who are all doing different things. It introduced me to a lot of people that I probably wouldn’t have met ever otherwise, because they were all in such different disciplines of work. And they all influenced me in a different way.
But I think we all left TED with the idea that we all need to do more for our communities. I think one of the biggest TEDtalks that has affected my life was the one by Sunita Krishnan, who talked about her experiences in India and being raped, and the children who are being raped. She spoke about what she’s been doing to set up a safe place for victims, and how she’s been changing the lives of those women who have been trafficked.
It’s one of the reasons I decided to do a film about trafficking. It left me with a need to do more for my people.