[TEDGlobal 2007] Session 1: The Africa You Don't Know

After an extraordinary welcoming fanfare by Malian chanteuse Rokia Traore, TEDGlobal 2007 (Africa: The Next Chapter) kicked off this afternoon with a session intended to shift your thinking about the continent. We hear so much about Africa’s problems — disease and poverty, conflict and corruption; here are the counterpoints that open our 4-day conversation here in Arusha, Tanzania…

“What’s the worst thing you’ve heard about Africa?” asked Euvin Naidoo, president of the South African Chamber of Commerce, America. After fielding audience call-outs of “famine,” “war,” “corruption,” he offered persuasive reasons why investing in Africa makes great business sense, and why the continent’s challenges should be reframed as opportunities. American journalist/filmmaker Carol Pineau echoed this theme, drawing on her excellent documentary Africa Open for Business for case studies of successful entrepreneurs. She also critiqued her profession for the kind of one-sided coverage that has distorted the world’s view of the continent…

Now, this question of media representation is one close to my heart, and I expect to hear — and think — a lot about it in the days to come. It’s central to the work of Nigerian photographer Andrew Dosunmu, whose career has focused on countering the dominant images of Africans in non-African media (Invariably, they are starving, warring, or dying of AIDS). After emigrating to London, he was shocked by media images of his homeland. “I thought, ‘This is not the Africa I grew up with. The Africa I grew up with is full of life, full of optimism.'” Seeing his work — which centers around youth culture — I couldn’t help but imagine a Time cover story of his photos, replacing famine-wracked refugees with smiling, stylish girls in sunglasses; young couples in love; fathers bringing daughters to football games. Headline: “This is What Africa Looks Like.”

The session culminated with a healthy dose of controversy. Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda gave a fiery talk, articulating his well-honed arguments against foreign aid, which he views in no uncertain terms as Africa’s problem, not its solution. Eloquent, funny and forceful, Mwemba sent a jolt through the divided audience. Many stood and cheered; others mutteried audibly in disagreement. “Do any of you know someone who grew wealthy from receiving aid?” he asked, midway through his talk. The silence was broken by … Bono. Who argued that yes, actually, government aid helped Ireland through the potato famine, for starters. (Bono would take the stage himself in Session 2).

<!–For more extensive descriptions of each speaker, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s real-time posts on Euvin Naidoo, Andrew Dosunmu, Carol Pineau and Andrew Mwenda.

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

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