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A troupe of Rwandan drummers, odes to grandmas and laughing at cerebral palsy: A recap of TEDWomen 2013, Session 3

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Ingoma Nshya -- the first all-female drumming troupe in Rwanda -- opened up session 3. Photo: Kristoffer Heacox

Ingoma Nshya — the first all-female drumming troupe in Rwanda — opened up session 3. Photo: Kristoffer Heacox

By Kate Torgovnick, Helen Walters and Emily McManus

Session 3 of TEDWomen begins with an empty stage. And then: the noise of drumming breaks through the quiet as four women, draped in shiny blue cloth with gold bands around their foreheads, march onstage carrying with them large, wooden drums. They place them on the red carpet and begin an incredible drumming performance, drumsticks flicking off the tops and an intricate weave of bodies beginning as they play off each other’s drums. This is Ingoma Nshya — the first all-female drumming troupe in Rwanda. The four members performing today: Uwamariya Clementine, Rose Ingabire, Therese Mujawayezu and Marthe Nyiranzeimana. Their story is being told in the documentary Sweet Dreams.

This group was created by Odile Gakire Katese — you can call her “Kiki.” She is the Rwandan playwright, poet, musician and humanitarian who has brought many firsts to the country — from the first all-female drumming troupe, to the first professional dance company, to the first ice cream shop. Katese says that Ingoma Nshya is so much more than a performance group — it’s a way to bring together those who were pitted against each other in the Rwandan genocide and to bring hope to the country. “It’s been forbidden for many centuries for women to drum, to even touch the drums,” says Katese. “We broke the taboo with the genocide … Drumming came easily because women were rebuilding the country. For us, drumming has been transforming our lives and rebuilding ourselves.”

Next, a special treat: A Q&A with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose book, Lean In, began as a talk at TEDWomen 2010. She’s here to talk about what’s happened since. Read a full recap of what she had to say »

Juliana Rotich’s “Gogo,” her grandmother, didn’t have much — but with that, she was able to make beautiful things. “She lived in a time when, for something to exist, you had to make it with your hands,” says Rotich. She shares this story to make a point: “the maker movement is entwined in African culture and as old as time.” Rotich, a TED Fellow who encourages technological innovation through the non-profit Ushahidi, reveals how her work is building on that. This means making cool technology — like BRCK, a backup generator for the internet — but also supporting the next generation of innovators through maker spaces, hacker camps and more. She says, “Entrepreneurs need opportunity, they need a community, they need investment and — most of all — they need a place where they can collaborate with each other.”

Photo: Marla Aufmuth

Esta Soler. Photo: Marla Aufmuth

Esta Soler steps onstage with a vintage Polaroid camera. She snaps a photo, pulls it out, holds it as it develops. Because the Polaroid, she says, was her weapon, in the ’70s, in the fight against domestic violence — back when you just didn’t talk about it, much less take your abuser to court to stop it. So when a woman would come in to the local emergency room with an injury from abuse — a broken wrist, a swollen eye — Soler and other activists would take her photo and help her use it as legal evidence. “For all those years, I’ve had an absolutely passionate and not popular belief that violence is not inevitable, but that it is learned,” she says. “And if it is learned, it can be unlearned and prevented.” In 1994, Soler convinced Congress to pass a law to combat the devastating effects of violence against women. (And “convinced” is the right word. She tells us about one politician who jokingly called it the “Take the Fun Out of Marriage Act.”) But changing laws has made a difference, she says: “Between 1993 and 2010, domestic violence among women in the United States has gone down 64%.” We still have far to go. And Soler maps out how we’re going to get there. “We are not going to solve this by building more jails or more shelters. It’s going to be solved through economic empowerment for women, healing kids who are hurt. It’s about prevention with a capital P.” (Learn more about Soler’s work with Futures Without Violence, one of the world’s most effective advocates of preventing gender-based violence.) The TEDWomen audience rises to its feet to honor her work — and her compelling look to a future that does not include domestic violence.

Paula Johnson also begins her talk with recollections of her grandmother—who loved to throw coffee parties and dance. At 60-years-old something dramatically changed and caring for her grandmother consumed her family’s daily lives. “Many of you will recognize her symptoms—my grandmother had depression,” says Johnson. But she wasn’t diagnosed because what was known about depression was how it manifested in men. “Today we know women 70% more likely to experience depression over their lifetime than men,” says Johnson. This idea — that diseases can look very different in women and men — has propelled Johnson’s career. She and her team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital work to pool expertise on disease in women. In this talk, she takes a look at three areas where research is vital: 1) heart disease, the #1 killer of women in the United States, as plaque build up in women is too hard to spot with the current gold standard tests 2) lung cancer, the #1 cancer killer of women, as estrogen appears to play some kind of role in the disease and 3) depression, the #1 cause of disability for women worldwide, as there appears to be gender differences in the brain that connect to mood. “Why leave women’s health to chance?” she asks. “Women’s health is an equal rights issue, and it’s as important as equal pay.”

Catalina Escobar. Photo: Marla Aufmuth

Catalina Escobar. Photo: Marla Aufmuth

Cartagena used to have the highest infant mortality rate in the whole of Colombia. For local resident Catalina Escobar, thiswas not a stat she was prepared to accept. Taking inspiration from the hospital with the lowest infant mortality rate (in California), she built a state-of-the-art intensive care unit for babies in the city — and lowered the mortality rate by 79%. Escobar also explains a two-year program she’s developed to help teenage women learn how to earn a stable income and enjoy a responsible sex life. “They’re not victims any more,” she says of the girls she’s been working with. “They’re taking part in an active and progressive society.”

It’s okay to laugh at cerebral palsy. This is the message that comedian Maysoon Zayid would like to deliver to the TEDWomen audience. “I got 99 problems and palsy is just one,” she says. “I’m Palestinian, I’m disabled, I’m female and I live in New Jersey.” In a hilarious standup set, Zayid — a co-founder of the Arab-American Comedy Festival — had the audience laughing at tales of the cures her family dreamed up for her disability — dance classes, a dunk in the Dead Sea — and how casting directors have reacted to her, as far back as high school. “People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world and we are the most under-represented in entertainment,” says Zayid. “The doctor said I wouldn’t walk, but I’m here in front of you. If we had more positive images, it might foster less hate on the internet … If I can can, you can can.”

Azure Antoinette uses performance poetry to explore the effects of technology on language, culture and relationships. In 2010, she created STUDIO:alchemy  an arts-in-education program that empowers teenage girls to be spoken-word artists. On the TEDWomen stage she dedicates her performance of “Inner Voice” to a woman in her own family. A taste:

What did I do with my confidence?
Where did I misplace the wilds in me that told me that anything I wanted to accomplish could be done before my mid-day nap?
I have been looking in all the wrong places.
I have been searching for my identity in pencil skirts that would look just right, if my waist were a little tighter.
I have been searching for the fearlessness of my youth in cosmetics that sit just right on cheekbones that have been engineered by Photoshop

Finally, in a lovely surprise, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Morley takes the stage — as she was meant to in during the first TEDWomen, in fact. She lost her voice before that show (her stand-in? the amazing Toshi Reagon), so now she’s back to share her lovely ballad “Women of Hope.

And the fabulous Rwandan drummers of Ingoma Nshya play us out.

Read more coverage of TEDWomen 2013 »