Ike Anya – TEDxEuston co-founder
Ten years ago this month, sitting in my office in Bristol, one morning, I got a text from my younger brother. We had heard earlier that a Sosoliso Airlines plane had crashed in Port Harcourt and that all the people on board were feared dead. As I scrolled through Nigerian news websites, frantically searching for more news, my phone beeped. His best friend, Okoloma Maduewesi had been on the plane, together with his nephew Chibuzo Kamanu, who was one of a group of secondary school students from Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja heading home to Port Harcourt for the Christmas holidays.
Because I had grown up with Okoloma, had seen him almost as a younger brother and had held Chibuzo in my arms, merely days after he was born, a visceral anguish and anger seized me. Anger that increased as I read about how long it had taken to mount a rescue effort; how there had been no water for the fire engines at the airport. In my grief and anger I attacked my keyboard, bashing out a polemic article, “Why are We Crying, We are all Guilty”, in which I laid the blame for the crash and the state of our country on the doorstep of all Nigerian citizens.
The article, initially published on a couple of Nigerian websites seemed to have struck a deep chord, unleashing an outpouring of responses from Nigerians all over the world, many agreeing with me, others attacking me for laying the blame at their door. A Nigerian in New York, Emeka Okafor, who had a blog, the Timbuktu Chronicles: Africa Unchained, contacted me, asking if he could reproduce the article on his website. I agreed and we exchanged emails and kept vaguely in touch.
A year or so later, he forwarded an email from an organisation called TED who were organizing a conference in Arusha in Tanzania; and who as part of that conference were seeking to identify 100 African Fellows to take part. I forwarded the email to my networks, and decided to apply. In the end, my friend and colleague Chikwe Ihekweazu and I were selected and our journey to TED Global in Arusha began.
In Arusha, we were blown away by the talks, by four days of remarakable Africans telling their stories of doing groundbreaking things – law student Ory Okolloh setting up Mzalendo to shine a light on the proceedings of the Kenyan Parliament, Eleni Gabre Madhin leaving the World Bank to set up Ethiopia’s first commodities exchange, Patrick Awuah leaving Microsft to set up Ashesi, Ghana’s first liberal arts college; Dele Olojede, first African to win the Pulitzer Prize; Binyavanga Wainaina and Chris Abani telling our stories. We were electrified.
Leaving Arusha, our first instinct was to abandon our specialist training programmes in the UK and return immediately to Nigeria, to begin to do, and not talk. When reason returned, we decided to stay in the UK and complete our programmes, but inspired by Ory’s example, using the internet, we set up Nigeria Health Watch, a blog aimed at increasing accountability in the Nigerian health system, hoping that we would be able to say the things that people in Nigeria might not be able to.
Setting up Nigeria Health Watch helped, but we still buzzed with the inspiration of Arusha, and we kept boring our families and friends with stories of Arusha. For months afterwards, our conversations were peppered with “In Arusha…” “At TED…” “do you remember in Arusha…?”
And so it was that when TED offered the opportunity in 2009 for past attendees to apply for licences to host TEDx events, one-day TED-like events, Chikwe suggested that we apply for one and try and recreate the experience of Arusha in London for our families and friends, and share the inspiration. The first event nearly broke us, juggling busy jobs with organising a conference for a hundred people on the back of our credit cards, unsure if anyone would agree to speak, if anyone would agree to come. But they did – from journalist Funmi Iyanda to former minister Nasir El-Rufai to health publisher Bryan Pearson, to writer Chika Unigwe, they came and shared their stories. And there was an audience of a hundred people to listen, even if Chikwe, my brother Nazo and I had had to arrange the chairs in the room when we arrived at the venue at University College London in Euston; having spent the preceding night in a cheap hotel room in Euston, making up delegate packs and sorting out name badges.
Adaugo Amajuoyi, a medical student and Chikwe’s cousin was in charge of registration with Ifeanyi Mbanefo, a colleague from the Health Protection Agency. When the conference ended at about 8pm that Saturday night, people refused to leave. In clusters, they stood around in the hall continuing the conversations sparked by the speakers’ talks. Two of the attendees, Paddy Anigbo and Felicia Meyerowitz approached us and asked, “When is the next one?” We had not thought that far, and in any case the stress of delivering just one conference had been significant, and so we laughed. They were insistent, and volunteered to help organize the next one, and so the TEDxEuston dream was born.
Over the years, we grew into an event attended by over 600 people, which has sold out every year, supported by a team of passionate volunteers, becoming a significant voice for Africa on the global stage. We hosted some of Africa’s finest minds, inspiring fresh new ideas and debates, and built an amazing community of regular attendees, volunteers, team members and supporters.
Each year has been a challenge, from raising sponsorship to juggling the organisation with other multiple competing demands, but at the end of each conference, the number of people who came back, saying how much it has inspired them, how gratifying it is to attend a well-organised African-led event has pushed us to go on.
We have now hosted 7 main events, 4 salon events with 80 speakers, with their talks viewed 3.2 million times online.
We have built a community of friends and supporters bound together by the TEDxEuston experience and our commitment and passion to a better African continent
What has kept us going?
It’s been Arnold Ekpe, former chief executive of Ecobank and chairman of Atlas Mara’s comment in 2011 – “I have been attending conferences on Africa since my undergraduate days, but never before have I felt the kind of energy that I am feeling in this room now”
It’s been Chimamanda Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists being sampled on Beyonce’s album and now being distributed to every sixteen year old in Sweden
It’s been senior corporate executive Dolika Banda saying that TEDxEuston had led her to re-evaluate her life’s goals
It’s been the several other untold stories, the emails, the phone calls and messages from Africans all over the world. The woman saying attending TEDxEuston conference for 4 years inspired her to move back to Africa after 20 years in the UK; The second-generation African immigrants saying, watching the talks helped them reconnect with their heritage. The young people in Africa saying “Watching your talks has given me fresh hope”. They are the reason we have continued, against all odds.
This year, at our 7th event, we welcomed on stage Kechi Okwuchi, one of only two survivors of the Sosoliso plane crash. She spoke with eloquence and a deep wisdom, and there was a sense of a circle being closed.
These are experiences that we have been privileged to share and why, when we announced on stage this year that due to financial challenges, this was likely to be the last TEDxEuston, we were engulfed by a sense of loss.
But we are also conscious that TEDxEuston is more than an event; that its spirit is alive in the community of people connected by a shared vision and willingness to work for a better Africa; by the change that is happening on the continent even in the face of enormous challenges.
Which is why we are asking you to share your TEDxEuston story with us.
This is #myTEDxEustonstory – what’s yours?
Go ahead and share your own #myTEDxEustonstory widely on Facebook and Twitter and we will share it further.
Please tag @tedxeuston when you share so we know.