Worldchanging board chair Ethan Zuckerman is in Africa, covering the TED Global conference. -ed
Ory Okolloh asks, “what’s image got to do with it?” She tells us that our images of Africa focus on the negative stuff - the poverty, the corruption and the disease. People assume that as a Harvard-educated African, these aren’t issues that are personal for her. But she tells us, “I know what it is to grow up without money. The bellweather for whether our family was broke or not - when things were good, we had eggs and sausages, when they were bad, we had porridge.” It was difficult for the family to save, because her parents supported an extended family. But they made a decision to enroll her in a school they could barely afford, a private Catholic school. “I got kicked out pretty much every term,” when the family ran out of money. “Why don’t these guys just take me to a cheap school - it’s embarrasing.”
Her dream high school was the Kenya school, a national school, but she missed the cut by a single point on the national exam. Her father suggested they go speak to the headmistress to see if they’d made an exception. “Because we were nobodies, because my father didn’t have the right last name, we were treated like dirt. And
there’s nothing worse than seeing your parent being humiliated in front of you.” Dozens of girls with the right connections were let in - one of the most frustrating forms of corruption. Ory decided, “I’m never going to beg for anything in my life” - when the school relented in a few weeks and admitted her, she refused.
Ory’s father died of AIDS in 1999. He never told anyone about the disease - he was worried about the stigma of the disease. “I figured it out because I was a geek.” As she began researching the infection he was suffering from, a form of meningitis, she realized it was an opportunistic infection associated with AIDS. To treat the condition, he required Diflucan, a medicine used to treat yeast infections in the US - it’s expensive, $30 a pill. He got generic medication from a friend who travelled to India. But when the money ran out, he got sick again. He died over a weekend, when the family couldn’t get money from an ATM to pay for additional treatment.
“Imagine this is all you know about me? How would you look at me? With pity, sadness? This is how we look at Africa. You don’t look at the other side of me: the blogger, the Harvard-educated lawyer. It’s damaging.”
“Africans, we need to get better at telling our stories.” One of these tools is blogging - she points to Afrigator, an African tool to find African voices. She notes the Swahili Wikipedia, pointing out that it’s been written by five contributors - “four while males and Ndesanjo Macha”. With 50 million Swahili speakers, where are the African contributors? “Why are we not generating our own content?”
We take a quick tour of images of African aid. She dimisses an ad of Gwenneth Paltrow with makeup on her cheek and the caption, “I am African” with the flat statement, “No, you’re not.” But it’s not enough for us to criticize, she tells us. We all need to think about what actions we’re willing to take.
Playing the Mission:Impossible theme, she tells us about deciding to come back from the US and to “take action, saving Africa,” her tongue firmly in cheek. She asks Africans in a similar situation to make the same jump, coming home and putting their talents to work. Her work is now as a corporate lawyer for Enablis, a business incubator in South Africa, as well as an activist in Kenya. She and her Kenyan partner are running Mzalendo, a site increasing transparency of the Kenyan Parliament, for little more than $20 a month plus creativity and sweat. It’s evidence of “the power of ideas, the power of sharing knowledge.”
Ory closes with a second “gratuitous photo of her daughter”, the beautiful Gabrielle, and tells us that her dream is for her daughter to find her future in Africa. “Right now, the circumstances under which you are born determine your life - I want to see that change. As Africans, we need to take responsibility for the future of the continent.”
Ory's was one of the most compelling, frank and down-to-earth talks in Arusha. I think, because of that, it resonated a lot more to many people.