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“The Sheer Joy of Hearing Ideas”

Posted on 05/08/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation
Credit: Talking Heads
Credit: Talking Heads
Photo courtesy of Talking Heads

It would have been great to be around decades ago when the only thing to do once the sun set was to gather the young ones around the fire and distract them with stories. Storytelling was a habit and a way of life and the only way to share a story was to speak it. These stories grew, travelled and morphed into multiple versions that changed according to the circumstances of each telling. This process was poorly documented, possibly because there was never any imperative to preserve something that was so widespread.

For many people around the world, Africa is still synonymous with rogue governments, failed infrastructure, poverty and corruption. We handed over the great responsibility of telling our stories to people who made these bleak realities our only narratives; all the more ironic for peoples with rich storytelling traditions of our own. Yewande Omotoso, whose work I will return to later in this article, says that ‘stories are the places where our ancestors hid their secrets.’ Chimamanda Adichie in her celebrated first TED talk put out a call for us to embrace these old stories and tell new ones, rejecting the simplification of singular narrative.

We took heed of her call. There was steady flow of stories emerging from the continent. The term Afro-futurism crept into our vocabulary thanks to films such as Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, which for many was a first encounter with sci-fi film from the continent. Nollywood films replaced the Spanish soap operas on local television. The pan-African Magazine Chimurenga (which had been producing journals since 2002) released a mammoth edition that served as an imaginary newspaper and time capsule, and told alternative stories about the 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

Amidst this multi disciplinary magic, Talking Heads – a project of the Cape Town based Africa Centre – was thinking about conversation as a tool to share the stories and ideas of the continent’s leading thinkers. Now a Pan-African thought and knowledge-sharing platform, Talking Heads creates spaces – both physical and virtual – for Africans to tell complex and nuanced stories.

Credit: Talking Heads
Photo courtesy of Talking Heads

The physical embodiment, Talking Heads Live, is a boutique event that has so far been held in Cape Town and Johannesburg, but which the organisers hope will spread to other parts of the continent. The affair is described as ‘speed-dating for the brain.’ It invites about forty experts, from actors to zoologists, to be ‘talking heads’ for an evening. The public is invited to engage with them in a series of carefully curated, twenty-minute conversations between one expert and three audience members. To keep things interesting, neither the audience nor the experts know whom they will be interacting with at any of the four sessions. So, a typical Talking Heads Live event will provide the attendee with the opportunity to connect with and learn from a poet, a criminal lawyer, an athlete and a gourmet chef, for example. Intervals in between the sessions are filled with music, wine and an opportunity to speak to experts that you had your eye on.

Talking Heads Live is the only event of its kind in the region and has already garnered some great reviews.

“I liked the diverse mix of people who I got to interact with. Being my first time at Talking Heads, it took a couple of tries to see how to best use the format –it went really well and I think I really got people thinking in a different space from their usual,” says social scientist Geci Karuri Sebina of her experience at the 2013 edition in Jo’burg.

It was soon evident that the diverse and robust conversations taking place at Talking Heads Live needed to be re-packaged into a format that could outlive the three-hour event and be accessible to more than a few hundred people at a time.

The Talking Heads video series that followed was one attempt to do this. The short animated series promotes the efforts of African tinkerers who are working to change their worlds. The Cardiopad video released in 2013, profiles the creation of 26-year-old Cameroonian innovator Arthur Zang. His invention is a portable electronic medical device that enables heart examinations (such as the electrocardiogram) to be done in rural areas. The results of these tests are sent wirelessly to experts in urban areas for diagnosis and the experts give guidance on the necessary treatment. The Cardiopad is being tested in hospitals in Cameroon and its life saving potential is already being realised.

“It has been about a year now that they said I had a cardiovascular disease.  I have been travelling to the city to take treatment. But since they brought this machine [device], they just put the machine on me and I no longer travel to the city,” 55 – year old Simplice Momo told VOA news in July.

Last year, Zang was recipient of the annual Rolex Award for Enterprise. With the fifty thousand Swiss francs that came with the award, Zang plans to manufacture a hundred devices for each of Cameroon’s ten provinces.

While the Talking Heads videos do great job of highlighting some life changing innovations, the cost of churning out quality videos on a regular basis proved prohibitive. Not to mention that it is an almost impossible task to pin down the fickle formula for a viral video. Since the initial objective was to curate and capture conversations, podcasts – the world’s geekiest medium – seemed like an obvious channel.

Podcasts, which have been floating under the media radar for over ten years, are experiencing a surge. The number of people listening to podcasts has tripled to seventy five million in the last five years. This is attributed to the fact that they are available on platforms other than Apple, for which they were initially intended. Faster Internet, the proliferation of smart phones, and other great technical advances have certainly helped.

We’ve been given the opportunity to correct the sin of non-documentation by living in an age in which we can record and share the stories of our lives via neat little time-stamped moments. It’s a good thing. It’s also an overly abundant thing, so much so that it leaves many with no time to indulge in better things, like live music and actual conversation. At one point in my life I could go almost a week without talking to a human being that didn’t live inside my computer. I would struggle to remember what a conversation sounded like. This, I believe, is another reason why podcasts are doing so well.

Podcasts by their very nature demand a personal connection. They are designed to be listened to by one person at a time. Roman Mars, who produces the popular podcast on design, 99% Invisible, says that he has become more aware of this now, so he mikes himself more closely and uses his “head voice” in a bid to form a more intimate conversation with his listeners.

I am a great fan of podcasts. I regularly carve out time to eavesdrop on conversations between the cast of This American Life, ReplyAll, Serial and others. The stories I encounter in these podcasts are wonderful. They provide access to pockets of other worlds and feed the imagination. They also remind me of the kind of stories Chimamanda confesses to writing as a child, as a result of reading Western literature:

“All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.  I lived in Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to… But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature.”

Talking Heads Radio does for podcasts what Achebe and Laye do for African literature. They allow us to consume stories of American lives, alongside those about living in Mozambique, Cameroon or Somalia so that we are never forced to view our world through a single lens.

Credit: Talking Heads
Photo courtesy of Talking Heads

The Talking Heads podcasts are undoubtedly the most widely consumed product of this vibrant project. They are wonderfully engaging conversations with a great mix of myth busters – Africans who are working to shift the myopic narratives about the continent.

Yewande Omotoso, host of most of the podcasts in the current series, is an award-winning Nigerian novelist and architect who was born in Barbados, raised in Nigeria, and now lives in South Africa. In one of the most recent podcasts Yewande speaks to Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu about his experiences curating TEDxEuston, what is now one of the most highly anticipated TEDx events in London. They have a bewitching conversation about the power of story-telling and Yewande, in the introduction to the ten-minute episode captures the understated importance of platforms such as TED and Talking Heads.

“I’m talking about the sheer joy of hearing ideas for ideas’ sake. The chance to bask in a space where there are people who know things and they are willing to talk about them. The relief of not having to do anything with the knowledge, but trusting that by the fact that the idea is being spoken and heard – good things will come.”

Yewande lights up when she speaks about the reasons she decided to host the podcasts.

Yewande Omotoso. Photo courtesy of Alexander von Strauss

“I love radio. I’m someone who likes to be read to and enjoy reading out loud. So the idea of voice work intrigued me. It was a chance to explore that magic of voice, while speaking to these amazing people achieving great things.”

Each podcast is the result of a series of deliberate and carefully curated steps that are often spearheaded by the host of the particular podcast. Yewande’s approach is fairly simple: she finds an individual who is doing great things on the continent, immerses herself in their world, and then speaks to and about them.

The result is a set of conversations that are presented in a way that, at first, feels formal. The first few minutes are spent illustrating why the individual is worthy of your time, peppered with personal anecdotes about how the ‘talking head’ has inspired the host. After this, follows a conversation that is more reminiscent of two old friends catching up, (however punctuated with subtle audio cues that transform the conversation into engaging storytelling). The sound design manages to transform an ordinary conversation into an audio experience that one wants to return to over and over again.

The episode featuring Ghanaian novelist Ama Ata Aidoo is a personal favourite. Yewande opens with an anecdote about the influence Ama Ata Aidoo had on her own writing, and the way life made so much more sense when it lived in the lines of Aidoo’s pages. Then it travels to Ghana where Aidoo invites listeners to join her and a group of youth at a writers’ workshop in Ghana as she shares her experiences of maturing as a writer. At the end of the podcast, I too felt like I was sitting by Aidoo’s feet.

Ama Ata Aidoo and her workshop group. Photo courtesy of African Women's Development Fund
Ama Ata Aidoo and her workshop group. Photo courtesy of African Women’s Development Fund

“Its fleeting and simple and potentially profound. Or not. And that’s ok,” Yewande says of the project as a whole, conceding that some episodes are more successful than others. She says Who Wrote the Gender Script, featuring Nigerian scholar Simi Dosekun, is one of her favourites because of the manner in which it chooses to tackle the various notions of femininity in Nigeria.

Talking Heads Radio has been producing podcasts for a little over a year now and the response has been slow and steady. They are currently hosted on a central website. Earlier this year, The Mail & Guardian in South Africa featured a podcast a week for three months on their online platform. Continental news platforms such as Africa.com and Upfront Africa are also carrying them regularly. Yet, this doesn’t seem like enough. Tambu Ndlovu, Project Manager of Talking Heads agrees.

“We have taken some much needed time to focus our efforts on trying to develop meaningful distribution outlets for our digital content. That continues to be the thrust. We have realised rather early on that we need actively to find our ‘tribe’ and nurture it with the same gusto and energy we invest in producing content.” She adds that the beauty of the approach they have taken with Talking Heads is always to be comfortable with risk.

It is risky business developing a high profile, star studded event with no guarantee that people will buy tickets and come. It is risky working on film projects with teams halfway across the continent that you cannot see and riskier developing podcasts for a media consumption culture has not completely absorbed this form of media.

Africa has the one of the fastest growing tech and digital media spaces in the planet at the moment – second to South Asia. The Economist reports that in 2011, Africa had over 600m mobile-phone users, more than America or Europe. This number is predicted to hit 930 million by 2019. Talking Heads realises that in order to survive in this rapidly changing space, they need to test things and adjust quickly. Talking Heads is really just at the beginning of what could be a huge story- telling operation.

Photo courtesy of Talking Heads
Photo courtesy of Talking Heads
Wanjiru Koinange

Wanjiru KoinangeWanjiru Koinange is a Kenyan writer. She recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing the outcome of which was her debut novel that is based on the events around Kenya’s post election violence in 2007. She currently lives in Nairobi where she is working to re-install libraries into primary schools and public spaces.

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