Tag Archives: Nigeria

Arming rebels with art – Esther Chae’s memoir of teaching in Nigeria

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Stage and television actor and writer Esther Chae is not afraid of adventure, having climbed the Indian Himalayas, Mt Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, among other epic journeys. Here, she shares with the Fellows blog an unusual teaching experience that took her into an altogether different context for her craft, and changed her perspective on the importance of film, acting, and art. Chae recently closed a performance of Extraordinary Chambers,  in which she portrayed a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, in San Diego, and is currently developing her one-woman show, So the Arrow Flies – about an alleged North Korean spy interrogated by the FBI – as a feature film. 

A few years ago, TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt asked me to write about my experience teaching in Abuja, Nigera, to include in her e-book, “The Audacity of Humanity.”  I’d like to share it here on the TED Fellows Blog since it is one of the rare moments my limits both as an explorer and actor (acting teacher in this case) were tested at the same time. There is a strong correlation between the two: both require one to stay vigilantly present in the moment, to be open to unexpected challenges and to persist through that uncomfortable place of extreme vulnerability. That compound effect was intense.

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How on earth did I end up here in Africa…?

That’s what I was thinking as a howling sandstorm ravaged Abuja, Nigeria. With bandanas covering our faces and sunglasses protecting our eyes, we stepped outside the classrooms. We looked like a group of bandits about to rob a bank, not fancy artists sent to teach filmmaking. As my students were rehearsing their assigned scenes, I suddenly felt like Coolio, singing in my head how kids in the hood had been spending most their lives living in the Gang-sta’s Paradise. I felt like I was in some intense music video and I needed to rap my way through it.

In the spring of 2010, I was part of a group of American teachers who were “planed over” to help build Nigeria’s first official film academy. I was hired to teach Acting for Film.  Somehow I missed the memo that I was going to be playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s tough character in the Nollywood (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood) edition of Dangerous Minds, teaching “gangster rebels.”  Craft service and make up were certainly not on this set, though.

The makeshift film school was located in an abandoned governmental structure, and the water stopped and electricity went out every day (but not at the same time).  This was a stress factor for this gal who was trained (and tortured) under her über-fastidious Korean mom. I could see Mom tsk-tsking, shaking her head at me. “Now look at where your horse traveling spirit has brought you to. And this place, so dirty!”

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Filmmaking class.

Filmmaking class.

In the first few days following our arrival, one of the African-American teachers, who was overwhelmed to be “back” in Africa for the first time, broke down in class.  He was so excited about and focused on teaching his students, he did not even notice those sandstorms.  He lost his voice and then got a sinus infection from the dust.  I had to take over his class on top of my already five-class load that first week.

The production assistants were not doing so well, either. Not only were they younger and  less experienced working in developing countries, but they did not have the benefit or gratification of working with the students. They didn’t get to see the students’ lightbulbs turn on and creativity flow, like we teachers did. Instead, the PAs had the harsh task of managing the expensive film equipment, which started fraying in the heat and dust, to over 200 confused students who were completely new to film production and constantly fought over time slots and camera equipment. Their duties were stressful, and it started to take a toll.  I would see mounds and mounds of hard liquor bottles and cigarette packs outside their hotel room doors.

I knew Nigeria was one of the most recently volatile regions in Africa. Before going there, I had spoken with friends familiar with the area who thought tough Esther could handle it. Okay. I’ve trekked the Himalayan mountains in India, bamboo rafted across Thailand’s rivers, and even survived tiptoeing across the frozen Neva River in Russia in the dead of winter. I could do it. I’m going to Nigeria! But when I first arrived there, I felt I’d made a huge mistake.

When our group of fifteen-some teachers from Los Angeles and New York landed, we were greeted by an equal number of uniformed guards all armed with AK-47s.  They shuffled us into the vans that were waiting to take us to the the crumbling “five-star” hotel. This was not customary, but the US-affiliated film academy insisted that we – and the expensive equipment – be guarded for safety. I think I would have felt safer without the guns. The guns stayed with us the entire time we were there.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

But later, I understood why.  Ten days after our team of U.S. instructors had arrived, more than 500 civilians, mostly children and women, were killed at a church in the nearby city of Jos. It was surreal to watch the CNN news in the hotel lounge, knowing the brutal massacre had happened only 160 miles away from where I was standing. It was the latest in a sickening cycle of retaliation due to differing political and religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds, all which were too complex for me, the foreign teacher, to decipher…

One of the screenwriting students mentioned that the Nigerian press reported that the US Film Academy teachers were there to rehabilitate the rebels of the Niger Delta region. The Niger Delta region is the southeastern area between Lagos and Cameroon, home to nine Nigerian tribes whose land contains vast reserves of oil. The area had become a scene of horrific bloodshed and violence as the conflict between disenfranchised populations, oil conglomerates, and the government played out. Apparently, many of our students, who were former rebels from that region, were fully funded by the Niger Delta government to come to this Film Academy for “rehabilitation.”

Well, that was helpful information.  No wonder some of the students looked so completely lost and confused! The students all had stories of how they’d found themselves at the film academy: cousins who’d applied on their behalf, church pastors who’d reached out, radio advertisements they’d heard while driving. Those students wanted to learn filmmaking. But the other students from the Niger Delta region had been granted scholarships to go to Abuja and had no idea what they were doing or what they were in for. These students were “rebels” indeed. I would like to imagine they were the ones who had the opportunity to actually defy violence and conflict in their region, the ones who’d traveled from far and further afar to Abuja to learn filmmaking, acting, editing and animation. They were eager 20-somethings desperate for a creative outlet to spread their war-weary wings and fly.  Hopefully we teachers could help them arm themselves with art and the power of storytelling. Their pens had to be mightier than the sword. They were now rebels without machetes or guns but with pens, scripts and acting in hand. I had to show up for them, however fatigued, uncomfortable and confused I was.

The sandstorm eventually subsided. The AC started working again, and we picked up where we’d left off. As I walked around the classroom checking in with my students, I heard the song beats of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in my head again.  I smiled as my “rebel students” rehearsed their scenes, hoping to fulfill my role as the inspirational teacher that they’d never forget. I hoped many of them would become the Nouvelle Vague of Nigerian cinema, if not civic leaders who questioned their current political and social circumstances through the arts and storytelling. It was in that moment that I figured out the how and why I ended up in Africa. I was there as both a teacher in front of the class and a student of this particular life experience.

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How-to: agri-investments in Africa / Madagascar case by African TED fellows

Agri investments must help, not hurt

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director at the World Bank, former finance minister for Nigeria and Fellow TEDster, Speaking at the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit.

In Madagascar, she said, demonstrations against President Marc Ravalomanana involved unhappiness over a deal to lease half of the Indian Ocean island’s arable land to grow food.

“What we need to do is look at the political and social consequences of this,” said Okonjo-Iweala.

“As far as I’m concerned it is a good thing … but you must make sure that you do it transparently and everyone in the country understands why is it being done, who is benefiting and how will ordinary people benefit,” she added.

Okonjo-Iweala said such large commercial farming investments by foreigners could benefit local farmers by giving them access to new technology, irrigation and marketing.

Over the past few years a growing number of people in the TED community have become passionate about Africa, a continent that appears to be at an important tipping point. Its problems and challenges are well known. Less well known is that across the continent, change is afoot. Instead of relying on yet more aid bailouts, Africans are starting to take matters into their own hands. Ingenious solutions are being applied to tackle some of the toughest health and infrastructure problems. Businesses are being launched that are capable of transforming the lives of millions. New communication technologies are allowing ideas and information to spread, enabling markets — and governments — to be more efficient. And the numbers suggest that incomes are starting to nudge up and real growth is on the way. Africa: the Next Chapter.

Ngozi-Okonjo, Joachim Mangalima and Andriankoto at TED Global Africa 2007

As TED Global Africa fellow , and TED 2009 fellow I want to take my responsibility and want to be part of the solution for the announced Next Chapter.

With the project MEGASEEDS, Asian TEDsters and Africans get together to cristalise the discussion from TED Arusha and concreat it as real project since TEDsters are not only a thinkers but also Doers. We have planned a win win partenarship that will be a model to intiate something meaningful to the world.

Crisis in Madagascar shows that the way of partenarship with africa must change. One of the tipping point of this deception is the recent much-publicised plan of conglomerate Daewoo Logistics to lease a reported 1.9 million hectares of prime land in Madagascar to cultivate maize for export has fallen through.

Given the size and audacity of the the proposed deal, its astonishingly generous-to-Daewoo terms and the charges of ‘neo-colonialism’ from many quarters, it was probably doomed from the beginning.

Now that the heat has died down somewhat, perhaps it is time to examine it more calmly for the lessons that can be gleaned from it. It is one thing to criticise this particular attempted deal but African countries need foreign investment, and agriculture will for a long time offer the most realistic development options for Africa.

What we need in Madagascar is :

  • A Leader who think not for people but with them. In certain way people who consult the population and make proposal to right channel investment in the country.
  • we need government by the people for the people and certainly not a dictatorship.
  • we have to energize youth people to keep in mind that investment in Madagascar has to be a ecological responsibility.

Madasgascar is a testimony of the very old ages, We want to keep it safe for common heritage – for the humanity . 80% of our population are farmers … It is an opportunity for doing sustainable Agribusiness but please ask us what products to grow, and how to grow it properly.

Not imposing us Maize crops …

May be we have more valuable plants wich are profitable for the business, human right respectfull and Environmental friendly? Madagascar in particularly have thousands more valuable plants than maize crops, including Food’s and Medecine’s plants.

At MEGASEEDS: With our Ravintsara tree, we are fighting deforestation, controlling erosion, we don’t have to cut the tree but we are using the leaf to make essential oil. On top of that, ravintsara tree is an evergreen tree. In terme of profit the Ravintsara essential oil is arround $240 USD per liter on the global Market. $240 USD is nearly the average salary ANNUALLY in the country.

Let’s plant … every malagasy can have his TREE BANK in his piece of land and it is only $1 USD investment per tree. Good for the pocket and good for the environment.

The Ravintsara is an Endemic tree who has specific carracteristic when it’s grow in Madagascar – Madagascar only monopoly by Nature and hurts noboby – our ravintsara raw material today is only 2% of the Global Market need… it’s valuable essetial oil is used for Making Medicine … but Ravintsara is only one tree among thousands existing in Madagascar.

Why Maize ? Maize pump loads of water scientists says. Our stapple food in Madagascar is Rice and it is what we eat daily and what we need, one malagasy eat 180 kg of Rice per year, some of our country mate eat rice three time a day. Untill today, Madagascar still import 25% of it rice consuption annually… It’s not impossible, and we can do it … agriculture sound like something very odd, but trust me, it’s fit Technology, Entertainment, and Design.. and we are working daily to make it NEW.

To be continued …

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