John Toutain is the curator of TEDxCasablanca in Morocco and one of the leaders of the TEDx Activators program in the country.
The TEDx Activators Program — in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — offers a mentorship exchange between seasoned TEDx organizers and potential TEDx organizers in developing communities.
The TEDx Activators Program is modeled after an initiative launched in Kibera, Kenya, in 2010. Organized by Acumen fellow Suraj Sudhakar, TEDxKibera took place in one of Africa’s largest slums. The passion of the organizers and attendees was astonishing.
With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we launched an experimental mentorship program: Suraj trained locals in his community to host TEDx events. Since then, several events have been held in slum communities throughout Nairobi — many of which were organized by Kibera resident Kevin Otieno.
John is currently mentoring El Wali El Alaoui Mohamed El Mostapha, organizer of TEDxTarfaya in Tarfaya, Morocco. “El Wali is completely a fan of TED,” he said, “and it’s been four months that I’ve been giving him a hand in organizing his event.”
"Every Wednesday evening we meet on Skype - he in Tarfaya and I in Casablanca - and discuss his event: the speakers, the timing, and all those questions you can have as a newbie TEDx organizer. It is teamwork imagined by TEDx.”
Two weeks before TEDxTarfaya took place, John traveled to Tarfaya to meet El Wali face to face. “Tarfaya is a city of 5.600 inhabitants in southern Morocco on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said in a diary of the trip. “I know two things about Tarfaya. First, it is far away. Damn far. To get there from Casablanca, it takes four hours by train to get to Marrakech, then a two hours connection. And, finally, a bus ride of 12 hours from Marrakech to Tarfaya. Second, that it is the town of Saint-Exupery. A city of sand, sea and scenery that inspired the famous aviator’s tale The Little Prince.”
John spent several days with El Wali preparing for TEDxTarfaya’s big day. They prepped speakers; toured Tarfaya; and even celebrated El Wali’s son’s 4th birthday.
"First thing we - El Wali and I - did when I arrived in Tarfaya was to meet each speaker and rehearse their talks," John said. "Rehearsing talks is important, but can be a hard task. Speakers are sometimes skeptical … or have fear. They feel vulnerable and don’t want to show their flaws or be judged. Well, truth is that they reacted exceptionally well. I learned this day that behind talks rehearsal there is first a question of trust. And that if people give you their trust you can efficiently help them to improve.”
A few days into his trip, something magical happened, John said. Being a TEDx Activator became more than just advising a TEDx organizer on how to host a great event, it became a way to connect with a person in a place miles away from his home, to learn more about a community he’d never encountered before.
"After a few days in Tarfaya," John said, "El Wali showed me a magical place outside the city. Facing the ocean, on a long sandy beach, he built a wooden hut. It is made of piece of wood he collected on the beach and plastic tarp he recycled after a festival.
“With nobody around — just the sound of the ocean and maybe one or two desert foxes — we discussed everything and put the world to right. We spent one night there: we brought mattresses, pillows, tea, beet juice, octopus with spices, tomatoes and salad.
"In a way," John said, "this night had exactly the same poetry as the desert day we spent in Doha for the 2012 TEDxSummit: sea, sand, a campfire and inspired people willing to change the world.”
To read John’s travel diary in French, visit his blog here.
To see pictures from TEDxTarfaya, visit their Flickr here.