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Knowledge Leeches

by Rob Scher / Images by Noel da Silva / 19.06.2013

“Dude, Talking Heads – I love that band.” It’s a joke wearing thin, as I break away from an inebriated group of friends preparing for a very different kind of Saturday night – the Converse Party at Mary Fitzgerald Square. I compose myself, shaking off the afternoon’s beers, as I approach the Villa Acardia mansion for an evening of intellectual stimulation, staring down the FOMO. Apparently there’s going to be carnival rides at that Converse thing…

‘A multi-layered, knowledge sharing platform conceived to identify, showcase, network and expose Africa’s thought leaders. It profiles the ideas, visions and manifestations of the extraordinary people living on this continent.’


It’s the description printed on the back of a card received upon entering the Villa. There’ll be four sessions, according to the card, each with an accompanying table number. I’d hoped for some choice in my ‘heads’. Perhaps they’ll be like the TED talks – but I’ve napped my way through a couple of those too.

Turns out it’s nothing like a TED talk. Taking a seat for session one, the ‘audience’ is the two or three others sharing the table, and the ‘talk’ isn’t so much a talk as a conversation. Here, there’s no clicking ‘next’, no simple nods in a façade of intellectual assent – just a metre of table between you and 20 minutes of intelligent conversation, this time, on the social implications of fashion.


It proves an exercise in mental endurance. With a limited awareness of fashion, evidenced in my ensemble, what local fashion designer and the current ‘talking head’ at my table describes as, “clearly a combination you picked out”. We stumble our way through the assigned 20 minutes.

Whilst not the Kenyan author or beautiful French urban planner I’d hoped for, I begin to realise the point of these Talking Heads events, curated and produced by the Africa Centre. In removing yourself from a conversational comfort zone, you’re forced to engage in areas of discussion outside your typical realm of inquiry. I’m now far more conscious of the ethics of purchasing locally sourced materials, for instance.

The pound of an amplified djembe and a crooning MC signals the next session. It’s a move in the right direction. Founder and director of the Public Affairs Research Institute, Dr Ivor Chipkin cuts straight to the point. It’s a refreshing conversation void of ‘bladdie ANC this’ or ‘imperialist DA that’. We’ve only just begun unpacking the state of democratic governance as the now dreaded djembe interrupts. Along with two others at the table, we squeeze a few extra minutes out of Chipkin – a couple of knowledge leeches, hoping to gain insight we can claim as our own in future conversations.


The proceeding sessions span the spectrum, from dinner party conversation to engrossing ‘thought leader’ style insights. It’s the nature of this charged event – a mixed bag of intellectual speed dating. Create the right confluence of humans and conversational sparks fly, or alternatively, fizzle into awkward silence awaiting tribal rhythms.

Initiated by the Africa Centre, Talking Heads is an important event guided by the same motivation of the TED conferences – a platform for ideas ‘worth spreading’. Only here, these ideas are translated into (mostly) important conversations and these conversations are ideally spread beyond the table – idea fodder to be snuck in at the next braai between tales of last week’s drunken antics. Beyond that Talking Heads is distinctly social and that’s what makes it a more powerful forum for sharing and learning new ideas, especially in the small pond context of South Africa. It’s like a tactile, real-life TED talk and you can exchange numbers at the end.


* All images © Noel da Silva. Talking Heads is an Africa Centre project.

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