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Two extraordinary women from Tanzania

Bi Kidude , the 93 year-old queen of Taraab music, honors us with her presence on the TED stage. Leading the ensemble astride a meter-long Msondo drum, accompanied by two other drummers and give dancers, she sounds like a woman a third her age. (Ndesanjo tells me that both the drum and the dance are called “Msando”. He also tells me that Bi Kidude trains young women in the arts of dance before they marry – it’s a form of sex education, preparing them for their role as women.)

Chris Anderson introduces Jane Goodall with the phrase, “from one amazing woman to another”. She offers a chimpanzee call before sleep by way of introduction instead of a “Jambo” or a “bon soir”. She references the late lewis Leakey, the famous paleontologist, as the person who set her on the path of studying chimpanzees. Leakey studied the structures of skeletons, but realized that “behavior doesn’t fossilize”. To figure out early human behaviior, perhaps it makes sense to study our closest ancestors, apes and chimpanzees. Now much speculation on early human behavior is based on chimp behavior.

Every chimpanzee has his or her own personality, Goodall tells us. They can live to sixty years old. The female has her first baby at 11 or 12 years old, and additional babies every 5 years. This very long period between children is a function of the dependency of the child on the mother. We believe this is because there’s a great deal of learning chimpanzees need to do to survive. That childhood is a time of cultural learning – the tool-using behaviors seen throughout Africa are passed from one generation to the other in a form of primitive culture.

Chimpanzees have no spoken language, but a rich set of postures and gestures, similar or identical to ours. Chimpanzees kiss, hold hands, pat on the back, swagger and throw rocks at one another. They are capable of extreme brutality and primitive warfare, usually oriented towards neighboring social groups. These discoveries suggest that there is no sharp line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, and that this line blurs more as we make more observations.

Much of Goodall’s research has centered on Gombe National Park, a small forest on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. In trying to preserve chimpanzee habitat, she’s been asking the question, “How do you save these forests when people bordering the forest are struggling to survive?” The presence of huge refugee populations makes this struggle even harder.

She’s helped found a group called “Take Care”, which tries to improve the lives of people living around the park. They build tree nurseries, develop methods of farming suitable to the degraded land and to reclaim overused farmland. This only works by bringing Tanzanians into the villages and asking villagers what they want and need – the villagers focus on health, not preservation. But they discover over time the importance of soil conservation in their overall survival, and the program is now replanting forests and creating “leafy corridors outside the parks” to help chimps migrate.

Goodall is profoundly worried about human impact on the climate. She notes that if the entire world lives using the resources that Americans or Europeans use, we’ll need four planets worth of impact. We used to approach decisions with thinking about seven generations of impact. Now decisions “seem to focus on the next quarterly shareholder meeting.”

She asks, “Is there a disconnect between this extraordinary brain and the human heart?” She sees a great deal of despair in young people talking about the environment. In reaction to this, she’s started a program called “Roots and Shoots”. “Roots represent a strong foundation, and shoots can break through a brick wall to reach the sun.” The groups, ranging in age from pre-school to university, choose their own projects, often planting trees, or organic crops. The programs try to reach child soldiers in Uganda, and try to share information on HIV from youth with the disease to youth who are uninfected.

Goodall is often asked if she has hope – she does, because of the “amazing human brain” and the idea it generates, some of them featured at events like TED. She’s inspired by the talks on composting and on renewable energy. And she’s inspired by leaders like Nelson Mandela and his powers of forgiveness and by Ken Saro-Wiwa and his demand for justice. And she’s inspired by the woman who runs the conference center we’re working in, a proud graduate of the Roots and Shoots program.