Sierra Leone: Day 5

Photo courtesy of Molly Fiffer of IIE.

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.


Morning (8-9am): Visit St Edward’s Catholic Boys Primary School

Maybe having an impromptu footrace with a group of, oh, 25 primary school boys outside of their Catholic school wasn’t on the agenda. But it was a wonderful way to start an early morning.

Here is some more context on why we were at this school in particular:

Before the official assembly began, I had asked a small group of students hanging-out with me what their favorite song was. They started singing this:

(The teacher and the boys themselves said it was alright for Mom to post the video on YouTube.) We normally would have posted it on Twitter or IG, except, when I asked that group of boys how they liked to spend their weekends, their activities were (in-order):

  1. Study hard
  2. Watch the baby
  3. Watch YouTube

When I asked what they watched on YouTube, one boy answered: “Children’s programs.”

When I asked who were in the children’s programs, he said: “Mostly American children.”

I asked if he’d like more Sierra Leonian kids to have shows, and he said he did. So Mom asked them if she could record them singing their favorite song and promised to upload it to YouTube so there would be at least one more good children’s video with Sierra Leonian kids in it. It is above.

One thing I loved about this morning, aside from the footraces and the 3 Rs program, was the amount of forma; group singing the boys got in before school started. They spent a solid 10-15 minutes singing prayers, national anthems, flag songs, good morning songs — as a singer, it was a joy to be surrounded by so many cheerful, curious voices uplifted in song.

Day (9:30 – 4pm): Hands-on STEM day with students, Buxton Memorial Methodist Church Hall

On my way into Sierra Leone, I had 2 checked-bags: a duffle bag I’ve had for about 25 years at this point (I like to think it’s stains have protected it from avaricious TSA workers through trips to a dozen countries); and a black hard-sided suitcase that Mom didn’t want anymore. The duffle was full of my clothes for a delegation where every day’s dress code started with the word “Business.” The black hard sided bag was half-full of STEM educational materials one of our Fellows in Nigeria bought, shipped to my house, and which I handed-over to another Nigeria Fellow early in the week.

The other half of the black bag was full of the materials I prepped for today’s workshop. I was teaching my Coding on a Loom workshop, incorporating a few lessons-learned from when I taught it in Nigeria. Those lessons included:

  1. Plan kits ahead of time for teachers with all of the materials
  2. Laminate the instructions so they don’t degrade as fast in a tropical climate
  3. Make the looms smaller/easier to fabricate
  4. Use color-contrasting yard and needles to make it easier for students to distinguish between the two while working
  5. Include other STEM hands-on items in the kits

1 and 2 I was able to handle before take-off; I accomplished 3 by buying these pre-made looms, though if I do this again I think I’ll just cut them myself out of cardboard. The notches were too tight in these and they looked snaggle-toothed when strung.

4 was mostly easy enough, though the fact I warped all of the boards in green (since it’s on the flag and for the Muslim students, it can signify good luck because green is known as the prophet’s favorite color) and many of the plastic needles and balls of yarn were green wasn’t ideal.

For 5, the other STEM items I included a make-your-own mobile solar system kit I found for $1 each at the dollar store (thank you Crayola); dice from a DND-playing friend who was KonMari-ing, so teachers can give students another way to practice probability; a loom or three, several plastic needles, and several balls of yarn; my business card if they had questions.

Each student also got to take-home their materials: these included a small cardboard handloom, a plastic needle and a ball of colorful yarn, the instruction sheet with information about the math behind binary on one side and an ASCII letters-to-binary chart on the other side, and a little toy or keychain from the US.

I designed this workshop to include gifts for a few reasons: getting a gift to start the lesson off can help the students decide to engage even in an unfamiliar setting, with teachers who accents may sound strange, and a topic presented in a way they aren’t used to. Also, I believe students integrate information more quickly when it directly connects to them and knowing that they physically own the object they’re working this might help them dive in.

The basic structure of this workshop is to start by talking about natural languages — I wrote my name and my co-presenter Soniya Goyal of Twitter’s name in English Arabic, Japanese, Binary, Morse code, the first letter in musical notation. Soniya wrote both of ours in Hindi, which was a special treat. These went-up on the board with colorful paper and we talked about how sounds and letters are represented in different ways — in Japanese, sound combinations have one consistent character, while in Arabic, English, and Hindi, we spell-out each letter.

Here’s what that sounds like:

Then I asked the students to flip-over their handouts and read me the binary for the first letter of my name, which I then wove into an 8-ribbon warp hanging from the blackboard.

Then I let them get started.

Most of the time, if I’ve explained clearly enough, 3/4 of students will be able to get moving with the project immediately. By pre-threading the needles, we probably saved a half-dozen stalled-starts.

The remaining 1/4 will usually raise their hands and ask: “Actually, what is it we are doing?”

Then Soniya and I explain again, trying to group the confused quarter into small groups. They always get it after that. I’m not sure if these students weren’t paying attention, learn better when someone is speaking directly to them rather than to them in a group, need to see something demonstrated on the object in front of them rather than an analogous one, or needed a bit of repetition. But it works out fine.

The next set of questions come from students who have a repeating 1 or 0 between the beginning or end of their names. This makes the thread slip, if they don’t know how to anchor it. We usually do a quick loop, which damages readability but keeps the flow going.

Once everyone has gotten their first two letters on their boards, I go back to the blackboard and start explaining the math behind binary. We started with what numbers are (16 is 6 ones and 1 ten, 116 is 6 ones, 1 ten, and 1 hundred), then what numbers are in base-2. I used the usual: “What if you were an alien with only 2 fingers, how would you count?” I’ve never found this thought-experiment particularly helpful, and think it often leads to un-fruitful classroom daydreams about ET, but it’s the most common metaphor here. Then I converted a decimal number to binary on the board, then a binary number to decimal.

The students seem to enjoy call-and-response math, so I asked for their help with my powers of 2 from 0 to 7, then with the addition after we’ve converted each number’s place from binary to decimal.

Because lunch was running a little late, I got extra time with my second group, which led to this:

I also got to show them my math magic trick, drawing a big long line on the board and dividing it in half over and over and over again as we worked our way down the binary search tree. I added some theatrics to this one. I asked one girl to choose a number between 0 and 1,000,000.

Then I said I was going to run out of the room and she should tell the whole class while I stood outside with my ears covered. I did this, with lots of flouncing, and then proceeded to work through the numbers. I believe she’d chosen 7 and it took me 18 guesses.

(In the two times I have done this so far, the children have picked “random” numbers between 0 – 1,000,000, and those numbers have always been less than 20. A new definition of the edge cases where a linear search would be consistently faster than a binary search tree algorithm.)

I love this workshop because it lets me combine music and math and weaving and coding and performance and the history of women in computer science and the history of computer science and physical play and colorful materials and crafting all at once.

Evening: Goodbye Dinner

This was colorful and sad and yummy and heartfelt and oh, I wish that so many miles and borders did not keep us apart.

Sierra Leone: Day 4

Photo Credit to Molly Fiffer of TechWomen and IIE

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.


Afternoon: Women in #Techpreneurship

I gave a TED talk-style presentation to a roomful of Sierra Leonian entrepreneurs about finding funding. Here’s a recording of another version of that talk if you’re curious:

It went well!

Evening: Pitch Night and Start-Up Exhibition

The youth section (12-18) of this event was co-run by your correspondent, Natsai Mutezo and Jacqueline Scoggins. My Mom and a group of other excellent mentors ran the adult section (19-30). We had 10 girls in our pitch competition.

A group of four girls from 13-16 sit a round a large wooden table; two American women and two Sierra Leonian women sit with them. The girls are answering the question:

“What is the biggest problem in your community and what should your community do to solve it?”

They have 45 minutes to decided on their answers to the above using the Apple design process (Brainstorm->Plan->Prototype->Evaluate), appoint a speaker, develop a pitch (the prototype in this circumstance), practice it, and be ready to go.

One girl is wearing a maroon dress; not a school uniform. She probably changed for the event, which is hosted at one of the few venues we’ve been to with European-native flowers. We had walked into the peaceful outdoor space beneath a great arbor; at first, I thought someone had trailed flower petals along our path, white and richly pink and grey. But then I realized the arbor was covered in at least two fully mature wisteria vines, and the flowers were dropped down from them by their own verdant capriciousness and not by some solicitous host.

The girl in maroon’s voice is quiet, flat, and strong when she answers the question:


She is sixteen.

The women nod to the girls, letting them know it’s ok to talk here. We all know that the parliament of Sierra Leone recently declared that raping q child will carry an automatic life sentence. There’s a hum as the two other groups of girls are having these same conversations, these same quiet declarations of emergency. The next girl is in a cornflower blue uniform, complete with a round-brimmed hat. She answers:

“Lack of electricity.”

She is fourteen.

The next girl is wearing the same uniform and her voice very, very quiet. It is a good thing that Freetown is quiet too; well, quiet for a city with cars, but I can clearly make out her voice:

“Lack of access to clean water.”

She is also fourteen.

The fourth is wearing a nice chartreuse top, the sleeves architectural the way so many West African fashions are:

“I believe the most important issue facing Sierra Leone is global warming. When I tell my parents about the harmful gasses that come from their stoves and their cars, my father says: ‘that doesn’t happen here.’ It is hard for us here in a developing country. We are trying to follow what the Western countries are doing, but it is hard when people do not believe us.”

She is thirteen.

We discuss. I see the group talking more and more about the issue of rape. Usually in these kinds of ideation meetings, one topic will bubble up and up and up. Experienced brainstormers without a chip on their shoulders or an axe to grind will usually go with the flow for the sake of the exercise. But this is the first brainstorming session these young ladies have had, so silence descends, choking off their words as they try to figure out how to negotiate a single topic with the other girls at the table.

We talk about “yes, and…” and the girls are slightly warming up to it as a mode of communication. It’s supportive and kind, which is a good fit for their existing styles. It just adds a bit more structure to what they each wish others would do for them.

Several more issue areas have been added:

  1. Illiteracy
  2. Bad people — when we dug into this one, she talked about feeling unsafe to leave her house in case she was robbed.
  3. Teen pregnancy

One of the mentors, a woman who taught herself to program after college and has held high-ranking positions at a number of top Silicon Valley companies, asks the girls to vote on which issues to remove from the potentials list.

The girls vote to remove electricity shortages, illiteracy, and ‘bad people’ and combine teen pregnancy and rape.

The girl in the chartreuse shirt argues passionately for focusing on climate change. [I’m going to keep referring to her visually since she’s a minor and I didn’t get permission to use her name]. I suggest we try a secret ballot, saying:

“In my country, we often keep our votes secret to protect people from being intimidated during voting.”

I had noticed how anxious the girls were getting, how much they looked at each other with worry about giving offense, feeling a clear urge for social cohesion. They agree to try it and put their heads on the table.

They vote to focus on rape.

Everyone glances at the girl in chartreuse, but she looks ok with the decision. We’d remind them that this was only for this one competition, that they could keep working on anything they liked after tonight. We move forward.

Now we’re at the hard question of who will be the speaker. No matter where I go, it is deeply rare for anyone to compete for this role immediately. People can work themselves up to being competitive about it, but for those first stunning seconds while everyone relives every fear they’ve ever had of public speaking, no one raises their hands.

I’m about to start on my spiel that every group project has variations on the same 5 roles (project manager, researcher, writer, designer, speaker) and that speaker is only one of them, when the girl in the chartreuse top begins to inch her hand up, pointer-finger crooked-up just barely out of her fist, eyes fixedly on the table.

“I think she volunteered!” One of the women says.

Another woman says: “Alright, to the prototype phase. Since the pitch is the prototype, why don’t you looked at her notes,” and she begins gesturing firmly to the other woman’s notes in her carefully-branded red notebook, “And give us a version of the pitch?”

There is some apologizing for handwriting, some discussion of its goodness/badness, American’s schools’ lack of emphasis on handwriting, and the girl’s assurance she can read it.

She gives the pitch as one of the women times her; she takes 1min 26sec. That is both nearly 50% over time and drastically better than the vast majority of adults I’ve gone through this workshop with could have done.

We practice giving supportive, positive feedback.

She tries again: 49 seconds.

The women clap wildly, knowing in our bones how incredibly difficult it is to make live changes to a talk in front of strangers.

To give her a break and because it’s a tip I enjoy, I say:

“One way to slow down when you speak is to take a breath in through your nose in every place you find a period. Your nose because if you breath-in through your mouth, it can make your throat dry, make you cough. This is most important for when you — when each of you — are speaking at the UN or anywhere in a northern, drier climate, and not so relevant here in this warm, tropical climate, but you should know how to publicly speak in northern climates as well.”

“So says the opera singer,” one of the other women say. Earlier in the evening, when two young participants missed what I was saying, I had told the entire assembled group:

“I have a policy — if I see someone distracted when I am speaking, someone on their cellphone, I will assume I am not being entertaining enough, dramatic enough. And because I studied opera in school, my first reaction will to start being more and more dramatic, up-to and including singing loudly in Italian until I have everyone’s attention. I will take it as a sign that I need to do that if I see a plurality of people on their phones.”

The girl in the chartreuse top tries again: 54 seconds.

The time is up; she has to be ready.

I stand, get the microphone and begin to arrange the speakers. I let them choose their order based on who comes down to the low stage area first. The first girl is tall, with thick glasses and wearing a long, tan hijab; she chooses third of three. The second is the girl in the chartreuse shirt confidently asks for position 2, which is a favorite of mine as well. The other group has decided to divide their time between all 3 of there group members. I am dubious they will be able to keep to time, but tell them they’re going first because they lallygagged and they’ll do great.

The judge sits in a smart green blazer, notebook in hand, in single chair in front of the row of nervous girls. She’s a Sierra Leonian woman in STEM and the perfect mix of direct and kind for this role for this age-grou

They present.

The first group of girls spoke about improving waste disposal in their communities:

The girl in the chartreuse top gave the same solid 1-minute pitch.

The third girl spoke confidently and well about her team’s goals for their local environment.

I want the judge to have a few moments to think unobserved by anxious teenaged eyes, so I call all of the teams, their mentors, and their teachers together to take a big group picture. The area I was treating as a stage was a full step lower than the tables where we’d sat, and some of the girl came down a level for the photo — I tell them to go back up, to never give-up the high ground. They laugh and we take a big, smiling picture, the US State Department photographer and the IIE-hired local photographer both doing a great job of getting and holding everyone’s attention.

I check-in with the judge and she’s ready. I call the group to order and remind them they are all winners. This seems weak-sauce in my ears, so I ask them all to raise their hands if they had learned something in the past hour.

They all do, their grins big.

I remind them that, when Natsai Mutezo (one of the other leaders of the youth section of the pitch competition) had asked them at the beginning of the program who knew what a pitch was, none of them had raised their hands.

“And now you are so good, I believe you could pitch your ideas in a huge range of places.” don’t want to overpromise, but I would take listening to any of these ladies over a dealer’s pick of Congressmen any day of the week and twice on Wednesdays

I gesture the judge to step down and she takes the microphone, saying:

“You are all winners, but there has to be a team at the top. I wasn’t here for your planning process, I was in the adult’s section,” [the adults had had their own pitch competition prep session in another room], “But one group hit all of the marks: identifying the problem, arguing for the solution.”

“That group was number two.”

There was a long pause while we tried to figure out who she meant.

Then — it had to be the second speaker, the girl in the chartreuse top!

Here is the moment it was announced, complete with screaming and shimmying and the general explosive joy of teenaged girls everywhere.

Each girl got a certificate. I shook every girl’s hands, telling them they were brilliant. Snacks were served and we started chatting about school.

The first girl said her favorite subject was math; the second said it was drawing; the third said it was engineering science; and fourth, the girl in the chartreuse shirt, said it was science and she didn’t have a lot of science classes yet, because of her grade.

She is thirteen.

Jackie Scoggins, one of the other amazing co-leaders of the youth pitch competition, comes over to our table. She tells the girls that each table had raised-up the same problems and that, if all 10 of them connected, they could make incredible change. I wave then forward, then remember their ages.

I say: “You’re going to be networking. You need give your contact information to any of the other girls you want to stay in contact with. If someone else gives you their contact information, you need to reply within 24 hours.”

I dug into my backpack, pulling out a heap of post-it notes former Sunnyvale City Councilwoman Tara Martin-Milius had left with me after workshop I ran with her. Tara had told me to put them to good use.

I hand one stack to each girl, paired with a pen; these post-its were about to become their first business cards.

“Remember: share your information, ask for information, and follow-up in 24 hours. Now go on!”

They went. All 10 girls spent the remainder of the evening hunched in over the table, eyes bright, smiles quick and rising often. As the sun set, a puppy toddled between the tables, watched by its careful mother. The girls ignored it, faces intent on their conversation. Occasional flashes of green as they exchanged post-it note business cards.

I don’t know if I have ever seen a more beautiful sight.

Sierra Leone: Day 3

This is a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.


Morning: Women in Leadership in Sierra Leone Forum

The forum began in a most Sierra Leonian fashion: a minute of silence for prayer, ending with “Amen / Amin.” Amen is the way that Christians end their prayers and Amin is how Muslims end their prayers. (Arabic-speaking Christians also say “Amin,” but Arabic is not one of the 16 languages spoken in Sierra Leone.)

We started the morning off with two panels: the first on lifting-up the next generation of women and the second on finding our voices. Whereas the first two days of this delegation were about future leaders, today was about current leaders. The room was packed with women leaders from Sierra Leone. We were sat in rounds, 8 of us at our table. All of the participants were impressive: they included businesswomen and social workers, models and marketers, women from a range of tribes and faiths.

One of my key personal questions for this trip to Sierra Leone is: why is this country so incredibly religiously tolerant? Many of the Sierra Leonians I have met are bone-deep proud of this tolerance — it comes up in cab rides and plenary sessions, during networking receptions and over the hotel breakfast table. Here are some thoughts on what distinguishes Sierra Leonian religious tolerance from the tolerance I have seen in the United States.

Deep understanding of each other’s faith cultures

The Sierra Leonians I have met have a deep knowledge of each other’s faith events, ceremonies, language, prayers and culture. This is a huge contrast to the clinical way we teach about different faiths in the United States, which too often emphasize the differences like we’re trying to make a pro-con list and not like we’re trying to understand how our fellow humans attach to the divine.

How does this manifest in practice? Today, one of the women at my table wore a tight cotton hijab. (Other women at the table were also Muslim and don’t cover.)

The young woman who covered made a rookie mistake and asked a group of older women for advice on marriage — our responses took the rest of lunch. The young woman specifically brought-up her fear that a husband might try to tell her it wasn’t acceptable for her to work. (While religious tolerance is strong, so sadly too is the patriarchy). Immediately, the women at the table, both Muslim and Christian, began disagreeing with this theoretical husband, reminding her that the Prophet’s wife Khadija had supported him and been a business woman.

This isn’t a novel come-back — I’ve heard it dozens of times from Muslim feminist friends from a dozen countries. But I can’t think of a time when a non-Muslim outside of the TechWomen community knew enough to say it. I also can’t think of a mixed group like this in the US, drawn randomly from the community of women leaders, that would have been able to so fluently discuss this issue in this in-community way. It was shocking in how fluid the discussion was, how obviously conversant everyone at the table was with not only the tenets but the memes of each other’s faiths.

A constant, unselfconscious assumption of inclusion

Starting the forum with a silent prayer that included both major faith traditions was just one example of this. I have seen others every day I’ve been in Sierra Leone.

  • Our bus on the first day had a sticker above the driver’s seat that said: “Allah is Great” in Arabic and in English. Beside it was another that read: “God is Great” with a cross in the background. To the right, and a bit above either? A Manchester United sticker.
  • A few others from my last trip to Sierra Leone in 2017:

These kind of reflexive, non-performative markers of inclusion are generally unremarked-upon, but they are startling to someone used to sects within the same faith tradition and separate faith traditions mostly communicating with each other via snarky jokes.

Nothing in the above explains why religious tolerance is so powerful in Sierra Leone; I’ve just described what distinguishes it from the US version.

But the results of this tolerance are everywhere: intermarriage is common; mixed-faith families educate their children in both traditions and let them choose; married couples negotiate compromises when their faiths conflict.

Our tour guide told a story yesterday about how he came from his village to Freetown; it was a long, delightful and meandering story, as the best ones are. But a key detail that stuck with me is that, when he was applying for secondary schools in Freetown, he (a Muslim man whose name begins with A) chose to go to St Albert’s, a Catholic school, because its name began with A, just like his. Of course, he was teasing a bit when he said that, but it speaks to the utter lack of interfaith angst here, the lightness with which people approach faith.

By lightness, I don’t mean to imply a lack of seriousness; in the two years since I was here last, I have watched my Sierra Leonian Facebook friends celebrate and mourn and live their lives. Their faiths — both Muslim and Christian — pervade their posts, which could sometimes be described as including a verb, a noun, and God or Allah.

When the 2017 mudslide killed 1,141 Sierra Leonians, including some of the cousins of some of my friends, my Facebook feed was filled with photographs of young bodies piled-up in apartment stairwells, waiting to be claimed. Those were hard days, even in just the small way they impacted me. My friends prayed online for their friends and family; for them to be found safe; for their souls to be accepted; for God/Allah to take mercy on them.

Faith is very serious here, very much a part of many people’s everyday lives. But it does not seem to be approached from a position of distinction — people don’t seem to proactively define themselves by a narrow, exclusive sect.

I’ll be asking my friends more in the coming days about why their country is so tolerant, because I can see so many spaces in American life that needs a dose of their understanding and peace.

For what it’s worth, our tour guide said he believed that the lack of outward expression of faith was a part of it, that you can’t tell from looking at someone what their faith is. According to him, traditionally Muslim women in Sierra Leone did not cover, and 95% of those I have met do not. I don’t know if this is the case or not, but I know I spent 5 minutes stalled by the side of a road as a funeral progression — complete with majorette and brassband — moved down the street and I could not tell the faith of the person being buried.

Back to the forum

Near the end of the forum, the moderator asked us to identify how we could raise our voices in the community. I stood and said that I believed in changing the culture in the smallest community we have influence in — whether that is our homes, our churches or mosques, our lodges, our schools, our workplaces, our cities, our states. Once we have an example, a firm place on which to stand, we expand to the next biggest group, and the next, and the next. I said we should have a clear vision of how we believed women should be treated and we should ensure that women are treated in that way in any culture we can control, ensuring we are not duplicating the sins of the dominant culture.

Being a geek, I said framed this up by saying that I believe social change is fractal, that every big change is made-up of millions of identical, tiny changes. If you change the culture of a church group, each member can take that cultural change with them to their other groups, and so it spreads, fractal-ly and mimetically.

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