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.

Sierra Leone: Day 2

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: STEM Career Day

Chemistry and biology and physics teachers from across Freetown brought their middle school-aged girls to the British Council building today to learn more about STEM careers.

We started out with a panel — I wrote this thread about how this morning perfectly demonstrated why is it necessary for the ideas, vision, grit, and skills of women in technology in Sierra Leone to receive a global platform. I was particularly impressed by the high school-aged Hawa Yokie‘s inventions.

After the panel, we had breakout sessions with 4-8 girls and their teachers to tell them about our careers and answer questions. I was thrilled to be paired with Jacqueline Scoggins. Jackie has rocked a 22 year career at Lawrence Livermore Labs managing the high performance computers that allow the Nobel-prize winners, the element inventors, and the everyday geniuses who populate that Department of Energy lab to do their best work. One of my favorite moments, which I asked Jackie to reenact during all of our conversations with different groups of young women, was when she whipped-out the Periodic Table of Elements and pointed to the sixteen elements on it discovered by scientists working at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

For my part, I had prepped a fun Python project (link goes to my GitHub) to help inspire the young ladies to learn to code. I start out:

“Who here has read a really long book?”

{There is some discussion about what counts as a long book; eventually, we concur that someone in the group has read a long book.}

“Alright,” I say, “If I asked you to, could you confirm with 100% accuracy that the word ‘lizard’ appears absolutely nowhere in that book?”

{There is some discussion on the nature of truth/textbooks/lizards. We agree that it is very hard to know for sure and that it would take days to check.}

I turn my laptop around, showing them the program I wrote:

“That kind of question is one that is incredible hard for humans and very easy for computers. Here’s a harder version of it — I put in several English translations of the Bible and several English translations of the Koran, for a total of 11 million words. About how long do you think it would take us to read 11 million words and be 100% certain that a certain word did not appear?”

{The group concurs much faster that this would be very, very difficult and take a very, very long time/}

“Let’s test it — can each of you tell me one word that you are sure is not in the holy Bible or the holy Koran?”

{Top words included: Samsung. Nokia. Sneaker. Astronaut. Cellphone. Failed attempts include: Wife. Sorrow. Purple. Door. Love. Sorrow.}

I run the program and it prints out:

Comparing words against Word English translation of the Holy Bible
Comparing words against M. Ali translation of the Holy Koran
Comparing words against Douay-Rheims translation of the Holy Bible
Comparing words against Rodwell translation of the Holy Koran
Comparing words against AY Ali, M Pickthall, and MH Shakir translations of the Holy Koran
Comparing words against King James translation of the Holy Bible
Compared against: 11,150,451 words used in holy books

I saw bright eyes get even brighter, teachers lean forward. I tell them about Technovation Challenge and encourage them to start a Technovation club in their schools, that they can learn to code while teaching their students to code. I tell them about attending the Technovation Celebration, how many girls get to come to Silicon Valley, how proud everyone is of their hard work.

One teacher pushes back, hard, saying he only has one computer, and it is impossible to teach computer science.

I affirm that this is both unfair and a major barrier. I also direct him to the dozens of free, offline coding resources. I tell him that in my computer science classes at Foothill, I’ve had lots of paper-based lessons and assignments. I tell them the story about studying for hours, running and re-running the different search, sort, and tree algorithms I had learned with a deck of cards, so that on my final I knew them by heart. I tell him the story of the women in TechWomen who had gotten into computer science programs on the strength of their math skills and never coded a line in their lives before university. I try to encourage them to try, knowing how massive the barriers they may face are, but also seeing so much passion and hope in the eyes of their students. It’s always on teachers to save the next generation and theirs is a world — worldwide — of massive responsibility, massive dreams, and always too-scarce resources.

Our conversation about how to teach computer science with limited access to computers gave me an idea for the last group. After going around the table (the young ladies wanted to be an engineer, a dermatologist, and a computer scientist), I pulled-out a Notable Women in Computing card deck.

My Mom and I had given 3 away to teachers in the course of the morning; this was my last deck.

I played a row of cards, sorted, on the table I asked one of the young ladies to guess a card but not tell me which one it was.

Then I used a binary search algorithm to workout which card it was in log(n) guesses. It was a magic trick, sure, but a mathy magic trick that underlies any kind of tree-based logarithmic search we do. The young ladies loved it, as did the teachers I played the “I bet I can guess any number you choose between 0 – 1,000,000 in fewer than 20 guesses,” game with over lunch. Maybe they’ll add some of these games into their talks about logarithms and exponents and logic.

An Aside on the Value of Coming In-Person

As I with last year’s trip to Nigeria, I have a rule for myself before I travel to another country for a social justice reason: I need to provide more value to the people I meet there than if I’d just written a check for the cost of the flight ($1200 – $2000 depending on your route / luck). That much money pays for a year of tuition, room, board, and leadership training for a young person in Sierra Leone with Families Without Borders, so it is a high bar.

The big way that I met that bar in Nigeria was by presenting to a roomful of entrepreneurs and social innovators how to seek funding from a variety of sources, including how to apply for grants. One of the amazing Fellows in that session asked me to review a grant she wrote for US State Department funding for her afterschool STEM program; she later receive that grant, which I believe is significantly above $2000. Check. Mark.

(I packed 2 suitcases on this trip, and, as part of the ancient tradition of #TechWomenMail, one was entirely full of Arduino boards, breadboards, build-your-own-computer kits, and other CS educational materials that the winner of that grant bought from Amazon and had shipped to my house. As of today, they are with another Nigerian Fellow and will be on their way to her. The mail is fairly unreliable and often exorbitantly expensive for many of the women in TechWomen, so mentors and Fellows often bring packages and toolkits and devices along with us. This is a small, but consistent reason why traveling in-person is vital — you can’t email someone a breadboard and you can’t Skype them an Arduino kit.)

Back to the value of coming in person: in Sierra Leone, I intend to do the same presentation and brought a thick packet of resources for those present for it.

But I also brought educational materials for the teachers who I met this morning. I know they don’t total $2000 of value, but bringing novel ways of teaching STEM like my “Teaching Binary Through Weaving” workshop, bringing posters with the faces of 54 women in tech from the Middle East and Africa, bringing solar system mobiles and dice to teach probability and spare looms and balls of yarn — well, I know for a fact that they get used and they are needed. I know they hang in classrooms from South Africa to Kyrgyzstan, from Foothill College to Carnegie Mellon University. And I love giving them away:

Afternoon: The Oldest College in West Africa (Fourah Bay College)

We spent the afternoon doing progressional development workshop for university students, including resume/CV writing, public speaking, design-thinking, and using a growth mindset.

There are lots of videos from the afternoon here, but my biggest take-away is how impressed I am with how dedicated and passionate the STEM students are, how clearly robotics, chemistry, programming, civil engineering fill a fundamental human need to understand, to explore, to build and make, to fix; it’s a human need that has existed in every culture I have had the pleasure of visiting.

Geekdom really is its own human experience, it’s very own culture, shared between hundreds of thousands of nerds worldwide. On this delegation trip, we are those nerds, we serve those nerds, and when we present — whether it’s to middle school girls or Seniors in college — we are out to find and support more of our geeky kind.

More tomorrow!

Sierra Leone: Day 1

This is a first in 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: A State Dept Briefing

Today started with a briefing from about 8 members of the US federal government, which for me is one of my favorite orienting moments of the delegation trip. It can be hard to see this from the United States, but the people who serve us overseas love America so much, love our potential to do so much good, understand how much harm we sometimes cause, and work every day, under often unloved and unloving circumstances, to further the kind of national ideas that are quoted on the stamp pages of a passport.

(If you have never had a layover so long, or a security detention so boring, that you’ve read the quotes at the top of each stamp page of your passport, you and I have led very different lives. Go read them. They’re inspiring and great.)

The briefing touched on what Sierra Leone does for Americans (stunning beaches to visit, incredible scientists to collaborate with, one of the best examples of religious tolerance on the globe) and what Americans do for Sierra Leone (fund educational and cultural exchanges, help identify sources of disease, help build infrastructure).

But more than the specifics — the Integrated Country Strategy, the Rule of Law Commission inquiry, the Global Health Security Agenda, or the Millennium Challenge Corportation’s tagline “reducing poverty through economic growth” — what I came away from this briefing with was each US government staffer’s earnest hope that we would come to hold as much hope in our hearts for Sierra Leone as much as they do.

From Ambassador Brewer, who noted this is her second tour in Sierra Leone, the first being during the civil war, to the public affairs staffer Emily Green, who gamely answered my unnecessarily hard question, they were an impressive and inspiring group of people.

Afternoon: Answering Questions About STEM Careers At The Services Secondary School (Juba)

I love moments like these. We walk into a classroom, meet about 200 students from 10-18 in 4 groups of 50 over about an hour.

That makes it sound like a lot. Here is what it’s really like.

A chemist, a Twitter engineer, an architect, a computer science student, and a medical doctor walk into a classroom. All five speakers are women and know we may be the first person from our home countries or of our genders these students may meet working in these fields.

The classroom is bubbling over with life and laughter, green uniforms on the young women and white on the young men. There are 2 other women from Silicon Valley with me and an all-star Fellow from Nigeria. At the other end of the classroom is a teacher, trying to figure out if we know how to speak in public or if he’s going to need to step in. There’s a Fellow from the TechWomen program, who may have gone to this school, may have volunteered at this school, certainly knows more about this school than I do.

I raise my hands and call for quiet. The students stand, say a welcome to their school, and get back to their benches, which they are sharing.

I say: “Good morning! My name is Jessica and I am from Silicon Valley. Thank you for having us. We would like to introduce ourselves to you, then answer any questions you have about American, about careers in science, or anything else we can start with. We’re going to alternate questions from the girls and from the boys, so if a girl asks a question first, a boy will ask next; if a boy asks a question first, a girl will ask next. Ok?”

They nod. The Fellow from Sierra Leone — an accomplished doctor who is helping rebuild the science lab for this school, raising the money brick-by-brick and Erlenmeyer flask-by-Erlenmeyer-flask with her team of TechWomen Fellows — says: “Anyone who asks a question gets a pen!” and holds up a bouquet of bright green pens.

The woman on my right introduces herself: she is a battery-building chemist. Then I go, explaining how I bridge the worlds of politics and tech. Then the woman on my left goes: she’s a software engineer at Twitter. Then the Fellow from Nigeria, who owns her own architecture firm.

Here is where each classroom is different. Sometimes someone has a question immediately; sometimes two boys try and go one-after-another; sometimes everyone is quiet and waiting for someone else to go. It’s just like any other classroom full of 10-18 year olds; a mix of geeks and nerds and jocks and awkward smiles and friends and competition and general pandemonium. But there is always interest, always someone wants to know something about our worlds, worlds they may be hoping to join and change.

The most common question was how to build a battery. The chemist says: it’s hard to build a battery that could power your phone at home without equipment, but you can power a LED with a lemon.

Second most common question: how can I do STEM when math is so hard, when I have so few resources?

The Americans turn to the Fellows, knowing they know more about what local supplementary resources are available and can speak to what the path into STEM is from a classroom here.

The architect reminds them to work very hard in school, as she did, and to work even harder on the subjects which don’t come easy. We each share stories about the subjects we found hard — math for one woman, biology for another. We share that we worked on them, over and over and over. I remind them not to compare their insides with other people’s outsides, that someone may make it appear they are good at math, but they are struggling too.

The resources question is always hard. Growing-up, my Mom always said:

“The world isn’t fair, and anyone who tells you it is is lying to you.”

The corollary I always heard inside my heart is:

“And it’s the work of our lives to make it more fair.”

Now: to find more resources.

(Here’s one: I built this database of past successful grants for each of the TechWomen countries; foundation funding isn’t a good fit for everything, but way, way more projects in West Africa should be going to NGOs run by Sierra Leonians, Cameroonians, Nigerians, and their neighbors, rather than from offices in NYC, DC, or London; no matter how gritty or gleaming, off-site NGOs are just not going to have the same perspective as locals on the ground. If you know of other resources or are interested in donating to rebuild the science lab, you can email me at and I will connect you with the Fellows!)

Evening: Reception at Ambassador Brewer’s Residence

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