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.

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!

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