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

Sierra Leone: Day 0

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.

I stoop down low as I step into the finished-pine hallway; it gives a feeling of enclosure, of a passageway build for another time. I emerge and stare-up at the high ceiling, painted with winged faces connected by banners, the name of the moon great and centered above the stage. Dozens of candles light the space which was designed to be lit in that way, gilding catching the wavering, liquid light.

The floor of the stage is divided into 5 spaces, like the play I’m here to see. The surface alternates rough, rubber-textured panels with semi-polished un-welded copper. The metal throws back every twinkle of light that falls on it and sometimes in odd moments doubles the players who walk upon it. The stage sits about mouth-level for my seat in the pit.

My mother sits grinning on the narrow red wool-padded bench in front of me, her blue eyes rapt and about level with the stage. We are running late for our delegation to Sierra Leone, using an unavoidable Heathrow layover to see Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe. ‘Running late’ because According to the official schedule we were supposed to be in west Africa by Saturday night, the very night we were sitting in that candle-filled, gilded playhouse. But I was scheduled to chair a San José Human Services Commission meeting that made earlier flights impossible; my mother, traveling companion, and fellow TechWomen mentor teaches classes in the jail and hates to miss more than she absolutely needs to, since her students don’t have the luxury of cutting class and have often been abandoned; and neither of us had the budget necessary to make the shorter, more timely itinerary favored by the other members of our delegation. So we took cheap flights with long layovers. Then, rather than staying in our airport hotel and luxuriating in sleeping horizontally, we took ourselves on the Underground to Mansion House station, wandered across the Thames, and kept the water company while we ate sandwiches begrudgingly boxed by a harried teller.

The Sam Wanamaker playhouse is part of the Globe complex and it is a space smaller and more holy than most churches I’ve been in.

The production company for Richard II is made-up exclusively of women of color. The play co-directed by Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton; Ms Andoh also stars as the titular King Richard. The production design draws not from some picturesque reenactment of the time of the playwright, but from the lived histories of the actresses. The costuming (Rianna Azoro), the etiquette, manners of physical address and discipline, setting (design by Rajha Shakiry), the music (Lois Au directing and Dominique Le Gendre  composing), issues of hair and eye-level shoes are all promised to be drawn from the traditions of their specific ancestors. Photos of a dozen of those specific ancestors hang enbannered on linen, hanging from the balustrades of the upper gallery.

This trip to Sierra Leone will be my happy third to west Africa in the past 3 years. I’ve walked through the frantic streets of Lagos filled with men in skin-tight singlets and heavily-starched shirts; driven through the self-satisfied professionally-planned boulevards of Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal capital built in a place no one tribe could claim as their homeland; I’ve pressed my feet into the same sand British and American slave boats shoved themselves into to steal people for the fields of their colonies and Empires; I’ve danced with a performer/the spirit/god Joli in Makeni as Temne performers sang their parts in strong unison; I’ve learned to tell the sound of Krio from other west African Creoles from South African accents from Kenyan language patterns; I’ve developed a firm taste for groundnut stew. One our first day in Nigeria during the delegation in 2018, we toured a major art gallery; the top floor of which was unlit but also unbarricaded, so I explored the religious items and carvings and statues there, seeing in their faces the same rituals of marriage and life and death which Shakespeare lays-out as the pattern of the lives of his people. I saw a traditional Yoruba horse-hair scepter/fly whisk, which tribal leaders can use to anoint people during specific ceremonies, including throwing water far into an assembled crowd.

The program we purchased for 5 pounds at the Globe reminds me that Shakespeare wrote “on the heart beat.” As I sit in the theater, I press my two fingers to my pulse point and recite Sonnet 116 to myself as the audience fills-in, setting the iambs to each throb. Those assembled hush on an unseen but thoroughly-felt cue. There was a feeling between each of us like we are vesicles in the same lung, every breath contributing to the shared air, powering the action that was about to leap to life around us. 

Then: a sudden singing, women’s powerful voices filling the liquid space in perfect unison. The language was not English; it sounded like it might be west African, though I could not be sure.

The court of Richard II entering through the same low pine passage I’d entered, tunics and saris and wide pants brushing against my shoulder as they stride along the aisles to ascend the stairs. The King wears a version of what I saw tribal leaders in Nigeria wearing, embroidered long jackets designed to be worn open in the front with extensive gold embroidery. Her crown is an array of stiff rays of gold with a gold human figure nestled above her high brow; her eye-shadow is broad and gold. 

The program reminds us that people of color and women are “at the bottom of Empire,” and that was the perspective that the directors wanted to explore without losing the grand and powerful language of the text. They succeeded in that first scene.

The lords of the court all wear gold embroidery on costumes that are tied to their performers’ family histories: Ayesha Dharker as Aumerle wears variations of Indian traditional dress; Sarah Lam as Bushy wears variations on Chinese traditional dress. There is much double-casting — enough that I was occasionally confused if I was hearing lines from Nicholle Cherrie as the Green, Percy, or the (400 year old spoiler!) murderous groom.

The connection to the actress’s family histories played out in more than clothing. Two of the most visible examples came when lords prostrated themselves in the copper ground before their king or pressed a hand to a friend’s foot in greeting. These seamlessly replaced the more traditional British aristocratic gestures for those moments: bowing and shaking hands. But because these gestures come from complete and complex cultures, they hold within them all of the potential for disrespect and dissent present in all forms of etiquette. In a particularly powerful moment, Indra Ové as Northumberland touches the ground before the king, but rather than pressing her whole palm on it, she touches just the delicate tip of her middle finger, showcasing her distain for his avaricious, capricious, and soon to be foreshortened rule.

Gold is the dominant color in the scheme as it should and must be: one of the central conflicts of the piece is Richard’s overspending on Irish wars and his lovers. As her greed grows, so does the amount of gold embroidery on her clothing until she wears a long coat that is more gold than cloth.

In her final scene, after she looses her crown to Bolingbroke — whose clothing is also extensively influenced by west African traditional fashion — the deposed Richard is almost unrecognizable. Crownless, imprisoned and abandoned, Richard wears the kind of pale singlet I saw in Lagos, paired with a dirty dhoti. Richard is constantly in a state of self-defined martyrdom in the play; the martyr Shakespeare had in mind was of course Jesus Christ, but that was before the rise of Empire and occupation of the Indian subcontinent. In this post-Empire production, a king in dhoti reminded me most strongly of the survivors of Empire and those who, despite their own personal failings, campaigned successfully against it (see: Gandhi).

At the intermission, as I gulped down scalding tea at the nice cafe inside the theater complex, I told my mother that this was the best plays I had ever seen. She thought I meant the power of seeing women given complex, powerful roles and we began arguing about Anthony and Cleopatra vs Richard II. But what I meant is it was the most powerful performance I had ever seen.

Seeing women of color in every role, wearing clothing personal to their histories, speaking words common to their shared nation, was boneshakingly profound. The lessons of the play — about how to re-form a nation when the habits of entrenched power become intolerable, that we can feel sympathy for leaders who can no longer lead us, that coalitions are necessary to upending power, that every sea change will also bring to a the it regrets — are built into the text. Shakespeare is brilliant.

But whose voices sing that change into being; that was the power of the play. Last night, women were the cowards and the kings, the flirts and the fighters, the power-mad and powerless — and because this is Shakespeare in all his observational complexity, the same women were each of these in turn. Just as women are. Just as we always have been.

Beyond Open Door

This is a repost of a blog post I wrote back in 2016 for Emerge California and that it looks like has been recently re-organized off of the blog.

The elected officials I most admire constantly talk to their constituents. They talk to them on Twitter, on the street, at community meetings run by others and at neighborhood gatherings they pull together themselves. Their constant openness takes energy. Sometimes, it can confuse constituents who aren’t used to access, as U.S. Senator Booker (D-NJ) found a few years ago when a resident of Ireland reached out to him to for help filling a ditch:

Before I came back home to California after 7 years of school and advocacy work on the East Coast, I spent a year in Seattle. I started out volunteering and then working for local campaigns. I was constantly talking. Everywhere I went, I chatted with people in my community, breathing in their concerns and breathing out potential solutions. After the election, I had the opportunity to staff the chair of the state House budget committee during a constitutional crisis centered around K-12 education funding.

One day, during my first few weeks in Olympia, I overheard my boss was going to give a speech that evening. I asked if I could attend. I was told not to by a trusted caucus staff member. She said I couldn’t go to community events during the legislative session, because they might benefit the Representative in his next election. With long experience in the capital, she was concerned that having a state-paid staff member at the event would be an improper use of tax-payer funded time. Everyone I talked to agreed: as staffers, we should stay in our cubicles.

A week or so later, I floated the idea of knocking some doors in district to ask constituents how they felt about a bill; I was new to area and wanted to help inform my boss’s work. The senior caucus staff let me know that was not allowed because reaching out to constituents was too close to campaigning. I later discovered legislative aides and assistants were also not allowed to use Twitter to respond to constituents who tweeted at the Representatives, because most elected officials in Washington state only have one account for their campaigns and do not maintain a separate one for official work. 

The caucus staff did incredible work within these rules, using caucus resources to get information out to constituents and report back to legislators. I could understand how the caucus got to each policy and would never want to cross official and campaign work. But the practical result of the rules was that we were distanced from constituents. Campaigns got all the innovative grassroots tactics while elected officials were left to limp along using the tools of bureaucracy to achieve the ends of representative democracy.

It was like leaders in elected office had to hold their breaths between campaigns, not meeting constituents where they lived but waiting for them to make an appointment. The good legislators I came to know always had an open door policy for constituents. But to take advantage of that policy, a constituent had to take time off work, find a car to drive or time to meander on the bus, and find the office before she could walk though that door and be heard. That is a missed opportunity.

We can do better in California as leaders in Emerge. We can decide to meet our constituents where they are—not just at community meetings that require tickets or nice clothes, not just at functionally-closed-door club meetings, but at their front doors, on their commutes, walking in our parks, on the phone and online. Our communities cannot hold their breaths between campaigns, hoping to be heard only in the months leading up to an election.

I answered most in-coming calls to the office during my time in Olympia and I found the people who felt most secure making their views known were those who had met the Representative in person. I got calls from constituents who recalled that he had knocked on their doors last year, 5 years ago, 10 years ago. People remembered and that memory made them feel like their he was a person who was responsible to them. Not in an abstract, civic-lesson kind of way, but as a reliable figure in their lives. That was exactly the kind of relationship I wanted for all residents to have.

As part of the Emerge 2016 class, we get to decide what kind of elected officials we want to be for our future constituents. Do we want to be welcoming, present in their lives, and truly accessible? Or do we want to sit back in our chairs and wait to see who can get through our doors? 

I vote we get out and breathe the shared air of our communities, not just to get elected, but to stay connected to the people we wish to serve.

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