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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