Sierra Leone: Wrapping Up

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.

I got back late last night after about 42 hours of travel, beating my 2010 record of 31 hours of continuous travel by a handy margin. It was long, but the company was good, and I think I still have a brownie from Heathrow carefully wrapped in my jacket pocket (the itinerary was: Makeni->Freetown->Monrovia->Brussels->Heathrow->LAX->SFO->Home in San José).


I spent the weekend in Makeni, seeing many but not all of my friends from when I taught there back in 2017. One of the most touching moments was when I was presenting about how to give an elevator pitch and then I paused and asked the students there to raise their hands if they already knew me. Half of the room raised their hands.

To be known so far from home, to be so thoroughly remembered by people with busy lives and complex obligations, means more than I can say. I remembered them each as well — Fatimata who wants to be a Modern Day Bai Bureh, Abdul who wants to be a rapper (and who swaps new Jidenna tracks back and forth with me on Messenger), Joseph who is an incredible leader and just graduated, and Ibrahim, who is getting his MBA in China now. They and dozens of other students live with me every day and I usually assume — just like most people who teach do — that I remember more of them than they do of me. It meant a lot to see that wasn’t the case this time.

Here are 10 of the students who attended that session, giving their elevator pitches:


I presented for 3 minutes in my Japanese class about why I missed class last week, at the request of the sensei. I spent probably more time thinking about how to explain this entire week in 3 minutes than I did studying my hiragana (which may explain the resultant quiz grade). How do you sum-up an entire country in 3 minutes?

I talked about freedom of faith. I talked about technology and brilliant scientists. I talked about the deep, centuries-long relationship with the US, good and bad. I talked about why it’s vital to know the monetary value of the help you’re providing before giving some European airline $2000 to go to a country where that money could send a young person to college for a year, including room and board. I talked about the power of the US exchange programs and how the US citizens and the international students (who are about 50% of my class) could get involved.

My sensei asked what I taught that week. I listed it on the board:

  1. Coding on a Loom
  2. Pitching
  3. Finding Funding ($$$)
  4. Public Speaking

A student asked how I taught coding on a loom and I showed her with my fingers; she’s also a CS student and we ended up talking about what classes she was taking during the break, and the fact that CSU East Bay only offers C++, no Java.

While I spoke, I passed around some of the fabrics, I bought and a skirt I had made. This skirt, in fact:

I also included a mahogany sculpture of a woman reading and a wood-beaded bracelet I bought when I was there in 2017.

I talked about where the fabrics were from, about how different countries have different styles.

The first day back is always hard. The food tastes wrong, all of the colors in our cloudy California skies are too dull. I, who usually wear black accented with additional black and maybe some dirt on it for color, found myself wearing pink plaid and feeling as dull as an unvarnished door. Campus was so quiet, no call-to-prayer, no children running around me. My skin felt strange with no one tapping my arm for attention or brushing against me in crowded classrooms. I had my American personal space bubble back and it felt cold.

But every time I sat down to get my computer out, I got to see a bag full of Sierra Leone and suddenly the colors, the smells, the textures, the sounds were around me again, if only for a few moments.

One of the things that makes TechWomen so powerful is invested I get in the lives of women who live all over the world. When the women I know through the program have incredible professional wins, I cheer online along with them. Since they’re TechWomen Fellows, those major wins come regularly:

But the flip side of this is that I am invested in the lives of women who live all over the world. Women who I rarely get to hug, rarely get to smile at except through the mediating technology of Skype or WhatsApp. When things go wrong in their countries, which happens, then I hurt too. I get worried for them every time I see their countries’ names in the headlines.

Even when elections happen as planned, even when the airstrikes are called off, I miss my friends.

I love making friends around the world, women who know me, women whom I am honored to know.

But it is hard to know they are so far away.

I will miss Sierra Leone.

I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends new or old during the delegation, only: “See you later.”

Sierra Leone, I will see you later.

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.

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