French Is NOT Spoken Here

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This is not French. It's N'ko, a script used for Manding languages.
This is not French. It’s N’ko, a script used for Manding languages.

In francophone Africa, no one speaks French.

The same is true for other countries where the languages imposed by colonizers, English, Portuguese, and Spanish, has been adopted. These are official languages of most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, yet, no one speaks these languages.

Speaks, so to speak. In the country where I live, Mali, no one speaks French as their mother tongue, and very few use French for everyday communication. Yet, virtually all written communication is in French, everything from the national ID card to billboards advertising Malian milk to warnings labels on pesticides. French is not only a language that Malians learn in school, it is the language of instruction, the language that teachers, from elementary school on, use with their students, even though both teachers and students speak a different language at home.

Mali, along with most African countries, has astronomically high levels of illiteracy. In my experience, the level of functional illiteracy is also astronomically high – people that have learned to read and write but not at the level needed to manage daily living and employment tasks.

French language is a big part of the problem. To become literate Malians must master a foreign language, a language that could not be more different than their mother tongue in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. In the United States, the level of functional illiteracy is estimated to be 14%. Imagine what that would become if Chinese were to be declared the language of instruction and the sole written language. Now, imagine that, at the same time, the resources for education in the United States were about 1/100th of what they are today. That is, to a reasonable approximation, the situation of Mali today.

French is the language that divides Malians. City and country. Cosmopolitan and traditional. Rich and poor. Social class can usually be instantly determined by the level of French of an interlocutor. The elite dazzle with a sophisticated spoken and written French that would not be out of place in the chic quarters of Paris. Government officials speak in French, meetings in the Ministries are conducted entirely in French. Most native Bamako residents communicate readily in spoken French, though often with an approximate grammar and a limited vocabulary. Tradesmen, merchants, and simple workers usually manage only the bare minimum. Not many write well in French, and not a few can’t write at all. Then there are the villagers, the immense underclass that come to the city to work as guards, maids, and laborers. Producing more than a few words of French puts them into the upper reaches of that underclass. The situation is similar in other cities of Mali, though with less and less French as the importance of the city decreases. Outside of the cities, knowledge of French is not common.

Why don’t Africans learn African languages instead of the foreign languages of the colonizers? In fact, it would help alot to raise the level of literacy. The reason that is most commonly given is, in my opinion, preferred only because it originates as a key element of the apologetics of the colonizers. In the African nation states there are many languages. Mali has one dominant language, Bambara, but it has 12 other minority languages. That is actually a somewhat manageable situation. Nigeria has over 500. Using the language of the colonizer favors no one group. It keeps the peace. Just as colonial armies imposed a peace over vast geographical areas and created the nation states that exist today.

The more potent reason African countries have no choice other than to use the language of the colonizers has been … money. African languages, with a handful of exceptions, were not written until the 20th century and there is drastic dearth of pedagogical materials and all kinds of books. The francophone African island country of Madagascar has attempted to replace French-language instruction with its national language, Malagasy. Malagasy is the sole native language of Madagascar and it has been written using an Arabic-based script for several hundred years. Despite the advantageous situation of Malagasy compared to other African languages, several waves of national initiatives have failed due to the lack of resources. Trained teachers, schoolbooks, and all the other trappings of a literate society. Madagascar is able to educate a small percentage of its population in French. When it attempted to educate all of its population in Malagasy, no one was educated.

In Mali, Bambara would likely be an acceptable choice, eventually, to replace French as the national language. There are the other 12 languages, but Bambara has, nonetheless, become the lingua franca of Mali. About 80% of the population can speak it and it is used for spoken communication between different language groups in Mali more often than French. It has been written using Latin characters for about 50 years. There are a small quantity of pedagogical materials, children’s books and dictionaries available in the language. Bilingual signs in Bambara and French are not an uncommon sight. Most Malians, however, cannot readily read written Bambara. In the last few decades, basic alphabetisation in Bambara is taught in many primary schools, but it doesn’t get much emphasis since everything is written in French.

There are only about 5 million native speakers of Bambara and perhaps another 10 million second language speakers. Economics render the creation of an educational system based on Bambara improbable. There are, however, possible paths forward to making an African language a first class language of education and communication. Bambara is a member of the Manding language family. Manding languages are close enough to each other to be considered mutually intelligiable. A writing system for all Manding languages, N’ko, was created in 1949 and has attained some level of acceptance in several countries. N’ko is based on the phonology of the Manding languages. As movements to teach phonetic spelling to English-speaking children promised some years ago, alphabetisation should be far easier in N’ko than in an ill-fitting Latin script. Unlike English, there is not an enormous body of written material which already exists in the Latin script, and therefore no need to go through a second stage where the student has to learn the actual writing system in use. N’ko could potentially lead to the development of a standardized Manding language, following a trajectory akin to Swahili, a constructed standard that now has 100 million speakers. Standard Manding would have 30-40 million native-equivalent speakers, forming a language group with an economy of scale.

For the time being, an N’ko-based standard Manding and many other projects to increase literacy through the development of African languages throughout the continent, is likely to rest the dream of a modest number of visionaries. Although such projects could have dramatic long term effects on development, there are always shorter term, urgent, problems in these countries which consume the meager resources available. I do, however, see a path forward. It’s technology. I’m here in Mali to teach technology to young people because I believe: 1) it can push Africa into exponential growth that will allow it to time warp the current growth curve that has most countries reaching developed world economic levels in 75 years and, 2) it will give African nations a fighting chance to end the 400-year old era of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation and to chart their own future. I’ve been using $15 Affordable Education robot to teach computer science. We’re going to start using the $1 foldscope microscope to teach biology. Eventually, technology wins because it is cheap and cheap is what we need here. I see a lot of potential uses for artificial intelligence in Africa to advance development; promotion of African languages is one of them. Machine learning techniques are getting very, very good at translation, language understanding, and contextual analysis. They have also become cheap, found for pennies a minute in the cloud. What if AI were used to produce a Manding pedagogical system and literature from translation and synthesis of existing Manding resources? Print is expensive and books are a luxury item for most Africans. But that problem is already almost solved, with $25 tablets and internet connectivity that – still too slowly! – is reaching to every corner of the world.

OK, in the very short run such a project won’t help Google sell many Adwords – but in the long run, it will. The African economies are the El Dorado that will grow unlike anywhere else on earth. The only question is how long it will take. And that question is tied to the education of African youth, whether that education will include the tools needed to apply technology to development. It’s a bootstrapping strategy. Technology can accelerate widespread education which will accelerate application of technology for economic development.

And the French language in Africa? Don’t get me wrong, having acquired French with decades of painful effort, I’m entirely in favor of its use in Africa and everywhere else in the world where there are still civilized people who want to understand why an entrée cannot be the main dish. But in Africa, as elsewhere, its proper place is as a true second language that does not supplant learning in one’s mother tongue.

Michael Leventhal lives in Bamako, Mali where he serves as Chief Nerdy Development Officer of iNERDE and also leads iNERDE’s computing education program. He may be contacted at

Empowering Youth with Opportunity in Africa

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All young people generally are going to go into business at one point in their life or the other. So why not prepare for it? Why not be ready for it? Why not get all the skills and the information you need? Dr. Kigozi, who has worked throughout Africa to teach better STEM education, has said time and again that a knowledgeable woman is an empowered woman, a confident woman. And she will speak up. But when she does not know things, she becomes society’s problem, because women will sit quietly and let opportunities pass them by. That being said, capacity building for women and gaining additional knowledge is how you can truly enjoy success in your business endeavours. But this requires education, training, and mentoring.

Give STEM a chance

Continuing Education and Training

There are internships and programs to help in industries like manufacturing. In fact, the World Bank has supported interns to come and work with companies like Pepsi in order to gain the experience they need to start their professional path. But you do not have to be in a big company, according to Dr. Kigozi. You can gain internships with small shops and still learn quite a bit. Knowledge is power. And some knowledge comes at a cost. That cost might be working in an unpaid internship. But you must understand that this is an opportunity to be appreciated, valued. Just because you do not earn an income from an internship does not make it useless. In fact, most of them are more useful than you might think.

Emergency Locksmith Services for Your Office

For those who work with young people in mentoring programs, in offices as interns, even in small shops, making sure the office stays safe is important. There are a few situations more frustrating than slamming shut the office door or the company car door and seeing the keys are still inside and all the doors are locked up tight. Fumbling around for your office keys only to remember that you left them on your desk the night before can cause a serious panic. That is why there are professional locksmith services which offer mobile year-round support for lockout situations just like this. These locksmith services can be called upon to get your company door open as quickly as possible. Locksmiths understand that companies need to make sure everything is not only secure but that business is not compromised in any financial detrimental fashion.

One of the best ways to guarantee that nothing was compromised is to make sure that the business runs as smoothly as possible no matter what pickups might appear. A single phone call can help you to overcome the feelings of frustration or embarrassment by dispatching someone to the office location immediately to handle the situation. Keeping your office secure is well worth the cost.

Everybody makes this mistake. In fact lockout services of the most commonly called upon locksmith service. Lockout services can even happen unexpectedly when equipment malfunctions for unforeseen circumstances cause keys to be lost or stolen. In each of these situations you can call upon professional services to quickly and effectively open the doors for you and get you back on track.

The Africa You Don’t Know

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I was scared the first time I came to Sub-Saharan Africa. The country where I now live, where, perhaps, my future lies, is very near the bottom of every ranking of human progess. Mali sits at 10th from the bottom on the venerable United Nations Human Development Index – in the bucket of countries with Low Human Development. A click-bait list of most dangerous countries put Mali at 3rd, Save the Children pegs Mali as the 4th worst country in the world to be a girl. Ebola, coup d’état, islamists, female genital mutilation, child soldiers, AIDS, genocide, war and famine, misery on a dantesque scale – Hello Africa! My formerly great country, languishing at 6th from the top, has a nominal per capita GDP of $56,000, Mali’s is 1/80th of that, $700. As my plane descended on Bamako my gut tightened as I imagined the scenes of horror I might encounter, the begging, the misery, the corruption, the insecurity.

I have not encountered scenes of horror, though the difference in economic development between where I came from and where I am now is real. Some might be shocked by the difference, but having been throughly mediatized to expect the worst my first impressions were more positive than not. Here is first thing you don’t know about Africa: life here is mostly “normal”. Normal, as in a large portion of the population goes to work every day, feels stressed on the job, has a home they are proud of, loves their children, worries about their future, and sacrifices enormously for their education, enjoys time with family, looks forward to holidays, spends a lot of time in traffic jams, discusses politics, watches many of the same television shows as people in Lincoln, Nebraska (though they have a vastly more international menu of choices), and are constantly staring at their smartphone screens. Yes, there are a lot more poor people and, yes, the absolute economic level of both well-to-do and poor is considerably below the respective categories in the high development countries. I live in the capital which has basic services (electricity, water, phone coverage, hospitals, police, public transportation); elsewhere in the country, such services can be rare. Many people have truly hard lives here – one witnesses this every single day. But the vast majority of people get by, and, for many, there is a normalcy to life that does not differ greatly from normal in Lincoln.

Mali is “normal” in other ways you don’t know. It’s a fiercely democratic, secular country. The press is diverse, active, and, extremely critical of the powers that be. It’s a country with a large muslim majority – a deeply religious one at that – which has never deviated from the complete and unequivocable practice of freedom of religion and tolerance. It is a country of laws which follows international standards in labor, protection of children, women’s rights, and individual liberty. Yes, there are violations of those laws and areas where enforcement may be lax. Many, in government and outside it, are working to improve these situations. There certainly must be corruption – there is corruption everywhere – but bribery, at least, is not an integral part of daily life here.

The thing that you have never imagined is that an African country can have 1/80 of your per capita income but be better than you in some very significant areas: preservation of the extended family, national pride, a sense of national purpose, social solidarity, and a belief in the future of the country and a determination to work together to make that future bright. Malians organize, there are a multitude of associations working to solve problems and build a better country. For example, Mali is the only country I know of that has formed a “Parliament of Children”, an official body representing all the regions of the country where the children themselves have a national platform to talk about their problems. In Mali, I feel more hope in the future than I did my own rich but fractured country that seems to have lost social cohesion, sense of purpose, gratitude for its gifts and … humility.

When I left the life I had known in Silicon Valley to come to Mali I wrote a blog that explained why I believed it was time for me to move on other things. I promised to answer later, Why Africa? Here is my answer. The African continent is growing at a much higher rate than anywhere else in the world and this will continue for a long time. There is everything to do here. There are real needs, everywhere, and the opportunity to build things that will profoundly enrich countless lives – not just momentarily distract the already over-satiated. The Africans are ready. You may think that they are not because they are starting with an 80X deficit and you don’t see the progress, only the overwhelming problems. You definitely don’t see the numbers of capable people Africa is producing now with the determination to seize the opportunity. They are here.

It will not be easy for Africans to eliminate an 80X deficit. But the deficit is in infrastructure, not in individual attainment. While education has a cost, knowledge is free and there is no insurmountable barrier that prevents a kid in Africa today from acquiring the same intellectual tools as a kid in the US. I’ve taught talented kids in the heart of Silicon Valley and I’ve taught kids in Bamako. The ability to learn is the same, but the African kids have the advantage in motivation. Education is the one area where a small investment early on yields a lifetime of elevated productivity. How small an investment can make a significant impact? Let me give an example. I used the Affordable Educaton Robot (AERobot), designed for Africa, as a tool to teach programming, robotics, electronics, and physics here in Bamako – with great success. What is the number one thing that makes it an “African robot”? Cost. $15. It does everything I need a robot to do to teach computer science at any level of depth and rigor, it moves by vibration motors, is programmable with C and a visual block language, has infrared and visibile light sensors, and can blink its LEDs. Yes, it would be nice if, as in Silicon Valley, each kid had a tablet computer and a robot equipped with servomotor actuators … but my $15 robot is enough to allow me to give my students the same hands-on experience with technology as the kids in an environment with 80 times the resources.

The $15 Affordable Education Robot (AERobot)
The $15 Affordable Education Robot (AERobot)

The last thing that you don’t know is that it is fun and exciting to be here. I’m sharing things I learned in Silicon Valley because I believe they will be useful here. It is deeply appreciated. I don’t believe, ultimately, Africans are going to create Silicon Valley’s imitation, “Silicon Savannahs”. It will be … something else … I’m curious to see what. I’m hopeful that it will integrate the great strength of African culture, social solidarity, showing us a less fractious path forward for humanity.

Michael Leventhal lives in Bamako, Mali where he serves as Chief Nerdy Development Officer of iNERDE and also leads iNERDE’s computing education program. He may be contacted at

How Can Games Help Educate Kids?

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Today’s youth of Africa are smart and very determined to reshape their continent. And they are willing to do anything for it. During the past three years, iNERDE has given hundreds of West African boys and girls the right tools they will need to accomplish this moving goal. Thanks to our Summer Camps and various enrichment programs, we have managed to teach African youth how to solve problems and why innovation and entrepreneurship are critical for growth. We have also struggled to discover their potential via education, and teach them healthy and solid concepts of self-confidence, integrity, and teamwork.

Many educators rely on games that are fun and considered pured recreational activities to further improve students’ education. On the other hand, parents tend to focus more attention on the potential dangers than on the benefits of certain games, such as electronic video games or other types of games. But games are, undoubtedly, a normal part of modern childhood.

Games Are Powerful Tools To Help Children Develop Life Skills

Games in general can be considered an excellent tool that can help children develop life skills they need to grow into healthy, strong, independent, and smart adults. But most people do not stop playing games when they reach adulthood. Many continue to play games throughout their adult years, even though they have jobs and families to fill their time with. Why do you think they do live dealer casinoit?

To some, games are a way of clearing their heads and regaining clarity. This can help them in a series of personal or professional matters. Others need something to get their mind off of work and the daily stress, and games are the closest thing to a vacation. So they are the nearest exit from a hectic day or week at work.

Other use games to improve certain skills such as focus, math, logic, or strategy. There are of course people who enjoy making an honest buck out of their passion for games. And this is particularly true when it comes to gambling. Live dealer casino games like the ones you can find here for example are not only fun and exciting to play, but they can also help players bring home some extra bacon. Namely, wagering real money on casino games that can be played online has turned into the favorite leisure activity for lots of people worldwide.

Studying the game of poker for example will help both adults and children who can play for free, in fun mode how to:

  • think like entrepreneurs and make smart decisions;

  • deepen their thinking processes, especially how to think on the long term and manage their bankrolls;

  • learn useful concepts like expected value and variance.

Players who are actually successful at poker can:

  • win decent amounts of money, which will depend on skill and the number of tables played at once;

  • think faster and more effectively;

  • learn to read minds and guess what other people are thinking;

  • work on developing an iron mindset and eventually walk on that path of success they had envisioned for themselves.

Running to Bamako

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Bamako Portal/Welcome to Bamako/Bienvenue à Bamako
Bamako Portal/Welcome to Bamako/Bienvenue à Bamako

“Well, you won’t be going back to Bamako now.” My father was so sure that I, or any sane person, would never consider travelling to an African country where a terrorist attack had just taken place that it didn’t even occur to him to ask if I planned to return to Bamako, Mali.

That is how the terrorists are winning.

I was in Bamako this summer helping iNERDE to run STEM summer camps and teach computer science to 4th and 5th grade Malian boys and girls. Mali is ranked by the United Nations as one of the poorest countries in the world, 176th on the Human Development Index. I did certainly see that life is difficult in Mali, no surprise there. What is a surprise is the extraordinary desire and efforts of the Malian people to improve their country. The students in my classes all understood the importance of their education to the future of their country and they worked hard. Despite the resource limitations in their schools, my kids proved themselves eager learners and adept at picking up the core concepts of computation. As my iNERDE colleague Rakib Ouro-Djobo wrote in this blog, we had the extraordinary experience of seeing the parents spontaneously coming forward to donate what they could to our program. We had encouragement, material support, and expressions of appreciation from the Malian government and many community organizations and individuals. The Malians are people determined to move their country forward.

Michael teaching computing in Mali for iNERDE
Michael teaching computing in Mali for iNERDE

This is exactly the kind of thing the terrorists want to destroy.

The Radisson hotel in Bamako is popular with airline staff on layover and visiting foreign NGOs. There were no high-value targets for the terrorists there. The target was the media; attacks against foreigners in Mali guarantees worldwide media attention. The horrors committed, the lives taken, are incidental to them. What matters to them is that images of terror become indissolubly associated with Mali.
The war they are fighting is one where, no matter what the outcome of their action, they win. Their objective is to inflict economic losses. The West responds dutifully to every new piece of their macabre theatre by bleeding more economic resources. A trillion dollars here, and a trillion dollars there for wars which simply produce two new hydra heads for every one slain. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was an extraordinarily successful terrorist even though he failed to kill anyone. More than 3 billion passengers fly each year. If the economic cost of having each airline passenger take off his or her shoes is only 15 cents, Richard Reid’s coup de theatre scores the terrorists 450 million dollars in economic damage every year.

In rich countries, the consequences are unpleasant – recessions and resources diverted from things like health care, infrastructure, and education to security and war. Cruise missiles cost $1.5M each; the 3 days that the French bombed Raqqa after the Paris massacres “yielded” a reported total of 33 jihadists killed … and the cost was how many millions per jihadi?

In a country like Mali, the consequences of a terrorist attack are catastrophic.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been making enormous progress in the last decade. Many countries in Africa have been growing faster than China at the apogee of its economic explosion. Millions of Africans have lifted themselves out of poverty and many are entering the middle class. Young Africans are demanding an end to corrupt governments and the creation of a society of openness and opportunity. They have been succeeding. Each step has required a hard fight, two steps forward, one back, at best. Mali has a democratic government, an open society with constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press and respect of human rights and dignity. Mali, a deeply religious, predominantly Muslim country, is rightly famous for its enlightened traditions and vigorous defense of freedom of religion and belief. Mali has been welcoming to the world, with an increasing number of tourists visiting its world heritage sites, enjoying its vibrant music scene, and exploring its diverse cultures.

That was Mali. The Mali I visited this summer is still this dynamic new Africa but it had suffered multiple, cruel setbacks. A separatist movement in the northeast was infiltrated and inflamed by Islamists. They installed a reign of terror. Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako poignantly tells the story of these fearful events in his 2014 film Timbuktu. The government was destabilized by these actions and, briefly, democracy faltered in Mali. A second blow to Mali was Ebola. Thanks to a well-organized and courageous intervention by West African governments and medical professionals and critical assistance from the United States and other countries, Ebola was contained and stopped, with only a single case reaching into Mali. Still, fear of Ebola combined with fear of Islamists was enough to end the flow of people and capital into the country and to divert scant resources away from economic development.

Abderrahmane Sissako's film Timbuktu showed the spirit of resistance of the Malian people.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s film Timbuktu showed the spirit of resistance of the Malian people.

My daughter and I met a handful of expatriates in Bamako this summer, but aside from that it felt like we were the only foreigners in the entire city. We were the only “toubabs” at Bamako’s beautiful National Museum and Park. Young children stared at us with wide-eyed wonder, evidently never having seen a foreigner before. While we somewhat enjoyed our status as exotics, our rarity represents a disaster for the country. Economic growth requires investment and movement of people and goods and ideas in and out of the country.
Mali quickly restored democracy, calmed the northeastern region, chased the Islamists out and brokered a peace with the separatists, and stopped Ebola at its border. While it would have taken years to recover from these setbacks, everything was on the right track. Then terrorists shot up a club popular with expatriates in Bamako, a few months before we arrived. Bamako had enjoyed a reputation as the cool, laid-back city of West Africa, a place where Islamic extremism was unimaginable. The terrorists brought fear to Mali’s peaceful and tolerant capital city.

Now they have struck again. The roots of prosperity will wither as investment flees from Mali. People will die who would have had access to medical care, children will go to schools which can no longer afford the materials to teach them science, and workers who were doing well will not earn enough to feed their families.

When terrorists strike in France, there is a high cost, but the world still comes to France and France to the world, the economy still functions. In Mali, the same action brings economic and cultural suffocation.

This is exactly what the terrorists want. This is what they intended when they murdered at random in a hotel in Bamako. A prosperous Mali will always reject their twisted ideology. They believe that Malians cut off from the world and reduced to abject suffering will, having no hope elsewhere, be prepared to accept the false hopes they offer.

We are manipulated. We are played. How dangerous is Mali, now that terrorists have struck? In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, about 300 people are murdered each and every year. Why do we not call the mass shootings that have become commonplace weekly, even daily, events in the United States terrorism? Isn’t the difference just that the Islamists are better at theatre, they know how to feed a media frenzy, they know how to infect our consciousness with persistent fear.

There is an answer, an answer that will defeat terrorism. It is very, very difficult. More difficult than launching cruise missiles, spending a trillion dollars for a war, or requiring 3 billion people a year to remove their shoes. Do not be afraid. Do not provide endless advertising for terrorists. Be rational about the real level of danger we face. For example, in the United States, since 2001, 400,000 people have died from gun violence, 3,300 from terrorist acts. Irrational responses lead to self-destructive actions that harm us much more than terrorists. The terrorists are rewarded and the value of terrorist strategy is enhanced. The most powerful weapon we have against terrorists is ourselves, our will to deny them what they seek, our fear. There are many examples in history where overcoming fear first both saved lives and produced a better outcome.

Do not abandon Mali. If we succumb to fear and run from Mali, more innocent Malians will die than the terrorists could ever kill and we, also, will eventually pay a heavy price for our cowardice. We are one world. If we cut off one part the entire body sickens. I’m not running from Mali. Mali is a good place to be, as safe, or safer than any other place. The Malians are a warm and generous people, endowed with the courage to surmount the obstacles they face, to keep dreaming and to continue building a free and prosperous country. iNERDE’s education program is an important part of the free flow of people and ideas that Mali needs and will contribute to a prosperous future for Malians. I’m running to Bamako, now, and iNERDE is here to stay, unafraid, in Mali.

Michael Leventhal is Chief Nerdy Development Officer of iNERDE and also leads iNERDE’s computing education program. He may be contacted at

It Takes a Child to Empower a Community

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Rakibou Ouro-Djobo, Chief of Nerdy Operations

August 12, 2015

It is with great joy and satisfaction that we’ve completed the second edition of our STEM summer camp in West Africa. This year, not only did we go from 30 to 150 students from 5 different schools, but also we were in the capitals of two West African countries: Bamako, Mali and Dakar, Senegal. I can’t help but feel pride in what we’ve achieved thus far, succeeding better than we had imagined possible in such a short time in our mission to empower and inspire African youth with opportunities, STEM skills, and confidence needed to reach their full potential.

It is often said in Africa that it takes a village to raise a child. At iNERDE, we believe that it takes a child to empower a village, a community, or a country, which is why our efforts in Africa are focused on children’s education, especially in STEM. Educating young African children, even if it is just a single child, has the long term impact of educating a whole village. I believe that Africa will be as tech savvy and advanced as the rest of the world if we can create awareness of STEM fields in children at an early age. Our dream at iNERDE is to see an Africa that shifts from being a consumer to a producer, and able to compete on the world stage when it comes to STEM.

During this year’s STEM summer camps, we witnessed how the community, starting with students’ parents, and expanding to include partner schools, local teachers, and volunteers were critical to the success of our program. Parents dropped and picked their children up every day, encouraging them to come to the camp. We saw children in tears because they were not able to enroll the camp this year, having completed the camp last year. We created classes mixing kids from advantaged backgrounds with kids from economically challenged environments and were delighted by the effort our local teachers and volunteers made to work with all the children to make the integration successful. We had come to inspire them but they inspired us and strengthened our belief in our partnership of shared values. We saw children abandon their social status to play, learn and work as a team. The financial support that the community volunteered was beyond anything we had anticipated. In Mali, about $2000 in donated food items was contributed from parents and members of the educational community – not wealthy people by any standard – that were used to make lunch for the children throughout the camp. In Senegal, when we found the cost of starting a program in a new country exceeded our projections and our budget, the teaching staff volunteered to take a reduction to an already modest salary because they believed so strongly in the importance of bringing iNERDE to their country. My point is one does not need to be as rich as Bill Gates to make a contribution or have a positive impact within his or her community. People of very modest means in Mali and Senegal contributed all they could. We could not have done what we did without their help.


Our goal of introducing a new way of teaching into the African educational system and new curriculum was well received. We worked with local teachers, who now are our ambassadors within our partners schools, so that they can make use of the new methods and materials they learned throughout the academic year. The children were empowered as they saw how they were part of something bigger than themselves. These children are amongst the first cohort of African children exposed to a rigorous, hands-on, project-oriented science curriculum. They were so happy!!

iNERDE is on a roll! We are looking to expand next year and years to come by adding more schools in Mali and Senegal and new countries in our program. My own dream is to bring iNERDE to my home country of Togo next year. I hope by reading this you too feel inspired to do more for your community and to do more for your global community by helping iNERDE continue building on our success, beyond expectations, of the last two years.


Très serré

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iNERDE Computer Science Teacher Michael Leventhal with his class
iNERDE Computer Science Teacher Michael Leventhal with his class

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

I realized today what the thing is that I miss the most from my time in Africa. When I wanted to show the kids something I would tell them to come around me, close. They would crowd around me, in a compact group, pressing against me on all sides, eager to get as close as possible, to see everything. That is what I miss the most.

The most beautiful song in French is Les Feuilles Mortes … indisputable, really (Juliette Greco’s version here). One of the lines from it is Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s’aiment (but life separates those who love each other). In some of versions of the song I always hear Mais la vie sépare ceux qui se serrent (but life separates those who cling to each other). The alternate lyric makes sense and perhaps is even stronger than the first, opposing separation and clinging together. I think there are must be two versions, though I cannot dismiss that it might just be my faulty ear for French.

To love each other and to press together, though, seems to me to be the same thing. In love, bodies obey an irresistible force to press together, to touch, to embrace. Très serré, very squeezed together, it sounds so much better in French, where, somehow, s’aimer and se serrer sound like the same word even though they should be pronounced completely differently. In Africa, I taught, and the children learned, by love. They learned more by touching me than by my words (it would still be true even if my French were not so poor).

When I was a young father studying for my engineering degree, struggling with the rigors of a Berkeley education while trying also to be a good dad, I would often bring one of my daughter’s stuffed animals in my backpack when I had an exam. It was my love for my daughter that got me through this excruciatingly difficult period. Touching her stuffed animal and feeling that love would give me the strength, no matter how dead-tired I was, to get through another exam.

You can’t imagine the warmth of the Malian people, not if you come from my world where we have our personal space, our needs, our loneliness. I have never seen smiles and laughter that come so directly from the heart. Every time I was surrounded by kids, très serré, my own heart felt like it would burst, I had never been thanked for giving a gift, my gift of my knowledge and my fervent desire to give the kids something that could help them, as these children expressed their gratitude. But life has separated those who s’aiment / se serrent. I wish we could share that moment of crowding together forever.

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posted in: Blog, CV STEM 2015 | 0

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

August 4, 2015

Today I became a Bamako elementary school student. We divided our students into 4 new groups, each assigned to complete a STEM project, prepare a project report, practice delivering the report and actually deliver the report at the Closing Ceremony to room filled with teachers, parents, and other invitées. The projects are Wind Turbine, Solar-Powered Car, Hydrogen-Powered Intelligent Vehicle, and 3-D House. I was assigned to the Hydrogen-Powered Intelligent Vehicle. Each team lined up at the door of the auditorium, boys on the left, girls on the right. I joined the line of boys and we all walked to the classroom where we would work on our project.

The teachers divided us into three groups, each group having their own project kit. The teachers gave an introduction to the project, a definition of the intelligent car and discussion of the deficiencies of ordinary car and the comparative advantages of an intelligent car. With that bit of orientation, we begin to work on our kits.

The car is maybe a 9 inches long, with an electric motor, a tiny electronics board with a microcontroller, two small tanks which hold water and trapped hydrogen and oxygen gasses, a electrolysis/fuel cell for taking water and separating hydrogen and oxygen and powering the cars motor from ion exchange, and tubes and wires to connect everything.

The car itself was not, with instructions, too difficult to assemble. Of course, there are always the instructions that don’t work, as was the case when we were unable to inject water into the fuel cell. We spent time trying without success, but it turned out the car worked anyway. Then there are the instructions that aren’t there that are needed, like the requirement to plug the lower tubes coming of the fuel cell. Fortunately, one of the teachers was able to diagnose the problems. The “other kids” had much better dexterity than me, when they saw how inept I was at assembly they took charge of actually putting the car together. Once it was all connected, the electrolysis starting, the hydrogen and oxygen gasses being produced bubbling out their container in the tanks of water. Once we had enough gas, we connected the motor to the fuel cell and, to everyone’s amazement, the car worked, propelling itself across the table and changing direction when it hit an obstacle. It didn’t take much longer for all three teams to have their cars running.

The teachers led us through a review of the experiment, a secretary was appointed to record all relevant information for use later when composing the project report.

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I slipped for a little bit into teacher mode and talked about the organization of the project presentation. I showed a presentation I had prepared, on an unrelated subject, just to give the kids an idea of what a Powerpoint presentation could look like. We then went over the structure of their presentation: title page, summary of the project, problem they wanted to solve (what’s wrong with cars today), what would be the advantages of the intelligent car, material used in the experiment, results, analysis of what didn’t work and how it was addressed, conclusions. The project accomplishes a lot of things at once, it is the capstone of the camp. The kids learn some more science, put it into practice, describe the scientific underpinnings of their experiment, analyze, hypothesize, understand and correct errors, obtain and record results, and think about the implications of their work including social utility. They are learning how to organize and present technical information, to think in a rigorous way, to communicate their work to others, and to use a presentation tool like Powerpoint.

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We spent some more time digging into the science behind the combined electrolysis and hydrogen fuel cell. The students didn’t have much background in chemistry and it was challenging for them to get a handle even on the high level concepts. I had a bit of brainstorm to repeat the type of exercise I created for computer systems, with students performing the roles of the essential components in a little skit. One student was a water tank, holding two molecules of water, two hydrogen atoms/students and one oxygen/student holding hands to form a chemical bond. Using a jump robe as our positive and negative leads, we connected a battery/student to the hydrogen fuel cell/student and passed each water molecule across the fuel cell to perform electrolysis, dividing the molecules into two hydrogen atoms (still holding hands because they were brother and sister atoms) on one side and the oxygen atom on the other side. The hydrogen atoms also picked up a negative charge electron (I’m a computer scientist, I might have the chemistry wrong here) and the hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom went into gas containers/students for each. We then disconnected the battery leads and used the jump robe to connect positive and negative leads to the motor/student. Two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom passed on either side of the fuel cell, the hydrogen atoms giving their electrons to the motor which started to turn. As the hydrogen atoms and oxygen reformed a water molecule the motor started the car/student which propelled itself, turned after hitting obstacles and continued until the motor stopped working. The other two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen passed through the fuel cell, the motor restarted, the car continued for another period.

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While their grasp of the concepts will certainly be very approximate, I think the students did get a framework to think about what was happening with the hydrogen fuel cell car. They know some very important things, like water can turn into hydrogen and oxygen gas, that there are molecules, molecules are made of atoms, and that it takes energy to break molecules apart. Materials contain potential energy and that energy can be extracted by some process. That energy can be turned into motion. The experiment also connected directly into our programming lesson where students learned about giving instructions to a computer to control direction. They could easily imagine how a chip could control the direction of the car, looking for and correctly identifying the microcontroller.

It was a lot of hard work! The teachers gave the students little breaks where we sang songs and did little dances. I recommend this practice to scientific workers everywhere, it really helped to recharge and refocus afterwards on the task at hand. Of course, I was the worst student at singing (I tried to fake the words but was quickly caught), much to the delight of my co-students. I thought I was pretty good at the dances, but for some reason my dances provoked even greater hilarity than my singing.

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Sunday Morning in Faladié

posted in: Blog, CV STEM 2015 | 0

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

August 2, 2015

I took an early morning stroll in our district, Faladié, this Sunday morning.

We were supposed to have a late night last night; it was the wedding reception of the brother of Pusso, Cheikh. However, Sarah, my daughter, had come down with a stomach bug and as it didn’t seem to be getting better, I felt I should stay with her. Of course, it was a disappointment, especially as I had planned to wear my new bazin. But I was also happy to repair a fault that had haunted me a bit for many years by staying by Sarah’s side. When Sarah was 10, I took her with me to the Sinai Desert. We were in a kind of tour group – not the kind riding around in air-conditioned tourist buses – we slept in tents and rode in Jeeps and went off the beaten track, but we were all foreign tourists and always in the care of guides. There was a group of French who didn’t speak English; Sarah enjoyed serving as their interpreter. One night we were on the coast and some of us wanted to leave the campsite to go to a restaurant on the beach. It was late and I wanted Sarah to stay in the camp, in the care of a French family. She didn’t want me to leave her, I decided that I should not give in to her and left her, hysterically crying and protesting, with the French. In retrospect, I realized that if there is a reasonable place to have separation anxiety the middle of the Sinai desert is probably it. Only a parent can understand … mistakes like that stay in your mind forever. So I was glad, some 20 years later, to stay by my daughter’s side this time all evening long. She recovered the next day, participating in the continuing wedding party at the house and even joining a dance in her honor after the griot had sung and chanted her praises … and, after a fashion, mine (“vous n’êtes pas un clochard” – you are not a beggerly bum, Malians love to tease).

So, contrary to plan, I had an early night and got up very early in morning. I went out to buy freshly baked bread. Enjoying the coolness of the morning air, I decided to extend my excursion and took a long stroll around Faladié. I crossed the principal avenue, Rue du Gouvernor (The Governor’s Street), and walked around the tranquil residential neighborhood in that section of Faladié. Faladié could be called a middle class neighborhood, with the caveat that it can be misleading to try to compare relative economic levels of different sectors of society in Mali with a country like the United States. There are some large and fairly elaborate houses in Faladié, many of the inhabitants have professional jobs, and many, if not most households have a maid. The roads and public infrastructure, however, are poor, as elsewhere in Bamako, and the shops stock the same items sold everywhere in Bamako. It isn’t a neighborhood of chic boutiques. Space is plentiful in Mali, and basic building materials and labor is cheap so the average house is really not bad at all if one does not consider the deficits of poor infrastructure.

The first thing that struck me as I began my stroll around Faladié was the sight of maids, up and down the street, in front of the houses, sweeping. A traditional broom in Mali is a bunch of long bristles knotted together, without a handle. It is a durable and highly effective device for sweeping, but it is necessary to bend over to sweep the ground. As the brooms went whoosh, whoosh in unison I had a mental image of a film, I think it may have been Mary Poppins, where all the maids in a London district are out in the early morning, sweeping the stoops, singing and perhaps executing a dance step or two. I don’t mean to suggest that the work of a maid is so joyful … or that it is not … I just relate the association that came into my head. The residential streets in Faladié are dirt but it rained recently so it wasn’t dusty at all. There were some water puddles and mud here and there, but it wasn’t difficult to walk comfortably on the roads.

A ubiquitous kind of shop in Senegal and Mali is a small building, one might envision it as a sort of large shed, which opens fully in the front. Various products can be sold from these kiosques, it may be food, shoes, vegetables, clothing, groceries, telephone cards, pottery, and so on. On larger streets these kiosques may line the road, mixed in also with larger, more substantial commercial establishments we would call shops. In the residential parts of Faladié there are also kiosques here and there, often at intersections, but not with the same density as would be found on major roads. They are simply the local shops serving the immediate vicinity. Most of the shops were not yet open, but some of the kiosques were starting the day, with the merchants laying out their wares or cooking in front of their stall.

Houses in Mali might more properly be called “compounds”. There is typically a wall that surrounds each property, maybe 7 feet high, enclosing, in addition to the house site, a front patio, perhaps a courtyard, separate storage and cooking structures, a space where livestock may be kept and sometimes parking for an automobile. Addresses are given by the “porte” or door number, and, indeed, what one sees in walking along the streets are walls with doors in them. Many houses are two stories, so you may also see the upper level of the house. It was explained to me that houses often are expanded to add a second story when children marry so there is room for them to live with their spouses and children in the family domicile.

Bamako is very green, this part of Faladié is very calm in the early morning, there are many trees overhead, my stroll could not be more delightful. I walk past a large walled complex, a hotel with a sign proposing its air-conditioned rooms, restaurant, and swimming pool. It looks like a charming building, though probably empty since the civil conflict in Mali last year and Ebola in nearby countries decimated the tourist trade. There seem to many schools, kindergartens, and créches (nurseries) in this section of Faladié, also enclosed by walls but often with scenes of children or playful animals painted on them.

There are lizards everywhere in Bamako, sometimes very large lizards, maybe a foot long, sometimes with strange coloration like one that I saw that had a dark green body but a brilliantly white head. There are also a lot of birds. That, and livestock like chicken, goats and sheep kept for consumption and flies and mosquitoes and you have almost all the wildlife I’ve seen in Africa. Sarah and I joked that everyone will expect us to have seen lions and elephants so we thought we’d had better to the zoo in Bamako before leaving so we could dutifully report that we had seen the required African wildlife.

I don’t know how it happens, but you do often see livestock that seem to be wandering about on their own here and there on the streets. I pass three friendly dogs, playing with each other, perhaps they are also minding the sheep standing in the road.

I walk pass one house, or perhaps it is a government office building or even a caserne because there is an armed solider standing in front. One occasionally sees, in front of some of the fancy houses, someone sitting in front, presumably a guard. They usually look quite bored and one has the impression that security situation in Bamako is not that much of a problem. There was a person, described as an Islamist but possibly simply a deranged person, that shot up a bar popular with expats in Bamako last year, killing several. Despite this, it is hard to think of Bamako as a dangerous place. People here are easy, friendly. As someone obviously a foreigner, I thought I might possibly encounter some harassment in Senegal and Mali – I have experienced this in other countries – but it hasn’t been the case at all. Of course, at the market, it is caveat emptor for everyone so there I voluntarily subjected myself to the sales pitches and wiles of vendors and was certainly pitched to and fell victim to wiles, but everywhere else has been completely cool.

A housing complex, “cité des logements pour 80” housing complex for 80, consisting a several small apartment buildings, providing what we would call mixed density housing in the United States to Faladié. The cité sort of follows the walled paradigm, the buildings are surrounded by a wall, though the walls do not fully enclose the complex giving more of a feeling of openness. The is a shop in front which offers video production for marriages and baptisms. I pass a soccer pitch, a group of teenage boys are intensely engaged in an early morning game. I hear singing, loud singing, coming from maybe 2 blocks away. I walk past a mosque, silent, another block further on I see the singing is coming from a Pentacostal Church, services in English and French and Bambara. The church is already packed but more people are driving up, everyone dressed in their finest, suits, fancy African dresses. The doors are open, inside people are standing and clapping and singing loudly, joyously.

I make my way back to Rue du Gouvernor, stop at the bakery and buy two large baguettes, still warm from the oven. I noticed on other days that the saleswoman seems to have difficulty with my accent, so I hold up two fingers when I tell her I want two baguettes. I’m hungry after my walk and really want to grab a piece of baguette but force myself to wait until I get home. I find our porte, walk through the patio into the house. Everyone is up and busy cleaning the house to get ready for the wedding party. Sarah is still lying down, but she is feeling better. The dining area is inaccessible so I sit with Sarah and tear off some pieces of baguette to eat. So good. It is a good morning in Faladié.

You can get in touch with Michael by e-mail at


posted in: Blog, CV STEM 2015 | 0

Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

August 1, 2015

Like Senegal, French is used in Mali as the primary written language, the language of instruction, the language of administration, and the common language between Malians that don’t speak the same local language. In Bamako, the local language is Bambara. Bambara speakers are the largest language group in Mali. It is the mother tongue of Pusso and Momo. Aïseta Baradji, our Director of Curriculum, and also a Malian national, is a native speaker of Soninké. She can get by with a minimum level of Bambara in Bamako but when she really wants to be understood she will speak French.

A difference between Senegal and Wolof and Mali and Bambara is that one occasionally sees Bambara written. Bambara has its own writing system, based on the latin alphabet with the addition of a few letters for sounds that cannot be approximated with latin letters. There is not much written material in Bambara, but I have seen books in that language. There is something of a movement to increase the usage of written Bambara and to use Bambara as a language of instruction in the schools. One of the founders of iNERDE, Abdramane Diabaté, attended one of the first bilingual Bambara-French schools in Mali.

I feel that there is a slight difference in the level of adoption and mastery of French between Senegal and Mali. It is more common in Bamako to encounter people with very little French. Dakar may simply be more of a crossroads. It has more of an international profile than Bamako. But I have to think there is another reason; Bambara is simply more valorized in Mali than Wolof in Senegal, as evidenced by its use in writing and instruction. In Bamako I have learned (very badly) a few words of Bambara, in Dakar I felt no motivation to do the same with Wolof.

I may be wrong, but I have sensed from some individual Malians, ambiguous feelings about the French language stemming from the history of French colonialism. As has happened in a few other Francophone countries, I think there are some here that would not be opposed to using, say, English, as a common language. Yet, French is quite entrenched here and it is very useful to give Malians a window into a larger world and a medium for communication both within the country and outside of it. At the same time, I think it is wonderful that Bambara is also promoted as it gives Malians a means of expression of their unique identity without all the cultural assumptions that will be implicit in using French language.

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Many years ago I studied Arabic in the United States with a jurist from Eriteria, Berhan AbdulKader, a skilled Arabist who had been trained in Egypt. Berhan also gave me lessons in his native language, Tigrinya, spoken in Eriteria, and Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. I learned the Ethiopian alphabet, developed from a medieval Ethiopic language called Ge’ez. The written language of Ethiopia is the oldest in Africa and one of the oldest written languages in use today in the world. The written language has been the pride of Ethiopia and, of course, a means of transmitting knowledge from generation to generation. Some of the oldest texts from early Christianity were preserved only in old Ethiopic. Today, Ethiopia has emerged as one of the emerging economic powerhouses of Africa. In my opinion, a strong national identity fortified by appreciation and promotion of the national language is one reason for that. I see the same sort of national pride in Mali and I think the relatively high status of the native languages is both a reflection and an impetus to this.

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