The Africa You Don’t Know

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TheAfricaYouDontKnow

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 mleventhal@inerde.org.

What’s Nerde?

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Welcome to What’s Nerde?, the newsletter of iNERDE, a social enterprise dedicated to creating opportunity for African youth.

iNERDE does speak French, finally!

For the first time, this newsletter is being published in French, alongside the usual English language version. If you’d like to read the newsletter in its sister language, click here.

Given that iNERDE projects take place in french-speaking countries, a little explanation of why this has taken us until now is in order. iNERDE began as an initiative of expatriate Africans studying in the United States. Determined to give back to their home countries, these young university students got together to bring innovative methods of education developed in North America to Africa. However, having become used to using the language of their adopted country, and having, as well, developed a network of English-speaking supporters, iNERDE naturally fell into using English as its working language. We came to recognize that our exclusive use of English made it increasing difficult to be fully connected to the communities we serve. We’re proud to announce that we’ve returned to our roots, with the opening of an office and a permanent learning center in Bamako and that we are, now, officially a bilingual organization.

APPEX : African Program for the Promotion of Educator Excellence

APPEX-Logo_Final

To our Malian friends : mark the date December 17 ! iNERDE is searching for the best teachers in Mali (this year, limited to the region of Bamako). iNERDE will award the prize « Ciwara of Education » to three teachers (from primary, secondary, and university levels) at the APPEX Gala – « A night of elegance and excellence ».

While APPEX is a new iNERDE program, it is integral to our core mission to « change the equation » in Africa, starting from its system of education. There are, among Mailain educators, real heros – a lot of real heros – who give everything for their kids and for the future of their country, often in extremely difficult conditions. A country that understands the importance of honoring its best teachers is a country that is on the path to a prosperous future.

For more information on APPEX in French, click here. Go directly to the french-language web form to nominate a Ciwara candidate here. Nominations are open until November 17.

Coming Soon ! The Grand Opening of the iNERDE Learning Center in Bamako

enconstruction

The iNERDE team is working around the clock to open our Learning Center and office in our Bamako headquarters. It is located in the little « Latin Quarter » of Faladiè alongside the School of Progress, the Ecole Supérieure of Technology and Management, and the campus of Malian Union for the Blind. The Learning Center will boast a climate-controlled Computer Room with 30 desktop computers and a high-speed DSL connection. The preparation of the Computer Room was only possible thanks to a donation from the just keep livin Foundation. The just keep livin Foundation works for the well-being of young people in the United States. It is very unusual for this organization to fund projects outside the United States but it seems that jkl has a particular soft spot for Mali ! EMC Corporation, TechWriters Without Borders, and OvaScience are also valued contributors of hardware that will be essential for our Learning Center.

QuartierSavoir__small

Robots will be the centerpiece of our Learning Center will the creation of iNERDE Robotics Clubs. The Robotics Clubs are the continuation of CodeNERDE, the new programming and robotics bootcamp we launched in the Ntomo Innovation Academy 2016. The Clubs are just the beginning! iNERDE is making plans to train national youth teams to represent Mali in international robotics competitions. We’ll have exciting news to report about this in our next newsletter. Stay tuned!

Ntomo Innovation Academy, 2017 Edition

iNERDE’s STEM summer camp program grew in 2016 with the addition of a second camp, CodeNERDE, for older children. Our expansion will continue in 2017 with new learning modules and a range of activities for an even larger range of ages. To be continued …

Recap Ntomo Innovation Academy, 2016 Edition

CodeNERDE 2016 Graduation

CodeNerde 2016 Graduation

We brought the 3rd edition of our educational camps to a successful conclusion, perhaps even a brillant culmination of our best camps ever. We added lots of new lessons to our core camp around computer science, robotics, the internet, and biology. We launched a new camp for advanced students in programming and robotics, CodeNERDE. And we improved the training of our dedicted teachers, getting all of our lesson plans onto an online platform.

You’ll find lots of information about the Ntomo Innovation Academy 2016 here on our website. There are weekly reports and quite a few videos. The videos are in French (and sometimes in the local language, Bambara), but almost all of them have English subtitles.

Meet us at the Bamako Children’s Conference (SEBA), December 22-26

iNERDE will unveil its Learning Center, the Robotics Clubs, and Ntomo Innovation Academy 2017 at the Bamako Children’s Conference (SEBA – Salon de l’Enfance de Bamako), December 22-26. SEBA is a major national conference for and about the children of Mali. It is sponsored by the Malian Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Children and Families, held at the City of Children (La Cité des Enfants) in Bamako. iNERDE is going to greet the world there at its exhibition booth. We are also going to hold workshops for children and their parents to give everyone a preview of the activities planned for Ntomo Innovation Academy 2017 and the Robotics Clubs. Our program for the coming year will be available, our Learning Center will be open to the public and we will begin accepting enrollments. If you have the good fortune to be in bustling Bamako at the end of December, be sure to be there!

Quoi de Nerde?

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Voici Quoi de Nerde, le bulletin d’iNERDE, une entreprise sociale créant l’opportunité pour la jeunesse de l’Afrique.

La langue française, enfin, à l’honneur !

Pour la première fois, ce bulletin d’iNERDE est publié en français, à côté de sa version habituelle en anglais. Pour lire le bulletin dans sa langue sœur, cliquez ici.

Etant donné que les projets d’iNERDE déroulent en pays francophones, une petite explication de notre retard est due. iNERDE a été commencé comme une initiative d’africains expatriés aux États-Unis. Restant toujours fortement liés à leur pays d’origine, ces jeunes universitaires ont rassemblé pour amener les nouvelles méthodes de l’éducation développés par les américains à l’Afrique. Mais, ayant adopté la langue de leur pays d’accueil, et, en développant les liens là-bas avec les supporteurs anglophones, iNERDE a adopté l’anglais comme langue de travail interne. Mais, nous avons rendu compte que l’usage exclusif de l’anglais nous a éloigné, progressivement, de nos communautés en Afrique. Nous sommes fiers d’annoncer que nous sommes de retour au sein de l’Afrique, avec l’ouverture d’un bureau et un centre éducatif permanent à Bamako et nous sommes, officiellement, une organisation bilingue.

APPEX : Le Programme Africain pour la Promotion de l’Excellence des Enseignants

APPEX-Logo_Final

Les Maliens, notez le date 17 décembre ! iNERDE a lancé la recherche pour les meilleurs éducateurs du Mali (cette année, restreint à la région de Bamako). iNERDE remettra le prix « Ciwara de l’Education » à trois enseignants (de primaire, secondaire ou d’enseignement supérieur) lors du Gala APPEX – « une nuit de l’élégance et l’excellence ».

APPEX est une nouvelle initiative d’iNERDE, mais une partie intégrale de sa mission de « changer l’équation » en Afrique, commençant par son système de l’éducation. Il y a, parmi les éducateurs du Mali, les vrais héros, beaucoup même, qui luttent chaque jour pour ses enfants et pour l’avenir de leur pays, souvent dans les conditions très, très difficile. Un pays qui sait les honorer est un pays sur le chemin vers la prospérité.

Les informations sur APPEX se trouvent ici. On peut aller directement au formulaire pour nommer un enseignant candidat ici jusqu’au 17 novembre.

Prochainement, la grande inauguration du Centre Educatif d’iNERDE à Bamako

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L’équipe iNERDE est en train d’accomplir les travaux acharnés pour préparer notre siège social à Bamako avec son centre éducatif et ses bureaux. Il sera situé à Faladiè, dans le petit quartier de savoir constitué par L’Ecole du Progrès, ESTM, et UMAV (IJA). Le centre éducatif sera muni d’une salle informatique climatisée avec 30 ordinateurs et une connexion internet DSL haut débit. Les aménagements pour la salle informatique a été rendu possible grâce à un don de la fondation just keep livin. La fondation just keep livin travaille pour le bien-être de jeunes personnes aux Etats-Unis. Un don pour un projet en dehors des Etats-Unis est exceptionnel mais il parait que jkl a un faible pour le Mali. EMC Corporation, TechWriters without Borders, et OvaScience sont aussi les contributeurs précieux des équipements qui seront utilisé dans notre centre éducatif.

QuartierSavoir__small

Les robots seront les vedettes de notre centre avec la création des Clubs Robotiques iNERDE. Les Clubs Robotiques sont la continuation de CodeNERDE, le nouveau programme de formation en la programmation et la robotique lancé au Ntomo Innovation Academy 2016. Mais, ça, c’est juste un début. iNERDE va former les équipes nationales pour représenter le Mali dans les compétitions internationales pour la jeunesse en robotiques. Il y en aura les annonces intéressantes dans notre prochain bulletin. Restez à l’écoute !

Ntomo Innovation Academy, Edition 2017

En 2016, le programme d’iNERDE s’est élargi avec l’addition d’un deuxième camp de l’été, CodeNERDE, pour les élèves plus âgés. Notre épanouissement va continuer en 2017 avec les modules de formation nouveaux, et avec une gamme des activités pour les tranches d’âge encore plus large. A suivre !

Récapitulation Ntomo Innovation Academy, Edition 2016

CodeNERDE 2016 Graduation

CodeNerde 2016 Graduation

Nous avons mené la troisième édition de nos camps de l’été éducatifs à une conclusion heureuse, voire éclatante. Nous avons ajouté beaucoup de nouvelles leçons autour de l’informatique, la robotique, l’internet, et la biologie à notre camp phare. Nous avons lancé un camp pour les élèves du niveau avancé en la programmation et la robotique, CodeNERDE. Et nous avons amélioré la formation de nos braves formateurs, informatisant tous nos plans de cours.

Vous trouvez le récapitulatif du Ntomo Innovation Academy 2016 sur notre site web ici. Les rapports hebdomadaires sont écrit en anglais, mais les vidéos sont tous en français (et parfois en bambara) avec sous-titres en anglais.

Trouvez nous au Salon de l’Enfance de Bamako (SEBA) 22-26 décembre

iNERDE va lancer son centre éducatif, les Clubs Robotiques, et le Ntomo Innovation Academy 2017 lors du Salon de l’Enfance de Bamako (SEBA), 22-26 décembre. SEBA est une grande conférence nationale sur les enfants du Mali hébergé par le Ministère de la Promotion de la Femme, de l’Enfant et de la Famille à La Cité des Enfants, Bamako.  iNERDE va être au rencontre de tout le monde avec un stand dans les expositions. Nous allons animer les ateliers ou les enfants et leurs parents peuvent avoir un avant-gout de nos activités planifiés pour Ntomo Innovation Academy 2017 et les Clubs Robotiques. Notre programme sera disponible, notre centre éducatif accueillera le public et l’inscription sera ouverte. Si vous avez le plaisir d’être à Bamako la fin de décembre, ne le manquez pas !

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 mleventhal@inerde.org.