I’m in Ghana working with ELiTE (“Emerging Leaders in Technology and Engineering”), a charity that engages with communities around the world to bring STEM knowledge to children. I met Chelsey, the co-founder, in New York last year and begged him to let me come and help with the summer program he runs here.
In a few days the first of two summer programs for highschoolers – one for boys and, for the first time this year, a track for girls – will kick off here at UG, the University of Ghana. The programs will cover some really fun STEM material – electronics, a little web programming, some bioengineering. In the past couple of days I’ve seen people carrying robot arms attached to arduinos, a headset which reads your brainwaves, and enough electronics kit to get a Ghanaian into space.
Right now we’re in a dorm room on the UG campus in Legon, a district of Accra which is the country’s capital. Two beds, a long desk and the floor are awash with circuit boards, wires, cameras, backpacks, laptops and half-empty static bags. It reminds me of university: I love it.
I’ve been helping train some of the young local people – all graduates of the program themselves – and help them figure out how to teach some fun and interesting material. My schedule means I can’t stay for the program itself, but Chelsey’s aim this year has been to bootstrap the thing anyway: the high school students that arrive next week will be taught by graduates of the same program.
In this prep week we’re gathering materials and equipments, building lesson plans, and sharing knowledge so things run smoothly during the program. The talent and raw energy I’ve experienced amongst the graduates is truly incredible, and the ability to harness that and give it direction is really wonderful.
Personally, I’ve become the unwitting subject of an experiment to see if it’s possible to spend ten days in Africa and gain weight. I’m winning – the food here is amazing.
I’m a technologist so naturally I believe that technology can change the face of the earth. But look, it’s true: give an African schoolgirl a smartphone and she’s just as able to read wikipedia than an American or British child. There’s decent cellphone coverage out here with 3G around most of Accra, the capital – and lots of cheap android hardware knocking around. Electronics aren’t hard to come by.
The problem is that there’s no older generation of technologists around to teach the basics. Historically Ghana hasn’t had a strong tech community, although it’s growing. I visited a hacker space, ImpactHub, in Osu, and there’s an entrepreneurial streak here so wide you could land a plane on it.
There’s a huge gender gap. The usual biases are here, of course, but traditional community structure and social bonds make for societal pressures that we’re not used to in the west. When you hope that some of your students will find a job that simply didn’t exist five years ago, you’re asking a lot from a poor family to support you.
Importing talent is basically the cost of a flight – the place is full of excellent minds from MIT and Google. For an outsider, life can be cheap in terms of dollars, but supremely gratifying in almost every other way.
I’m coming back.