Ready. Steady. Go.

There’s a video doing the rounds on the net about the starting positions in a race that speaks beautifully to the point of privilege. In general, when athletes line up for a race to test their speed, strength and stamina, they start at the same line, and launch themselves towards victory, at the blast of the same gun. In life, it isn’t as simple. Although we’re all in the same race for employment, income, and life improvement, we’re not all evenly matched in terms of education, resources, and privilege. And when you work in the field of people development, this really needs to be acknowledged. Sometimes, things take longer to achieve, because you are not starting from the same position as urban/advantaged/resourced/privileged individuals. But it doesn’t mean that great things can’t be achieved.

A case in point: In 2017, I Learn to Live decided to introduce computer programming to rural youth. Why, you may ask? Because computer programming is a growing skill set required in an increasingly technology driven world. And in Africa, the digital skills gap is widening because there are not enough coders, programmers, IT savvy youth, to fill those positions[1]. We wanted to respond to that, and provide youth with an opportunity to explore whether programming was a field they might find interesting.

Our starting point:                                                                                        

Our youth are all second language English speakers who have no access to computer at home or in their community (there are no libraries, internet cafes, etc.). They had a basic knowledge of how to use a computer, learnt at a two-week computer course we offered in 2016. So, they could turn it on, manoeuvre a bit around Word and Excel, open a browser window. However, the last time they’d used a computer was between 6 months to a year ago.

Instead of offering an expensive course to those who were keen, an amazing man called Alan Martin designed us a basic course that would allow the youth to explore coding and determine three things. 1. If coding floated their boat. 2. If they have the aptitude for it. 3. If they had the right temperament (which includes patience, perseverance, and the need to solve problems).

In May and June, they learnt the basics of HTML, bootstrapping, PHP, CSS styling, XAMPP, MySQL. And by the end of it they knew, and we knew, a few things. Programming is not for everyone (just like any career choice). Programming requires you to try, try and try again. If you hate to fail, this isn’t the career for you. Mastering something new is hard, but once the light switch goes on, it’s all systems go!

Of the nine students who enrolled in the vetting course, six completed it. Of those five, two were hooked, three were keen but found it incredibly challenging, and one was more than happy to go back to the studies he’d abandoned.

The next step was enrolling the interested students in a more advanced course. In September, we joined the online portal Hyperion Development, and chose a micro-degree that taught pseudo-code and the Python language. It offered course content, as well as an online mentor. Instead of attending a facilitated course, the youth had to manage their studies and work as a team to ensure no one got left behind. The level of English was tough, and dictionaries became trusted companions. The pride we all felt when the youth completed their course in early November was overwhelming, and I have to keep reminding them of what they’ve achieved (and will continue to achieve).

[1] Africa Code Week. Online: http://gbgabuja.blogspot.co.za/2017/10/africa-code-week-2017.html

Six months ago, they could barely use a computer. Their level of spoken English, while adequate, was woeful in the face of the written English and the quantity of information thrown at them. But today:

  • They can all create websites
  • Their English communication skills and vocabulary have improved hugely
  • They’ve learnt numerous new computer languages
  • They now know how to work out a problem step-by-step in search of a solution, and can apply this to every aspect of their lives
  • They are in the process of transferring their new skills to the school children who attend our after-school classes

The starting positions in the race of life are not equal. We simply cannot deny it. But, it is possible to overcome some of those challenges, and succeed in ways one never imagined. It takes time, dedication, mentorship, access to resources, and a determination to do – regardless of the obstacles one faces!

 

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