#FRONTROW: African woman teaching Chinese how to code

Senegalese-born techpreneur’s initiative, I Am The Code, has become a global movement that’s been launched in Africa and Asia. PHOTO| FILE NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • So when my friend Mariéme Jamme said she was going to launch her initiative, I Am The Code, in the country on August 26 and 27, I had to go and witness it for myself. It is not every day that you find an African woman teaching Chinese girls how to write software.
  • China has more than 70 million science and technology professionals, but only 39 per cent are female, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics.
  • These pioneers will form the first coding club in Beijing in their schools and their spheres of influence. She has already launched the project in such diverse countries as Uganda, Argentina and Japan and has an audacious plan to teach one million girls and women to code by 2030.
  • She maintains a punishing travel schedule, balancing her consultancy work that pays the bills, speaking engagements, motherhood and the life-changing stuff she is doing.

The first time I visited China, it was on a carefully choreographed tour to a Nokia plant outside Beijing — one of several in the country at the time — for technology journalists. A lot has changed in the seven years since that first trip, and not just because Nokia’s business died a cruel death like a car crash in slow motion.

So when my friend Mariéme Jamme said she was going to launch her initiative, I Am The Code, in the country on August 26 and 27, I had to go and witness it for myself. It is not every day that you find an African woman teaching Chinese girls how to write software.

'THIS IS NOW BIGGER THAN ME'

But then again, Mariéme isn’t your ordinary woman. The Senegalese-born British techpreneur was trafficked as a prostitute to France as a teenager, ending up in Paris without having had a single day of formal education.

She taught herself how to read or write until she was 16. Ever since, she has achieved more than most people would in several lifetimes. She has just joined the board of the World Wide Web Foundation, was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and will receive another major award next month in New York.

“This is now bigger than me,” she told me at the end of a busy weekend in Beijing hosting the initiative’s launch in China with a hackathon. “I Am The Code is now a worldwide movement.” Some 50 passionate young Chinese girls and a few boys showed up to learn about the Sustainable Development Goals and were then challenged to come up with solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges related to them. They then broke up into three groups, each with a coach, to work on their ideas. With their coaches, they quickly assembled the KANO computer, an inexpensive educational kit intended for kids.

China has more than 70 million science and technology professionals, but only 39 per cent are female, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. Her blog post on the WEF website underscored both the rationale and the opportunity for doing this: “We must prepare women and girls for the possibility that ‘made in China’ will become ‘made in Africa’. Launching this month in China, iamtheCODE will equip both nations’ women and girls so that they can play a role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” If the final submissions are anything to go by, this generation of Chinese is ready to take its place in the world we are creating.

The first group created a website aimed at the children of migrant workers who often live in underprivileged communities with unreliable school attendance and no learning materials. The runners-up tackled a taboo topic in both China and Africa, domestic violence, in a smart app with access to legal, law enforcement and counselling resources.

The winning group fashioned themselves after the green fictional superhero, Hulk, and tackled climate change in a thoughtful, well-designed app with some amazing code. I was floored by the quality of the work and looked to my fellow judges to see how they were reacting. The UNDP representative and Taiwanese businesswoman-philanthropist Cynthia Wu and Harvard-educated Haitian Stephane Fouché, who’s currently doing some outstanding work in Japan, were just as impressed.

PASSION FOR TEACHING
Tears of pride flowed down Mariéme’s cheeks as she delivered the closing remarks at the offices of the United Nations in China. “What is good for a girl in Mombasa is good for a girl in Beijing. That’s why I’m passionate about this,” she told the participants.

“Moving forward, I will have 1,000 girls in China join the iamtheCODE movement by 2019. We have amazing partners who are asking to join.”

These pioneers will form the first coding club in Beijing in their schools and their spheres of influence. She has already launched the project in such diverse countries as Uganda, Argentina and Japan and has an audacious plan to teach one million girls and women to code by 2030.

We talked about Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s recent trip to Nairobi, during which he announced a $10 million (Sh1.03 billion) fund to support African entrepreneurs. “He should give me that money and he will see what I can do with it right here in his country,” she joked. The optics or the significance of her entry into the Asian giant wasn’t lost on anyone: an African woman giving back to China for a change, not receiving as the continent always does.

Mariéme’s recent work in trying to get more women into science, technology, engineering and maths is an important mission worldwide because they are still grossly under-represented. She maintains a punishing travel schedule, balancing her consultancy work that pays the bills, speaking engagements, motherhood and the life-changing stuff she is doing. The world Nokia dominated is gone but a new one is being created by people like Mariéme, who overcame adversity and continue to shatter glass ceilings for African women.

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