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Coding and International Development, How I fused My Two Passions and Why it Matters

March 5, 2017
coding

Code has the power to change the world. When I decided to take a full time front end bootcamp at HackerYou a year and a half ago, I was looking for a way to support myself remotely so that I could travel and work on projects I was passionate about while still making a living at the same time. After working on different projects on and off in Rwanda for 6 years (going home when my money ran out, working like a mad woman, saving and returning to do it all over again) I hit a wall. I needed to find a more sustainable way to live a life that was meaningful to me and work on projects that were truly making a difference but still be able to support myself at the same time. I started taking a part time HTML and CSS course and really enjoyed the challenge and sense of accomplishment I felt building something of my very own. I made the decision to take a full time three month boot camp and it was the best decision I could have made. Little did I know at the time that coding would become more than just a way to support myself. I had always imagined keeping my passion for development work and programming seperate but I soon realized that these two worlds would collide in an extremely productive way. Not only was coding the answer to building the life I wanted for myself, coding is also a useful tool that can be used to equip individuals with the skills they need to get well paying jobs and lift themselves out of poverty regardless of their location. I went back to Rwanda last November to follow up on a few projects, this time I also decided to teach coding workshops to a group of high school students interning at K Lab, a hub for social entrepreneurs, and a group of gap year students who are part of Bridge to Rwanda, a program that takes the top students from surrounding countries and gives helps them find scholarships to top universities in the USA and Canada. This was the moment of realization for me. My two passions had fused together in the most beautiful way.

In September, I decided I was going to give up my apartment and travel full time. I had set goals for myself (see 30 before 30) and I wanted to work on accomplishing these things, finding myself and my place in the world. I was invited to speak at a conference in Ireland in September so I started in Europe and travelled around for 3 months, working on projects and teaching code where there was need and opportunity. After my travel visa ran out in Europe I decided to come to Israel/Palestine for 3 months. I have been following the conflict here and reading everything I could get my hands on since I was 3 years old. The conflict here and in Rwanda is what inspired me to study international development. I wanted to come here, immerse myself in the culture and learn as much as I could. Politics is not something I like to discuss on my blog but for the purpose of this post I will say that I have always felt very strongly that there is a right side and a wrong side to this conflict. If you take away the politics and the religion and look at things from a human standpoint, you can see that the balance of power is not equal or fair. But, I did want to challenge this view, challenge my own bias, keep an open mind, understand the other side and learn as much as I possibly could. I decided that I would do just that by spending my first few months in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. While in Tel Aviv, I decided to run a Hackathon for teen girls with the theme: “solving community problems with tech.” I met a journalist and chatted with her about what I was doing and she mentioned she knew of an organization in Gaza that teaches technology courses and is a start up incubator. The organization is called Gaza Sky Geeks and I should totally check them out. I did. I immediately saw the value in what they were doing and applied for their mentor program. A few weeks later I had a Skype interview, pitched a workshop outline to them and was invited to come and teach workshops in Gaza if I was willing to go. This is such a rare and amazing opportunity, I couldn’t pass it up. The borders in Gaza have been closed since 2006. In order to get into Gaza you have to be invited and sponsored by an NGO. You have to apply for a permit which must be approved by the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

I’ve spent most of my life reading books about Gaza, so when my permit was finally approved it was almost surreal that I would finally have the chance to go there and see it for myself. I had no idea what to expect. I have travelled enough to know that what you see on the news is often not the reality on the ground but I know that Gaza has been through numerous wars and I was a little bit anxious about what I would see while I was there. I didn’t sleep at all the night before going to Gaza. I was a mix of excited, nervous and anxious. Mostly about crossing the border but also about the real possibility that the situation there changes quickly and something could happen. It’s not something I talk about often but I did have a very scary and real experience a few years ago when I was traveling solo from Cape Town to Kigali and this experience has made me much more cautious in the way I travel. It’s also made me realize that I am not invincible. That life is precious and one wrong decision means it can be taken away in a flash. I didn’t really believe that anything bad would happen but after years of nightmares, I can’t say that this thought was not constantly in the back of my mind. I woke up at 4:30 am the morning I was to go to Gaza, showered, packed and finished some of the workshop slides I didn’t have a chance to finish. At 6:30am the director of Gaza Sky Geeks picked me up from my hostel in Jerusalem and we drove the the Erez border crossing. First we went to pick up a piece of paper from the military that verified that we each held a permit, then we went through Israeli customs and received an Israeli Exit Permit, then we walked through what looked and felt like a prison yard to a fenced in pathway a kilometre long in what is essentially no man’s land. I have to admit that this path felt extremely oppressive and I couldn’t help but think how difficult it would be for someone who was disabled, elderly or pregnant to make this journey. Once we got to the end of this pathway we had to go through the Palestinian Authority checkpoint. They looked at our passports and waved us through. Then we hopped into a taxi and drove a short distance to the Hamas checkpoint. Here, we were given out permits and our passports were checked again. Our luggage went through an airport scanner and was checked for drugs and alcohol. After we were waved through, we met our driver and drove about 20 minutes to the Gaza Sky Geeks Office. I have to admit I was surprised by how built up and modern the city centre was.

The Gaza Sky Geeks office is exactly what you would expect from a startup incubator. Inspirational graffiti on the walls, hip and modern. We got through the border pretty quickly and arrived to the office just before 9am so it was pretty quiet when we got in but it quickly livened up as 9am approached. I spent the morning touring the office and meeting with some of the current start ups, 11 companies in Total. In the afternoon I taught a workshop on personal branding and the importance of telling your story. I had an overwhelming turnout. About 30 women showed up the first day. The workshop lasted 3 hours. The participation level was great, although this workshop was not technical the purpose of it was to create content that we could use the rest of the week when we were building our personal websites. That evening I checked into Al Deria, the hotel I would be staying at for the week and decided to have a quiet dinner before going to bed. In the middle of dinner I heard a loud bang and the windows shook. It made me jump and as I looked around and no one else seemed to react I felt a little foolish. After eating and heading back up to my room for an early night, I got a call from the Ryan, the director of GSG, saying that Israel was conducting airstrikes, and that it was possible that I would hear some more of them throughout the night but that I would be safe at the hotel and that they weren’t changing any procedures security wise for the time being. It’s funny how normal a situation can become, I simply closed my eyes and went to sleep.

I woke up at 4:30 am to the first call to prayer. I layed in bed for a little while and got up with the second call at 5:00 am to make a coffee and write in my journal. I sat in the sitting area of my room with the curtains open, wrapped in a blanket, coffee in hand while I closed my eyes and listened to the third call at 5:15 am. There is something about the call to prayer in the morning that fills my heart with calm. It is one of the most peaceful sounds to wake up to. I absolutely love to start my day this way. When the third call was finished I continued journaling and watched the sunrise over the Mediterranean Sea. Around 6:30am I took a shower and went downstairs to do some workshop prep for the day and have some breakfast. At 8:45 the driver came to pick me up at my hotel and bring me to the Gaza Sky Geeks office and day two was started. On the agenda for day two was mentoring startups, going through their companies and giving feedback on social media, websites, business plans and pitches for the upcoming demo day. In the afternoon I lead an intro to HTML and CSS workshop where we built a website from scratch in an afternoon with most of the participants having no prior HTML and CSS knowledge. I have to say I was extremely impressed with the results of these websites. They turned out beautifully!

Day three started in much the same way. I woke up with the call to prayer, made coffee, journaled, did some meditation, watched the sunrise, got ready, had breakfast and waited for the driver to pick me up from the hotel. I spent the morning on a tour of Gaza city. It felt nice to get out and walk around with some of the local staff and get to see a little more of Gaza City. Until this point I had really only seen the office and the hotel. The tour of Gaza City included the port, the old market, a church that is half church and half mosque (there is still a significant Christian population living in Gaza), a museum and some of the best kanafeh I’ve ever had. The afternoon consisted of another three hour workshop. An introduction to wordpress and blogging. We set up sites on wordpress.com, went through the dashboard and how everything worked and then talked about the importance of blogging and establishing a name for yourself in whatever field you are interested in making an impact in.

Coding may not be the answer to all of the developing world’s woes. It’s not a magically one size fits all solution. But in a place like Gaza where the population is highly educated but the unemployment rate is high and borders are closed, learning these skills is a great solution. Coding allows you to get online and access a global digital economy. It opens up jobs and opportunities where none existed before. It allows the population to use technology as a tool to solve their own problems. Teaching code is teaching empowerment. It is putting the control back in the hands of ordinary citizens. Allowing them to have focus and control over building and creating solutions in a world of chaos.

How will code break down the barriers peace and change the world? Incase I haven’t answered that question for you already here are some of the reasons why I feel learning code is so important and how it can be used as a tool to make the world a better place:

Learning to code is like learning a super power. It allows you to create and build your ideas. It’s a skill that anyone can learn and it’s completely location independent but it gives you access to a global digital economy.

Learning to code allows you to look at the world in an entirely new way. Code takes big problems and breaks them down into little pieces that you solve bit by bit. Just like when you finally solve a complex math problem you’ve been working on and that complicated formula clicks and finally makes sense, coding makes you feel invincible. There is no problem you can’t solve and no idea that you cannot manifest.

Learning to code teaches you to be resourceful. To look at problems from different angles. Nothing is impossible, you just haven’t approached the problem in the correct way. Let’s be honest, there is no shame in googling the answer. No one is asking you to reinvent the wheel. Developers use google in their jobs every single day. This isn’t only a great concept to apply when you are learning to code but it’s also a great concept to apply to your life. What do you want to do? Where do you want to be? What are the steps that you need to take to get there. Break it down, research and solve the problem piece by piece.

Coding teaches and fosters collaboration. The tech community is one of the most innovative and collaborative communities I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a part of. Everyone wants to build cool things, solve big issues, work together and do it on little to no budget. Just imagine how far we would get in solving world problems if big charities and NGOs used Lean Startup Methodology instead of bureaucracy to approach some big world issues.

At the end of the day we are all human, and with the exception of a few bad apples most of us all want the same things in life. We want to love and be loved in return. We want to earn an income to support our families. We want to educate our children, provide for them and act in their best interests. We want to live in peace. We want to understand and be understood and we want to matter. We want to live in dignity. I think teaching and learning code can break down many of today’s barriers to peace. It gives power back to the individual. It allows you to use technology to get creative and solve your own problems and it gives a voice and power back to communities where that power and voice has been taken away allowing them a seat at the table and a chance to make a difference in their own lives and communities. Applying their own solutions to complex problems that they are facing.