“I’ve ventured into a field that is known to be male-dominated…but the reality is that technology is for everyone.”
In 2013, Martha Chumo, a 19-year-old self-taught programmer, was supposed to be in New York, honing her coding skills and mastering cutting-edge technologies in the company of fellow software enthusiasts. Instead, she’s thousands of miles away, in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya.
A few months ago, Chumo was accepted into the summer intake of Hacker School, a U.S.-based “retreat for hackers,” where budding programmers come together for three months to write code, learn new languages and share industry insights.
Whereas the programming boot camp was free to attend, Chumo still needed to cover her trip costs and buy a new laptop. Excited and determined, the young developer turned to online crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo for funds. She aimed for $4,200 and managed to raise nearly $5,800.
All she needed then was a visa to travel to the United States.
Alas, this was not to be. As an unmarried adult who was not enrolled at university, Chumo was not eligible for a U.S. tourist visa because she couldn’t show sufficient “social ties” to Kenya to prove that she was planning to return home after attending Hacker School.
“I was so frustrated because I had applied to go to Hacker School; I got into it, I raised funds to go there, I had all these plans to read and learn for three months and then I’m not allowed to go — that’s how the idea for the school was born.”
“I thought if I can’t go to the hacker school, let me try to bring the school to me,” says Chumo. “(Let me see) what can I do to start a school here.”
Within minutes of her second visa request denial, on June 4, 2013, Chumo was calling her friends to announce that, “I’m starting a hacker school in Kenya!”
A few days later, she launched another Indiegogo campaign asking people to help her set up her own school for developers in Nairobi. She made a video using her mobile phone and convinced people to buy into her idea and she eventually raised an additional $15,000. In the same year, she established Nairobi Dev School.
It’s all a big change for this bright youngster who didn’t even own a computer until a year ago, let alone know how to write Python web frameworks and Ruby gems.
A top pupil at her school, Chumo was planning to study medicine at the University of Nairobi. Then she “bumped” into the tech world previous summer during an internship that enabled her to access a computer on a daily basis.
This triggered a deep desire in her to learn everything about this exciting new world. Chumo quit her internship, took her savings and bought a laptop. She gave up her scholarship to study medicine and started working with other programmers on open source software and got a job as a developer. Her passion to become better led her to apply to Hacker School.
In a recent interview, now 21-year-old Chumo, explains how she hopes to teach children in rural Kenya how to write code, and break the myth of technology being too difficult for young people to develop skills in.
“Our goal is to equip young people with software development skills they can use to solve challenges around them. We talk about technology a lot in Kenya, but what does it really mean for education, healthcare and farming? We want to make technology relevant to us.
I have found when someone is learning something to get a job, they are motivated to do the minimum required because their aim is a job, not to transform the world. But I like the energy and naivety of young people. At age 14 they have nothing to lose, their parents are giving them pocket money and they have time. They can throw in as much creativity and take risks.
I got into technology right after high school and learned a lot on my own. So I really want to teach children. Next month we will begin training teachers in a number of rural schools that have computer labs. The myth is technology is too hard and is a reserve only for geeks. But I see it as a skill like music, art or drama any child can acquire with training and creativity.”
“Looking back, I’m happy my US visa was denied because it made me do something at home.”
(Courtesy of Teo Kermeliotis: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/17/tech/teenager-hacker-school-africa-google/)
(Anya Kamenetz: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1682324/this-19-year-old-self-taught-developer-will-not-be-stopped)
Chumo’s Indiegogo fund raising pages: