I just got back from a two-month trip to Sierra Leone, a war-torn country in West Africa that is full of wonderful people. I’m not sure why I decided to go, but it was a transformational experience in all the ways you’d expect: being unplugged from western civilization, walking alongside a completely different culture, and seeing poverty firsthand. To be quite honest, I expected to come back with a chip on my shoulder, frustrated with the rampant materialism of our society. I thought I’d cringe every time I saw someone tweet with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. However, I now find myself with a surprisingly different attitude. I have a fresh perspective, and have come back to the US empowered after learning that something I do every day can be used to change the world.
One Boy’s Story
Tejan Marjay is 15, an orphan, and a victim of underdeveloped medical services. He fell from a mango tree when he was young, breaking his jaw and leg. Due to inadequate medical care, his jaw fused to his head and his leg never healed. This left him unable to eat properly and caused his legs to grow disproportionately, making it extremely difficult—and painful—to walk. In 2007, a generous American supporter paid to have Tejan flown to the US for surgery, which involved placing pins in his good leg to prevent it from growing any further, and replacing his jaw with one of his ribs. He’s lived an incredibly difficult life, but remains one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met.
During his time in America, he was introduced to this thing we call the internet, and he became hooked. He returned to Sierra Leone with a strong desire to learn everything he could about computers, especially web development. However, due to Sierra Leone’s lack of computers and spotty internet access, his opportunities to learn are few and far between. So naturally, when he learned that I work for a web development company, he begged me to teach him. We started sitting down and having conversations about URLs, servers and HTML—though I quickly realized that trying to explain these concepts without any resources was impossible. I reached out to my coworkers across the globe at Code School, and they arranged for a few books to be sent to me in the middle of the jungle.
Who uses programming books these days?
Once the books arrived, the news quickly spread to the other 100 orphans that live there. A group of about 10 boys started meeting together and reading the HTML book, quizzing each other as they went along. They couldn’t get enough. I would come to visit and find them sitting on the bed reading the book together. It was then that I knew I had to get these kids in front of a computer.
I managed to borrow an old MacBook Pro from one of the American construction workers that lives in Sierra Leone full-time, then I started running classes. The boys all took turns writing basic HTML and I checked their comprehension. Crowds soon gathered, and we had kids watching their brothers learn HTML. I was stunned at how quickly they learned. Many of these boys had no idea what a web browser even was when I met them, and a few short weeks later they were writing basic HTML.
Not Just the Grind
These are the skills that we employ on a daily basis at Code School, often without thinking that they could change the trajectory of others’ lives. The West African internet industry is in its infancy, but is growing at an alarming rate with almost no skilled labor at all. This is the opportune time for these kids to learn web development.
One can imagine how easy it would be for these kids to slip into living with an intense fear of the future. They’ll soon be adults—without the option to move back in with Mom and Dad—in an awful economy that is the result of more than a decade of brutal civil war. They’ll struggle to find work, and many of them won’t. Web programming presents the opportunity to find a career that will allow them to provide for their future families, and raise their children in a safe environment with education and sustenance. This in turn works to reduce the poverty rate, eliminating corruption and ending the cycle of violence—the kind of generational change that truly transforms nations.
It’s easy for me to get bogged down in the day-to-day work of our industry. Maybe that’s why I went to Africa in the first place, I’m not sure. What I’ve learned though, is that despite the industry’s shortcomings, we really can make a difference. Code School has already changed the way that the first world learns programming, and I really believe that it’s uniquely positioned to make a profound and practical impact on the lives of students across the world.
The takeaway is that even with the resources that Code School provided this summer, in the form of my time and a few books, hope was given. However, I don’t expect you to take my word for it. The day that I was leaving, Tejan passed me a note addressed to Envy Labs, the parent company that founded Code School.
I didn’t go to Africa expecting to teach HTML. I went to speak worth—by word and deed—to those who’ve been abandoned and victimized by a fallen world. It just worked out that I was able to put my years of experience and knowledge to good use, and I’ve got to admit—it was exhilerating. I’m excited to keep in touch with Tejan through the orphanage and Children of the Nations, and hopefully, he will continue to grow in his knowledge. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll start following him on twitter or attend a conference in which he speaks on the latest web technology. The sky’s the limit.
Finally, I made Tejan an honorary member of the Code School team, giving him our T-shirt to remember us by. With that, I’d like to present the newest member of the Code School team, Tejan Marjay. We are now, more than ever, an international company.