Month: September 2012

Where are all the grasshoppers?

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At the beginning of the twentieth century a young woman was born in the USA.  Her name is Grace Hopper and she was a genius. Grace Hopper grew-up in an era where she lived through a world-war (she was a naval officer in the US Navy) and worked in a heavily male dominated environment as a computer scientist.  Her brilliance ensured that she was recognized for her ability and not limited due to her gender.  She lived in a world where woman struggled to compete with men on equal terms, yet she advanced and made contributions to society that influences much of the way we live today.  She faced similar struggles to many women on the African continent.  

Those of you reading this, with a deep interest in technology history, specifically of computer systems will know who Grace Hopper is. Grace Hopper’s contribution to computers is arguably as influential as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  She advocated the idea that computer programming languages should have syntax closer to English than machine code. She changed the way computer programmes work and essentially made it easy for computer programmers to be trained without necessarily needing a university education. She literally created a new industry that has created employment for millions of people and influenced technology evolution forever. 

It is this kind of brilliance that Africa needs. Africa needs to find a Grace Hopper.

Grace Hopper had one huge advantage growing up in the USA as opposed to a modern African woman at the start of the twenty-first century. She still had access to better infrastructure, education and opportunities than most African woman have a hundred years on. 

The African continent lingers behind the rest of the world in almost every key indicator; GDP, internet access, human rights, gender inequality, infant mortality rates, and the list goes on.  Africa needs someone to emerge and to become a technology changer on the African continent.  It seems as if Africa, and possibly South America, are the only densely populated societies to not have contributed to the field of computer science in a substantial way.  There are exceptions but there does seem to be more to this than just an under-developed field in African societies.

The African continent has structural issues across every aspect of life.  Africans generally lack infrastructure to support educational brilliance and to identify talent to ensure that these individuals have the opportunity to excel.  In some countries, the lack of training is so severe that the computer science courses are not available at any universities anywhere in the country – such as Mozambique – or the computer training department at the university is combined into another faculty; the computer training skills are so insignificant that providing adequate resources to students is limited through lack of knowledge or budgetary constraints – such as in the Congo or in Angola.

The ability to identify possible talent is limited.  Never mind the issue of over-coming the lack gender equality in many African societies, the reality is that even if a person of brilliance wanted an opportunity to enter the technology sector there are only a handful of countries on the continent that could create a path for the person to rise up out of the poverty, overcome the frequent political instability and the many cultural issues they may face.

The title of this post in some ways has many meanings related to all of these points.  The obvious relates directly to Grace Hopper.  My thoughts are directed towards her and how we can develop more Hoppers?  I see a grass-hopper as a wonderful thing.  It is a creature that can fly and as a predator can be veracious, wiping out crops and dominating landscapes.  It would be fantastic if Africa could develop an industry that dominates the international landscape, much the same way the Indians have done.

But grasshoppers in African folk-lore have other meanings too.  The fable about the argument between the toad and the grasshopper which caused a rift in their friendship when they could not dine together (read it at http://worldoftales.com/African_folktales/African_Folktale_6.html), is a simple and effective analogy to highlight the differences amongst diverse African societies.  Differences we need to celebrate together to create the opportunities to allow the continent to develop a Grace Hopper, a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs.  The differences should not be a reason why we point fingers at each other or fight wars.  Our differences are what make us unique and create the opportunity for brilliance to emerge.

There are more stories, but the point is this.  As Africans we need to come together and create opportunities for the information technology industry to grow.  No one should be excluded from partaking, regardless of their gender or culture.  As individuals we should hold governments accountable to put the mechanisms in place to grow this industry. We celebrate the ‘greats’, a Bill Gates and a Grace Hopper.  We need to find our own greats and then celebrate them. This is what I think.