Mariéme Jamme: I Am The Code

We all have a story in our life. Some are good, some are bad. However, there is no dispute that those stories have shaped the people we are today. They have taught us how to love, to laugh, to dream big and how to share those gifts with the rest of the world. Those stories hopefully, will pass on to the future generations and remind us that all things are possible if we are willing to take a step and reach out.

She was neglected and abandoned as a young girl. She didn’t receive any formal education until she was sixteen. At fifteen, Mariéme Jamme was trafficked into Paris and later, she went to live in the United Kingdom. It was then that she realized she did not have any skills. She decided to learn how to code. Mariéme says she does not want to see girls going through the challenges she went through. Her goal is to see girls finding a way out of poverty through technology.

In a recent interview, Mariéme noted that women need to be part of the technology and innovation conversation. This is why she is mobilizing partners and investors to empower women through technology.

Mariéme speaking to girls at the event
Photo: Jon Yee

Kenya is now the sixty first country to have access to I Am The Code. On the 18th and 19th of August 2018, the organization hosted a hackathon where over 80 girls were taught how to code. Further, there was a competition where the girls had to identify a sustainable development goal they were interested in and find a way of solving the challenge through the use of technology.

The girls did the competition with the help of mentors who work in various fields of technology in Kenya. They also had an inspirational talk from Iladho Galgallo, who works in Safaricom, the major mobile network in Kenya. Iladho explained how she grew up in a community where many girls still miss school because of poverty which consequently makes it difficult for them to access menstrual hygiene products, school fees and books. Iladho went through the same challenges. ‘It was very difficult for me. I did not even have money to clear my fee balance from high school and hence I could not access my high school certificate. I couldn’t join an institution of higher learning because of this,’ she narrated tearfully.

Back home, people always wondered why she wanted to work in an engineering field yet it was male dominated. However, Iladho was determined and found a way to get certifications that would eventually allow her to secure employment in different sectors related to technology and eventually to Safaricom.

‘My humble beginnings never stopped me from working hard. I know I share a similar background with many of you. Therefore, I am very active in doing mentorship programs so that girls in my community can have basic knowledge about technology. Many girls in my community are still dropping out of school and I want this to stop. Just be patient and never give up,’ she said. It was amazing especially to the girls who were present. The message was clear, they can do anything they want to if they stay determined.

With Iladho

It was interesting to note how the girls were aware of the challenges they face. They knew that early marriage stops them from accessing education, they knew how to make their environment cleaner by stopping plastic pollution, they were aware that climate change is real and they had solutions to these global problems. As I walked around listening in on the conversations they were having in their groups with their mentors, I couldn’t help but wonder how much impact there would be if more and more children like them would be given the opportunity to have safe spaces and have conversations with leaders and get to push for positive change.

This was also a learning opportunity for me. I was amused when one of the girls mentioned BBC Micro Bit and I had never heard of it. It is an open source hardware designed by the BBC for use in computer education. Through the micro bit, children can learn how to code very easily. The best part is that it has an easy to read manual for teachers and educates and also happens to be child friendly.

My team and I also had the chance to interview a few of the girls to give their perspective about their whole experience with I Am The Code. Vivian from the Samburu Girls Foundation hopes to see technology driven innovations and solutions being taken to her local community. She feels that being in the I Am The Code Hackathon was important because it will allowed her and her peers to teach their friends and schoolmates how to code.

Innovative children
Photo: Jon Yee

Hilda from the Kibera School for Girls was very excited about learning about the Sustainable Development Goals and how to improve the lives of children like her through technology. Her group chose goal number 15 on Life on Land. She wants people to stop cutting down trees and littering the environment. ‘It is important to educate girls about their rights because they are the future. I want girls like me to know that it is important for them to think about their future. I want to see a female president in my country when I grow up. I Am The Code has enabled my group to build a drone which will monitor the environment especially in the forests so as to stop illegal logging,’ she bubbled.

As a judge during the hackathon, I was very excited to see young girls who were determined to show us their skills. Some of them had created apps to help solve challenges of accessing healthcare and reducing gender inequality. What came out is that a child can do anything only if they are given the right narrative in life. Like Chimamanda Adichie puts says, it dangerous to have a single story. A child who is constantly told they are not creative or clever will grow up believing that. However, one who is told they are smart and intelligent will transform into an amazing individual who is ready to take initiative. This is why I Am The Code was keen on ensuring that the girls knew they were winners, whether or not they were first in the competition that went down during that weekend.

Judging presentations from the girls
Photo: Jon Yee

In his speech at the ‘Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy’ conference, the late Koffi Annan, who was the 7th Secretary General of the United Nations reminded the youth who were present that they were never too young to lead or do what they actually believe in. ‘The future only belongs to the youth if they take it,’ he concluded. We are now reemphasizing the fact that the future can only be taken by the younger generation if they are empowered and one of the ways of doing that is through technology.

Koffi Annan
Photo: Jon Yee
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