From Silicon Valley to the Silicon Savannah

December 19, 2014

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By Mike Hower, MA '16

Since graduating from college in 2009, I have found myself coming and going from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area—but mostly going. I quit my first “real world” job to spend a year teaching English in a poor neighborhood of Bogota, Colombia, and later left again to fulfill my dream of backpacking across Europe. A year ago, I found myself back in San Francisco for the first time doing what everyone else my age was doing: working at a tech company, living in an apartment, frequenting happy hours. I brunched often.

Shortly after the holidays, I was contacted by George Washington University Professor Steven Livingston, asking if I would be interested in coming to Washington, D.C. to serve as his graduate research assistant. He told me his research focus was on how information communication technologies could be used in areas of limited statehood—places where organized governments fail to provide such basic public goods as security or clean water. This resonated with me; I have always believed in the power of technology to help build a better world. My focus is environmental and social sustainability, and the intersection of business and public policy.

I was comfortable in San Francisco, but knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I said goodbye to my family, friends, and golden retriever and boarded a one-way flight to our nation’s capital.

After a semester of getting back into the academic groove, making new friends, and getting used to temperatures that weren’t 65 degrees, Professor Livingston asked if I wanted to go to Nairobi, Kenya to visit his former GTA, Primoz Kovacic, MA '14, who runs a social enterprise called Spatial Collective. The organization is developing an app that allows communities to use GPS to identify problems and crowdsource solutions. In other words: Professor Livingston’s research in action.

In November, Professor Livingston and I made our way to East Africa aboard several long flights. Although I had previously been to 26 countries on four continents, this was my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Arriving in Nairobi, we were met by Primoz and his friend Simon, a local taxi driver who would be our transportation lifeline throughout the week, masterfully navigating Nairobi’s pockmarked streets to get us from Point A to Point B.

On our first day in Nairobi, Professor Livingston, Primoz, a Spatial Collective intern, and I visited Mathare—one of the worst slums in the region where Spatial Collective works—to watch a community soccer tournament. After Simon dropped us off on the side of a muddy road, we were met by Isaac Mutisya Muasa, known in his community as Kaka (which means Brother in Kiswahili), a youth leader in Mathare who works closely with Spatial Collective. Kaka and his team escorted us through the neighborhood to the soccer field. A heated game was already underway, and we squeezed through the crowd to find a place to sit and watch. The local people greeted us warmly, and children solicited us for a never-ending supply of high-fives and “how are yous”.

The soccer tournament was a bona fide community event with teams made up of Kenyans, Somalis, and other groups living in the nearby neighborhoods. I learned that the soccer field was a recent addition—the product of a nonprofit working with the local people to transform a derelict lot.

Our group visited a community center Kaka and his team had built before touring a small section of the slum. Although I had seen some poor areas before in Latin America, Mathare was on a whole new level. Human excrement flowed freely down the dirt paths between buildings. I saw a pile of trash that was the size of my San Francisco apartment. We came across one particularly large pile of trash where two children, a boy and a girl, casually sifted through the refuse. We intervened when we saw a child chewing on a toxic piece of electronic waste like a Tootsie Roll.

The next day, we visited Spatial Collective’s office, which resembled a San Francisco tech company. Their primary offering was an app anyone with an internet-enabled mobile phone could download—nearly 90 percent of Mathare’s residents have such devices. Spatial Collective’s primary focus currently is addressing the serious trash problem I had witnessed. Mathare residents could use the app to drop GPS markers wherever they saw trash heaps, and vote on which ones to tackle first. Spatial Collective aggregates this data and, working with local partners like Kaka on the ground, helps empower the people of Mathare to take collective action to address the problem. This is done by taking the gathered information and showing the (more or less) democratically elected Nairobi government the problem, and offering local solutions.

Later in the week, we returned to Mathare to observe Spatial Collective in the field as they troubleshooted a GPS variance problem. This time, we were dropped off at a community center even deeper into the slum. Meeting up with a large team from Spatial Collective and local partners, we slowly made our way down one of the main thoroughfares.

Children were everywhere, smiling and waving. Some would say affectionately: “Hi, Mzungu!” (A local word for someone of European descent) As Spatial Collective worked, Professor Livingston and I preoccupied ourselves high-fiving children, who all seemed to be major Mzungu fans. The children were particularly thunderstruck by Professor Livingston’s fish tattoo on his forearm. In a throwback to my Colombia English-teaching days, I gave an impromptu English lesson to some of the kids.

We stopped by an orphanage run by a heroic local woman who almost single-handedly cares for nearly 500 children, some as young as a few weeks old. A few of the older kids help look after her cows. It’s not child labor, she assured us.

It is difficult to see how unphased children are who live in such squander—their innocence runs so deep that they don’t yet realize life has dealt them a rotten hand. On one level, it makes you feel ashamed of ever jokingly using the hashtag #firstworldproblems. On another, it reminds you that their future is indubitably our own—we can’t progress as a species as long as human beings continue to live under such conditions.

As we continued through the slum, Thuo Wanjiku, Spatial Collective’s self-professed resident philosopher and Mathare resident, told me that he also is a world traveler.

“I travel not by foot or by plane,” he said, then pointed to his head. “But in my mind. I love to read.”

LeVar Burton would be proud.

Thuo invited us to visit his mother, who lived in a small dwelling among a sea of shanties. She welcomed Professor Livingston and I into her home, and we sat on a small couch as Thuo translated. His mother said she had gotten in a motorcycle accident a few days prior, and asked if we wanted some coca-colas. That was fun.

My trip to Kenya reminded me that the true value of education is about action; taking knowledge from books, lectures, conversations, papers, and experiences and channeling them to achieve some goal. As important as the classroom is, it is only one aspect of education—getting out into the world is what makes it meaningful. After graduating from GW, I plan to return the San Francisco to continue to my work in sustainability. But my time in Washington—and in Mathare—has taught me that the world’s environmental and social problems go hand-in-hand. We can’t address environmental issues like climate change unless we also take on growing global inequality.