It’s been a while since I have been here and so much has happened since I last was but there’ll be more on that later. Last week I had the pleasure of attending two seemingly similar events and yet they couldn’t have been more dissimilar. The first one was the British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur where young people from Uganda were pitching their nascent ideas on disrupting the fashion business in the hopes of a chance to attend the London Fashion Week and get their business idea bought by the powers that be. “The Young Creative Entrepreneur category will recognize the work of 10 people whose businesses are making the UK creative economy exciting.” Says the official website.
It was unmemorable not as much for the décor but rather the somberness of the event. The fact that the place was laden with the diplomatic corps was enough to freak anybody out without the restriction on taking pictures. But more on that another time.
The second event was the Local Area Networking event for the ICT Association of Uganda. An inaugural event in its own right but more so because it represented the first step in a journey – definitely in the right direction. Held at Gatto Matto and attended by the who’s who in the tech scene in Uganda, this was the event to be at. From people who adopted technology in their later years to people I knew 5 years ago who more than wrote coded for Facebook startup apps.
Later in the evening as I watched the crowd thin out and the die-hards cluster closer together in smaller groups and huddle round hushed ideas I realized this scene was one like in any minority community. When the well-wishers and the crowd go home is when the purists came to life! The one whose ideas kept them awake at night, the ones whose passion gave them a slightly maniacal glint in their eyes, the ones whose only claim to notability was their sheer ability to never be outworked; the workhorses, the beasts, the ones you call when you want to lift it (anything: from projects, to proposals to mobile apps to grant applications to startups – anything! ) off the ground (I have a theory on these people but that’ll be for another day) and I was reminded of a few things that day:
1. Meeting New People: You are never as famous as you think with geeks. Milling about I bumped into some serious tech powerhouses, the kinds of guys who you read about winning awards but who were completely oblivious to their surroundings or who was around them; proving the often over used cliché about geeks’ social awkwardness. So, lesson: be polite, introduce yourself and say what you do. Simply, clearly and deliberately. Geeks hate flakes and they can smell them out quite quickly. Also, whatever you think you have done, it’s not that important because there is a guy in that crowd hoping to cure cancer or to single handedly close the digital divide. So be humble.
2. Old Ideas Told in New Ways: In the course of the evening I happened to bump into Joseph Kaizzi who I hadn’t seen since my bachelor night send off night a few weeks ago but who we really hadn’t sat down and talked with for a while. He told me how his startup was (Tambula is a startup helping boda boda riders track their bikes when they are stolen and a host of other disruptive technologies) For a small fee he will install a tracker and in case your boda ever goes walk about he’ll know here it is. The conversation centered on his first two cases of theft and resultantly tracking; how he’d worked close to 36 hours to track down both bikes – a story only he can narrate with that much verve. As I listened to him tell me how Bing maps actually delivered better ground visibility at 4:00am in Fort Portal and the challenges of trying to orient oneself to seeing the world from above I got the tingling sensation that he had actually stumbled on something new – a problem. He might learn to see the world from above or he might develop a way to see the world as people on the ground see it while still looking from above. He would just figure out a way to make his startup more efficient and that self-learning was so reminiscent of many years ago sitting in an old coffee booth talking about the Microsoft Imagine Challenge cup team presentations he held court over with tenacity and ferociousness.
3. Of Gods and Worshippers; At any of these events one is bound to bump into a geek celeb. Someone celebrated for a being a geek. They could be an inventor, a revered mentor, or just simply the poster child for geekdom. In this respect all three categories were represented in the persons of Solomon King, Michael Niyitegeka and the ever iridescent Evelyn Namara.
What one never imagines is how these types interact with each other in the same space; kind of like how handsome guys hate to be in the same space as really hot girls. Both are good – on their own – ALONE. Most people will argue that the interactions are normal and casual until they aren’t. In the course of the evening I talked to a young man who was developing an electro-kinetic charging system; basically a shoe that would generate electricity for charging mobile phones etcetera. As he told me about women in villages who walk long distances and campus kids who walk to everywhere they are going (most likely for lack of money) it somehow slipped into the conversation that Simon Kaheru would need to call him and have a chat with him. I suddenly wished I hadn’t said that. His face paled and he almost choked on some chips. So I probed a little further. It then emerged that phone calls from Simon were as feared and dreaded in his part of the world as in mine – advertising and crisis management. The truth was that Simon had been at the event and had interacted jovially and freely with almost everyone there.
The learning for me was not to take my ability to interact with people for granted because you never know who is scared to death of the person you are talking to so casually. That is not to say I am not scared of Simon, or to even imply that I chat with him casually as that would constitute two large fat falsehoods. As we sipped on our drink and glanced across the courtyard at the table where the ‘powerful’ people were I thought how interesting it would be to appear truly and deeply fearless –the one quality that we both agreed was Simon’s hallmark. But it was a good thought and I really needed to move on to living my life again – with fear. That said, I managed to convince the young man to write Simon an email because only thing worse than him calling you is you calling him