Monday, 8 April 2013

Making the Story of a People: From Blood Diamonds to Young Inventors.....

by David Sengeh - Graduate Student MIT Media Lab
On a cold Friday night, as some friends and I waited for a New York City subway train, a transit worker approached me with a smile. We exchanged greetings and after some small talk he asked, “Are you from Sierra Leone?” Surprised, I nodded. “I thought so. Man, the work those kids in Sierra Leone are doing is so inspirational. I showed your video to all my kids. My name is Ali,” he said. Minutes later, he had called over his supervisor and his colleague to tell them about my initiative 'Innovate Salone' and about the generation of young people who are developing solutions in their communities in Sierra Leone.
In 2006, as a freshman studying engineering at Harvard, the conversations I had about Sierra Leone were vastly different. “Have you seen the movie Blood Diamond? Is it still safe in Sierra Leone?” Those questions haunted me for years. Yes, I had seen Blood Diamond and it was a fantastic Hollywood rendition of elements of the civil war in Sierra Leone. But even then, the war had ended in 2002. Why were those the first questions asked when people discovered my origin?
Today, that narrative is different. Many people have worked hard to showcase the ingenuity of those who labor to change their situations in Sierra Leone. For me, this new story puts young people at the forefront of national development through their actions. It is not merely a narrative of “aid to” Africa but it is one of “made in” Africa. We no longer focus only on blood diamonds, but engage in frank conversations about the bright dreams being realized by young Sierra Leoneans. The kind of interaction I had with Ali is becoming more common in my life. I have had similar interactions with a shop assistant in Pasadena, California and a fellow African traveller in the Brussels airport. The perceptions of young people in Sierra Leone are changing.
Recently, a friend was describing her experience meeting young technologists and inventors in Sierra Leone at a dinner party. I remember her saying that, as far as she was concerned, “Sierra Leone is a place that is jam-packed with young geniuses and inventors.” This might not be the case just yet, but we are on the right track to change the status quo from expecting help to acting with a sense of self-efficacy. No one is denying the reality of the war or the lack of infrastructure and poor health care access in the country -- but it is time to focus on young people as the drivers of a new culture of innovation.
I helped launch the high school innovation challenge “Innovate Salone” in March 2012 not to change how the world views Sierra Leone, but rather to promote a culture of problem-solving and tinkering among youth. One year later, millions of people across the globe have participated in our story of progress. Within Sierra Leone, we have been able to reach a broad demographic of people - via radio, print and TV - who are passionate about making change in their communities. This year, we will add Innovate Kenya and Innovate the Cape to the movement begun in Sierra Leone.
With broader networks of young people across the African continent who are actively engaged in challenges that incentivize innovation and demonstrate practical community impact, I am more convinced than ever that our generation of African youth can literally and figuratively “make” a different story for our unique communities.

Photo (courtesy-- Kate Krontiris): two female finalists in the Innovate Salone 2012 Fish Pond team

No comments:

Post a Comment