In 2006, a group of women from Northern India tired of the growing rate of unreported crimes against women, domestic abuse cases and a patriarchal system of oppression, decided that taking matters into their own hands was the only way the quest for justice and possible change could be shortened. Regardless of the fear of hitting the serendipitous jackpot of martyrdom, the Gulabi Gang was formed.
This group of women known by their pink saris (a symbol for strength) draped across their shoulders, and their adept skills in handling wooden weapons known as lathis (or sticks), are some of the unpopular heroes of our time; fighting daily for the social justice and human rights of all Indian women regardless of social status.
I only remembered the legend of the Gulabi Gang on a recent visit to a Maiduguri school facility, where I was present to contribute smart tablets equipped with an e-learning app designed by Softcom Limited – an innovative Nigerian tech solutions company. The mobile tablets come pre-programmed with reading and visual materials that cover the entire national curriculum – from Primary 1 through SS3 – for Nigerian children, alongside related content important for their holistic education.
At first, my colleagues and I went on this trip with no expectations. I planned to distribute the tablets, work with my colleagues in training the teachers on the ground on how to navigate the app and bolster their training methods, pose for a few photos and head home. At the facility, however, my colleagues and I were greeted with the pleasant surprise of what I will refer to as the Nigerian version* of the Gulabi Gang.
Led by women who care less about amassing wealth with the intangible currency of public relations, they are evidently more keen on changing the lives of children displaced as a result of violence and conflict and bonded by a shared loss of loved ones. The promising future of these children – the one who could have become a big key distributor for a multinational FMCG conglomerate or the one who could have become an agrarian entrepreneur or the first female engineer from her tribe – had been temporarily truncated by situations the kids neither created, nor asked to be a part of.
In helping these young minds on a journey to retrace their story of firsts, I met women (and men) who had taken on a cause to rebuild the lives of these disadvantaged young ones; guiding them on a journey of mental, physical, and social recovery, for the simple reason that no one else was doing so. I watched in awe as I saw children in hijabs and well (to the best of their ability) ironed button-downed uniforms being taught how to design little orange robots. I watched seemingly precariously, as kids no younger than 12, were taught the rudimentary basics of coding via a very intriguing board game called Robot Turtle. The final objective of this game is for these children to gradually become comfortable handling algorithms and ease them into general rules of coding over time. The long term goal behind this is to groom the minds of the children to eventually become very comfortable with code. If this training pattern is successful, several kids at this center will be able to handle code before their 15th birthday.
Intrigued by what I had just witnessed, I spent some time with my new Borno family, organizing a mini competition with some of the children; where the first to fully set up a simple light bulb circuit board wins a round. After several rounds of laughter and high energy, as groups of kids squealed in the delight of playful rivalry while trying to outdo each other, I watched in silence and smiled at the realization of how the journey of ‘firsts’ could still be achieved.
I raised a high-five to myself (in my mind of course), at this light bulb moment: imagining a time when some of the next generations of Nigerian techpreneurs were going to emerge from. A new crop of data scientists and software engineers that understand the need for social investment innovation through technology based on their own personal experiences. A new class of information technology experts able to develop solutions from an honest place of empathy, having lived through the harsh realities of the absence of these basic threads of humanity often taken for granted because of how knitted they are into the fabric of what we see as everyday life.
It is these young ones learning the basics of computer coding from an early age, understanding how easily accessible education could become and how the current unconventional approaches to learning could open up more minds to brilliant and truly impactful ideas. In the words of Wole Soyinka: “The phenomenon of creativity, we know, is closely related to the ability to yoke together separate, and even seemingly incompatible, matrices. The fruits of creativity taste best when it comes from the least likely places.”
The e-learning solution designed at Softcom hopefully also contributes to this tale of firsts. From changing our perception of what free education could look like, redefining what it could possibly mean for mobile money to finally break into the mainstream payment culture in Nigeria (similar to what M-pesa has done in Kenya), to providing profitable make money on the go platforms for anyone irrespective of location across Nigeria. with the least KYC requirements possible, be able to make at least $150 on a monthly basis without ever meeting their employers face to face. I cannot wait to read the New York Times best seller story of how a group of Africans through their own journey from hopelessness to a tale of firsts, changed the world.