MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Sam Kamau’s belief in the power of technology to create opportunities for Kenya’s young people got its start Saturday mornings as a kid, when he’d run across the street to his friend Brian’s house to play Mortal Kombat 4 on the neighborhood’s only computer.
“We’d play for 10 rounds and then decide it wasn’t enough,” says the Middlebury junior, “so we’d play 10 more rounds and continue. One person used the keyboard and the other played on the num pad—and we’d just go at each other.”
Kamau noted wryly that of the eight or so boys clamoring to play, he’d typically be last to arrive and last in line. “I could not leave the house until I’d done my chores.”
Fast forward to 2018, when Kamau enlisted some of these same friends to start Ridhika, a youth-advocacy organization based in his hometown of Nyeri, Kenya. Ridhika teaches coding to high schoolers through an after-school program and through a summer vacation “boot camp.” The program uses coding as a way to encourage innovation and community involvement while developing entrepreneurial and leadership skills.
Associate Professor of Political Science Nadia Horning became a mentor to Kamau last year when he was selected as a Social Entrepreneurship Fellow while she was the program’s faculty director.
In that role, said Horning, she told students: “Your task is to figure out how you translate the privilege that you have, that you have acquired, into ways of helping those who are underserved. And not just help in the sense of charity, but supporting those who are underserved so that you don’t accumulate, you don’t collect privilege, but you share it. You diffuse it. You distribute it so that the impact on you can actually be an impact on many other individuals. That’s the way you effect positive change—and I see Sam doing that.”
Kamau said he always wanted to study abroad.
“In the Kikuyu community, we have a saying: ‘He who has not left his mother’s house, thinks that his mother is the best cook.’ So, for me, I wanted to taste food elsewhere, to see how other people are living their lives and approaching problems.”
Kamau was drawn to Middlebury because of the breadth of classes he could take (his favorite thus far has been philosophy) and the emphasis on critical inquiry.
“Here, I get to ask questions. I will ask a question in a place where there’s some inconsistency, and my professor is genuinely curious to know where I’m coming from—and that’s still very different for me. Every time I ask a question in class or I’m in office hours, my professors are just very open to either giving me the answer, trying to find out the answer, or telling me, ‘Well, as of now, I don’t know, but we can find out together.’ That’s a very foreign concept for me, and it’s still amazing.”
A computer science and economics double major, Kamau said he’s always been someone who looks at systems—social, political, economic—and asks, “How can we change things for the better for everyone?”
“So when I was coming in freshman year, I knew I wanted to impact a change in my community, but I wasn’t very sure how to impact a change that benefited the people it needed to benefit, which for me was the young people. I was like, ‘Well, I’ve left all these people back home … and it’s nice that they’re all texting me congratulations on a daily basis, but what happens to their prospects?’”
Kenya has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in East Africa. “The majority of youth,” said one expert, “are still under- or unemployed, and vulnerable.” Among various factors, two stand out: Kenya’s population is young—close to 60 percent are under 25 years of age—and over 80 percent of all employment is in what economists call the “informal” sector. While primary enrollment is at close to 100 percent, only about 48 percent of students go on to high school, and only about 12 percent to college/university. Finding work remains difficult—even for the college educated.
“The unemployment is pretty bad,” said Kamau, “to a level where, you’re not thinking in terms of ‘How will I be competitive in the job market?’ It’s more of ‘How can I get any piece of employment?’”
Kamau sees coding as a tool for young people’s “overall empowerment,” both in terms of being able to earn a living and in terms of having a voice in society.
The idea for Ridhika began to crystallize during Kamau’s first year, while he was taking his first class in computer science. Working out of his Vermont dorm room, Kamau enlisted two friends back home to join him as summer camp teachers. He gained support from the regional ministry of education. A local school offered its computer lab and wider facilities as a place to hold the camp during the August school break. Kamau and friends began putting out the word to Nyeri’s high school–age students.
In August 2018, 20 teenage boys attended a two-week camp. In August 2019, 18 boys and five teenage girls attended a three-week camp. Ridhika launched its after-school program in fall 2018, and it’s now being offered at three local high schools, including one girls’ school (secondary education in Kenya is typically single sex).
Both programs are free to participants. Kamau funded the 2018 summer camp with a CCI First-Year Explore Grant; he funded the 2019 camp using part of his grant as a Social Entrepreneurship Fellow. Others in the community supported with in-kind donations.
They discussed problems and resources in their local community, practiced brainstorming, and considered how best to communicate ideas.
“For example, we started thinking about how climate change can be solved in coding,” said Kamau. “I’d ask them, ‘What do you guys really think?’ And they’d give me their ideas. Someone would say something like, ‘Make a website about climate change.’ And I’d be like, ‘Okay, but we have to think further than that. What does that website contain? How do you present important information in an approachable way?’”
Most important was that students saw themselves as problem solvers.
Kamau and his fellow instructors built leadership and entrepreneurial skills in a variety of ways. Special guests—a friend in dental school and one who’d just become an actuary, two young entrepreneurs who’d created apps—came and talked about the work world. Participants were asked to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, including a time they successfully enacted change in their school or community. They worked in pairs to build collaboration skills. They set long-term and short-term goals. They drank tea and ate snacks together and talked about music and sports and discussed thing like “What would you want to do if money were no object?”
When someone stepped out of their comfort zone, they gave plenty of snaps. Kamau gave the example of one young woman in particular who was an outstanding coder but “super shy.”
“We’d all solved the coding question and that day I was like, ‘Hey, Cynthia, you’re going to walk us through the solution, right? I know you’ve got this; I’ve been seeing your code.’ She’s terrified, and at first she was hesitant. Then she came up and did it. She got a lot of snaps for doing that. Afterwards I was talking to her during a tea break, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I liked that. I was able to actually explain something I know.’”
Seeing that kind of transformation, said Kamau, is deeply satisfying.
“Week one they walk in, they’re shy, unsure of themselves. Week two they’re high-fiving me at the door and coming in and immediately asking questions. Their confidence shot right up. And I think they also became way more hopeful about doing things with their futures.”