Can She Hack It?

Can She Hack It?

Have you ever been thrown into a situation where you don’t have a clue what you are doing but just “go with it” and pretend you’re a pro? Because that is like pretty much my whole life. Like everyday. Seriously. In order to corroborate this point I would like to present exhibit H; the Hackathon I attended back in early June. Here goes. Back in April or so I received an email requesting “creative, humanitarian ideas to improve the every day lives of Kenyans through technology,” or something roughly along those lines. Well the Kenyans I hang with on a day-to-day basis are farmers. Not the John Deer ridin’ irrigation pipe slingin’ farmers you folks in the states think of, but plough pushin’ hand pickin’ folk. I watch these guys and gals work all year long on their seasonal cash crops (mangoes and oranges) and then turn around to sell them at dirt-cheap prices. Yep, that’s right. That shelf ripened six dollar mango you just grabbed from Trader Joes / Fred Meyers / Evil Wal-Mart / wherever quite possibly came from the fields of Kenya. So how much did my farmer friends get from that sale you ask? Well at the high season when all those puppies are ripe some farmers are only getting the equivalent of 5 cents (maybe even less) a mango. That amount is even lower for the less exportable orange, as you could probably guess. Compounding this low-profit situation are the middle men who drive in from larger cities with fruit trucks and, without fail, tell farmers that produce prices are bottomed out, whether true or not. Thus, farmers might be getting conned into 5 cents a mango when perhaps they could be getting 10 cents…this is where “my” idea comes in…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack in December another volunteer told me about a cell phone service that would respond to texted queries about fair market produce prices. Pumped, I texted off several queries of my own… but never received a reply. Disappointed, I forgot about the text service…UNTIL…I got that aforementioned email requesting “creative, humanitarian ideas to improve the every day lives of Kenyans through technology,” or something of the like. “Well hmm,” I thought to myself. I asked around to other volunteers and Kenyans and notta single one of them had had any luck with the “existing” fair price app. Well if your app don’t work then it don’t really exist does it? It certainly isn’t helping any of my farmer friends…so I fired off this email proposing a text app that operates with any cell phone (no smart phones in the village my friend, but a surprising number of good old circa 2003 cell phones) that provides fair price produce information based on the farmer’s location. Oh and I didn’t stop there. I proposed that it work in English and Kiswahili and be either free or very, very cheap. Yeah so I sent that puppy off thinking; “that’s that, maybe some well meaning soul will read my ‘white lady in the village’ idea and make this thing happen.”  But then another email arrived…AND THE PLOT THICKENS.


I was invited by the Random Hacks of Kindness team (check ‘em out they are coolio: to a conference in Nyeri, Kenya to share “my” idea. Am I overdoing the quotations? Be honest. Ok, I’ll tone it down. Anyway, so I am asked to attend this conference and at first I refuse, using “I’m so busy in the village” as an excuse, but really wanting to avoid unnecessary matatu travel. But then I think it over. About how much I hate those big city middlemen duping my village folk. About the school fees the mango crop should be able to pay but often isn’t adequate for. About how I am not actually all that busy on the weekends (let’s be honest, movie night with the compound kids probably doesn’t really count). Yep, so my decision was made—I will go to this event if it is within my budget. The incredibly generous and hospitable event organizer assured me my lodging was taken care of and that the conference would be right up my ally. Off I went.

31 May 2013

5:00 pm: Arrive, Nyeri. Wander around confused looking for person I am meeting. Find a nice lady in a butcher shop who will not only give me directions, but even walk with me, all the while laughing at my poor Kiswahili.

5:20 pm: Find Anthony, a Dedan Kimathi University student and the Hackathon organizer. Board yet another matatu to the campus, which turns out to be gorgeous and even boast a view of mount Kenya. Not so far fetched from my own mountainous campus…queue nostalgic tear.

5:40 pm: Anthony shows me to my “quarters,” aka his dorm room. The hospitable thing gave up his room for me. Can’t say I banked on a college flashback quite this heavy-duty, but the lodging was nice enough.

7:30 pm: Off to the college food pin. Chow down on a plate of rice, lentils and beans and kick it with some Computer Science Kimathi students. They ask me about the joints I used to eat at when I was in college. I mishear them and think they are asking me if I have marijuana joints. After an awkward moment we have a good laugh about cultural misunderstandings. And no Peace Corps spies, I did not have any marijuana joints for your information.

9:00 pm: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a Peace Corps volunteer abstinent, boring, and wise.


1 June 2013

6:00 am: Arise. Greet the day. Put on my conference pants on (American use of the word pants), and walk on down to the student union.

7:00 am: Eat breakfast of 5 shilling chai and 20 shilling “veggie” sandwich that contains some kind of ground mystery meat.

8:00 am: Conference is supposed to begin, but SURPRISE… you live in Kenya and things are not meant to start on time. So it goes.

9:00 am: Only white person / woman present. Student comes to sit with me and flirt shamelessly.

10:00 am: Still the only white person / woman present. More men approach to flirt.

11:00 am: Conference begins. I am overjoyed when around 5 Kenyan ladies arrive, and shocked when I am told that the Hackathon is a lock-in and we will be in the same room for the NEXT 24 HOURS. Must have missed that part of the email. Whoops.

11:30 am: I present my AgroApp idea and attempt to recruit a tech team. Yep, turns out I am a team leader and get to pretend I know what I am doing for the NEXT 23 AND A HALF HOURS.

12:00 pm: I manage to recruit a team of eight fantastic “hackers” / “RHoK Stars” / kool Kenyans. We discuss my app idea over lunch. My initial shock and horror about the 24-hour lock-in and managing a tech team (can I just take a moment to mention I was a History Major…) starts to wear off. There are even two techy ladies on my team, which I love.


8:00 pm: We haven’t even bothered to start hacking because we are so in the clear. We have a rock solid plan- we will use Java (what?) to build a database (yeah ahuh ok) to which farmers can query price info based on county (yeah that’s right) or even upload their own produce price info (awesome). This application will work with any cell phone that texts and in Kiswahili or English, just like the Jane ordered. After drafting a plan of action we kick it for a bit. Why work when you can focus on new friends!?

10:00 pm: Team leader Jane starts to crack the whip. The ladies and I convene and decide the shit name “AgroApp” has to go. We christen ourselves team “Lipwa Poa,” the cool way to check fair market prices (if you speak Kiswahili you are in awe of the perfection of this name). A legend is born.


2 June 2013

2:00 am: Things are going well, albeit slow. Dehydration is setting in. Apparently Kenyans can survive solely on ugali (corn paste) and tea. I get desperate and start drinking water straight from the tap. Queue dramatic dum bum BUM music…foreshadowing parasites to come.

4:00 am: I buckle down on our presentation (that I can handle- I’ll leave the Java to the pros), all the while pretending my stomach is a-ok and that exhaustion has not yet set in.

6:00 am: As the sun rises we work out all the kinks. Our logo is complete and looking fab. Our Prezi presentation is all animated and motion sickness inducing and perfect. The Java database (what?) is fully functional, both replying to queries and uploading information. Let the games begin.

11:00 am: We present the Lipwa Poa application, and in my mind we are clearly the best, most humanitarian, awesomist team. We take second in the Nyeri Hackathon to some smart phone application that helps Kenyan with cars (aka who have money) find parking in Nairobi (which means even more money). I hide my disappointment poorly, but take comfort in the fact that I have eight new friends. Cheesy, but true.

Thus concludes exhibit H, a primary example of Janet pretending she knows what’s up. Peace.


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