Akwaaba! A Pan-African Python Conference and The Year of Return

Recently I returned from my first trip to West Africa visiting Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana.

In preparation for the trip, I had to obtain not one but two visas. In previous travels I've been able to obtain a visa at the airport such as when I visited Cuba in 2016. This time around I was strongly discouraged from obtaining a visa at the airport for various reasons including, it just may take many many hours. Acquiring two visas, one which required me to travel to New York City to submit my biometrics for the Nigerian tourist visa, in hindsight was a perfect prelude to my travel to West Africa. The privilege of not needing to consider what paperwork was needed prior to entry is a rare one and one I have been accustomed to. Time and time again I would be reminded of my privilege and how that informs the way I navigate the world.

A Pan-African Python Conference: PyCon Africa

First, thanks where thanks are due. If it weren't for Marlene Mhangami, a fellow Director of the Python Software Foundation, who also served as Chair for the inaugural PyCon Africa I would not have attended PyCon Africa. It was Marlene who informed me, "you know, Accra and Lagos are about an hour flight apart" as my initials plans only included Lagos for a friend’s birthday celebration. (Please watch this 23 questions with Marlene video below, it's amazing!)

Most of the PyCon Africa organizing team is the same team behind PyCon Ghana. These folks helped organize transport for international travelers to and from airport as well as coordinate countless details on the ground. Shout out to Noah Alorwu who graciously picked me up from the Accra airport and had the chance to observe the eccentricities of a person who has barely slept after ~ 14 hours of air travel!

Kicking off with a day tour of Accra for international travelers and workshops like Django Girls, the core conference began on Thursday August 8th. I arrived in time from Lagos for the end of Moustapha Cisse's, lead of Accra's Google AI team, opening keynote. Moustapha's keynote set a theme that'd continue to emerge for the rest of the conference: how can technology be used to solve African problems by African technologists?

The keynote expanded into an impromptu "ask me anything" session split 50/50 with the audience asking Moustapha questions followed by Moustapha asking questions of us. One telling question arose when Moustapha, whose work focuses on fairness, transparency and reliability in machine learning, was asked, "What problems do we confront [in machine learning] given the numerous amount of languages in Africa?". (Earlier Moustapha had indicated that the lack of data in African languages has been a barrier in creating machine learning solutions that work adequately for Africa.)

In response to the question, Moustapha summarized "it's not a problem, but a wealth" to have such an abundance of African languages adding that, "access to information is not unique to Africa but is true for the entire world". Digging deeper, Moustapha outlined two approaches to solving NLP problems like language detection, stating that he was most interested in deep learning as deep learning, unlike statistical ML solutions, doesn't rely on human translation and language expertise. When solving African problems, the focus should not be on deficiencies but on the wealth of the African community. "I myself am a failed physicist so I went to ML as it was simpler", Moustapha joked while asking the audience to consider "what triggered your curiosity to pursue the path into technology?".

Over the next two days several speakers continued to reiterate forms of this question, inspiring the audience to think creatively about what they can do for their communities. Felipe de Morais' talk on AfroPython, a Brasilian community he helps organize, explored this idea deeper, focusing on the role of diaspora for Afro-Brasilians. At one point, raising the challenge that, "you do not have to be Black to help Black people". The African tech panel also challenged everyone to consider what it means to build a sustainable African tech economy. Jessica Upani, a PyCon Namibia organizer, added to this noting that, "it is time we raise our own capital and not rely on others, what does the future look like for us?".

All of this future facing discussion culminated with Kojo Idrissa's emotionally powerful keynote that reflected on lessons from the past. Beginning with how his name is based on the famous Maroon leader Cudjoe to the simple truth that he has returned to Africa, "Because my cousins has invited me home" both to PyCon Africa and through The Year of Return, Kojo spoke to how the legacy of the African diaspora has had an impact on us all, regardless of where one lives. It is up to us to choose how we will learn from it. For Kojo, he has chosen to use the empathy he has learned and feels to help build a more inclusive Python and by extension technical community.

The Year of Return: Using the past to inform the future

2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia. To commemorate this anniversary and to movie the narrative to one of Homecoming, the Ghana government kicked off 2019 as the Year of Return.

Nigeria at approximately 200 million people is the most populous African country with 42.54% of the population under 14. Training centers like Andela that are “harder to get into than Harvard” (in 2016 they received 23,400 applications and only had a 0.6% acceptance rate!) combined with other bold initiatives like Data Science Nigeria’s effort to “raising 1 million AI talents in 10 years” are but a small reflection of the vast untapped talent in Africa.

The many people I met at PyCon Africa (and in my trip in general), from Benin to Zimbabwe, emparted upon me a valuable lesson: it isn’t the past that dictates the future but how we use that past to build the future.

How will the world engage with the African tech community? How will those within Africa engage with one another? And ultimately, how can we all as Pythonistas or generally speaking as technologists do better? Time will tell, but already change is in the air and I for one am excited for the future. Oh and you should go to PyCon Africa 2020, I know I'll be there!