Out of Africa: a Hacker writes his final code


One of my favorite Africans died the other day in Nairobi. Guido Sohne was a brilliant, if unheralded, software programmer who worked for Microsoft in Kenya. He was found dead in his living room. People discovered him when he didnâ''t turn up for work. Guido was 35 years old.

He was best known as a tireless and passionate advocate for open-source software in Africa. His decision to join Microsoft last year represented a decisive turn for him technically, an attempt to build a bridge between proprietary and open approaches to codewriting. He had long endured the privations of working solo as a programmer in Africa. The new job brought him a measure of stability -- and recognition -- he long had missed.

Guido and I go back some years; he was a close companion when I lived in Accra in 2003. Guido was witty and sharp and always ready to debate arcane points, either about technology or development. We spent many hours together and, when my teenage son visited Accra for a summer, Guido tutored him on computer games that bewildered me but that he found easy to explain. Any techies who visited Accra were sure to meet Guido. He was tall and handsome and spoke with a sense of authority and confidence that was unusual in an African city. When Ethan Zuckerman met Guido in 2004, he was immediately impressed and noted that, while a critic of Microsoft at the time, Guido shrewly realized that piracy of Microsoft programs was actually helping to entrench the company in Africa.

Guido's sudden death remains a mystery at this point. Maybe he was felled by a heart attack. Foul play seems to be ruled out. His life was unfinished; he never created, for instance, a landmark program or piece of writing about the creation of new technologies in Africa. But for the scores of African hackers in Accra and elsewhere around the continent, he was a role model, always raising the bar, insistently asking others to do better. He will be missed.


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