The Agonies of an African Programmer

Last month during a brief stop in Nairobi, I tried to meet one of my oldest friends in Africa, Guido Sohne. The post-election riots were keeping him inside, however. â''I am not quite under house arrest,â'' he emailed me. But travel to the airport was too risky.

Sohne is another of those people that I think of as living in â''the Africa nobody knows,â'' people who should not exist if you never read past the screaming headlines about disaster, disease and mayhem in Africa. Sohne is a big brain, one of the most important codewriters in sub-Saharan Africa, and yet he is essentially invisible, too exceptional to demand the same attention given to Africaâ''s routine troublemakers.

For Sohne, who is in his early 30s, writing software remains the great technology hope for his region. Many young, educated Africans agree. With only a cheap laptop and a Web connection, young Africans can compete â'' seemingly on a level playing field â'' with the best of the rest in the world. With the press of their keyboard, they can obliterate distance and deliver their code to customers around the world.

That vision captivates Sohne, who is a forceful advocate for home-grown software. While his aspirations are typical, his story is unusual. Raised in Accra, Ghana, Sohne excelled in school, won admittance as an undergraduate to Princeton University and then showed his stubborn rebellious streak. He dropped out and returned to Ghana.

I first met Sohne five years ago at Busy Internet, the best Web café in West Africa. Sohne wrote software for nearly everyone in Accra, but he also was a forceful and intelligent advocate for African-made computer code. He spoke often on radio and at public meetings about the potential for information technology to lift his fellow Africans out of poverty and into the global mainstream. Partly because of his frenetic energy and his lack of concern for his physical appearance, he reminded me of a beat poet from the 1950s. To Westerners who visited Accra â'' notably the Internet philanthropist Ethan Zuckerman â'' Sohne became a legendary character, a compelling personality.

Sohne tried mightily to build open-source software organizations in Ghana and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. He certainly raised awareness of Linux and the importance of sharing code. As I pointed out in an essay of my own on Africaâ''s software community, sharing code ran counter to the proprietary impulses that arise in a â''scarcity economyâ'' where people worry that a pie that isnâ''t growing shouldnâ''t be shared at all.

Rather poignantly, Sohneâ''s activist efforts failed repeatedly. We even failed together; in 2003, we started an open-source community project that sputtered, then died, because too few people in Accraâ''s small community of programmers were willing, like Sohne, to donate their time.

Because he lacks a public body of work â'' and has never been appointed by an African government to any prestigious â''placeholderâ'' position -- Sohne seems like a digital ghost. He often writes impassioned, intelligent comments on tech â''threads,â'' and not always from an African perspective either. Around the world, across the reality of cyberspace, Sohne he cast a long shadow, one of a handful of African technologists who roams across the full spectrum of IT issues.

In recent months, Sohne has emerged from the shadows. Microsoft Corp. has hired him to work out of the companyâ''s Nairobi office. His job includes helping Microsoft interact with open-source consumers in Africa. The move to Microsoft says much about how the private sector can and does support talent in Africa. How Sohne balances his earnest commitment to Africaâ''s public welfare and Microsoftâ''s needs will be interesting to watch. But heâ''s already notched a big win â'' by reminding the world's software community that some of Africaâ''s best brains remain at home, animated by visions of future triumphs.


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