A Story of Teaching Street Kids to Code in Mozambique.
Listen to this story: One year ago I was sitting with Josias, a beggar at stoplights in Maputo, and trying to teach him how to read. Why? Because I was trying to teach him how to code. I know it sounds crazy right?
Today I am again, back in Maputo and bumped into him outside a restaurant. He proudly told me that he now has a job and knows how to read well. I’m just so, so happy to hear that.
Let me back-track:
I’ve lived in and visited Mozambique many times, but something gripped me about the boys on the street last time and a I had a crazy idea: Could I teach street kids in one of the poorest countries in the world how to code?
Read the rest of the story here:
I had just read an article that said that when you have an idea, any idea, you have 5 seconds to take action on it before the likelihood of it happening deminishes rapidly.
So immediately I wrote up a post for a Facebook group in the city and asked people, random people I didn’t know, to drop-off second-hand laptops where I was staying so that I could teach street kids how to code.
I promised to return them after I was done — It was going to be a short program as I was leaving the country in a week anyway.
Boldly, I added, that if I didn’t get enough laptops within 24 hours I wouldn’t bother and would forget the idea.
The response: 0 Laptops. But the idea had already started growing in my mind. This time I reached out directly to everyone I knew and people responded — I got 5 secondhand laptops committed.
I then went to the street boys and told them about the idea. They loved it. I still needed a place run the training.
I posted again on Facebook and someone randomly told he had an office we could use and maybe even some laptops.
I spent the following day driving all over town and picking up old laptops. One had a broken keyboard, one was in French, the other one was amazing but no one knew the password — It was crazy.
I confirmed with the office-guy, the street kids and two amazing University students who were going to help with the training. It was going to happen the next day at 2PM.
We all arrived at the office. It was great. Aircon and clean, but there were no street kids. I had told them to be on time. Oh well, they had given some vague directions as to where they stayed: In an abandoned plot with red, corrugated sheets on the gate.
I drove down the road, found the red sheets and parked the car. What I saw in there broke my heart. Kids had constructed from broken bricks little houses no higher than waist height with filthy mattresses inside and plastic sheets as a roof. There were also adult-age, dodgy looking homeless people mixed in, which worried me.
I ignored it the many issues and yelled a bit at everyone for being late. They quickly finished getting ready and ducked through the broken gate with me.
While getting in the car they seemed excited and unfamiliar. I was just acting angry because they were late and I wanted to teach them that, that was unacceptable. One boy didn’t know how to close then door, and then it did dawned on me that this was probably the first time they were ever in a car and maybe the first time to feel aircon. I shrugged it off and returned to the office.
I had taught basic coding to school kids before, I had created an offiline learning program using PDFs, notepad and a brower to teach HTML, CSS and JS. So, I was ready to go.
Our philosophy in teaching was “Move fast and break things.” But it wasn’t working. No one had ever used a computer before. The concept of “Double-click” was as foreign as an igloo in Vietnam (yeah, random analogy.) But we had bigger problems and we’d only find out tomorrow.
The kids arrived at the office 10 minutes late and were severely scolded by me. Street kids that lived on the street, sniffed glue and begged all day were being scolded for arriving 10 mins late — You bet.
We got straight into the learning. This time I asked each kid to read the instructions out-loud. One of the kids started and haltingly read a few words. “Oh gosh,” I thought, “This is going to be painful.” I had no idea, because he was the only one who could even read half-way.
Within 15 minutes I summed up the situation: The 2 youngest couldn’t read AT ALL. 2 others had the level of an average 4 year-old.
At this point, the reasonable thing to do would have been to give them a hug, feed them lunch and send them home, but strangely, that thought never crossed my mind. Instead I charged down the stairs and raced to the nearest bookshop. Within 20 minutes I was back with a whole bunch of notebooks, pencilles and massively over-priced beginner writing books — You know, the ones that start with 5 pages of “A’s.” A picture of an apple and then some capital As, followed by small “a’s” and then a few short words starting with “A’s?”
We split up the group, with one carrying on with learning basic HTML and the other learning their A, B, C’s. Oh gosh, what a disaster, you could say, but it was strangely satisfying.
After arranging lunch with the kids we sent them home. They didn’t want to take the books and notepads with them as they said that they would be “Taken from them.” Obviously there was a hierarchy of sorts with the other homeless people.
Progress was being made on the coding front, but our star student was sick, puking in the bathroom, and then lay on the floor in the office kitchen and went to sleep.
For some reason I hadn’t noticed before, but two of the youngest boys had massive sores on their arms and legs. Nonetheless, we pressed forward with the reading, writing and coding lessons. When it was over I drove to a nearby pharmacy with the two youngest and dragged them in.
The lady behind the counter knew that type of sore well. She told them that it’s from not being clean and scolded them. Asking them why their Mother didn’t tell them to wash — She didn’t realize they weren’t living with their Mom.
At this point it all began to get a little emotional for me. The kids on the road,… begging. The look in their eyes. Remembering where they lived. They didn’t know how to read. They were young teens and no one told them to wash. No one told them anything.
What made it worse was when during the following lesson the youngest, who was 13, called me “Pai.” Meaning “Dad” in Portuguese. It broke my heart. I asked, “Why is life so unfair?” “That I go home to clean sheets and a wonderful shower, but they, young and innocent, go to a filthy stack of bricks.”
The University students running the training with me, Ali, Mommad and Ceclia, were the real heroes. I would be there to set things up, arrange things start the training and do some of the reading, but then would leave to carry on with my work.
By day 4 we had talks with each of the boys, asking, “Do you have family? Where? Why aren’t you with them? Some did have family, but had no way of contacting them.”
By this point, I was a couple days away from leaving the country, so we devised a strategy to get the boys back with their families. We would arrange transport and go with each boy, sometimes far out of the city to their relatives, to discuss with them about their return. It was heart-breaking.
One couldn’t stay with relatives because the man of the house didn’t want him around. One of the youngest’s Mom flatout said she didn’t want him. The bright one, Dino managed to get reunited with his Mom who lived in a nearby city, Matola.
The team went above and beyond: This kid was smart and we wanted him in school. The academic year had already begun and registrations were closed but they pushed and finally secured a place for him in the local public school, entering 3 grades below his age, but still wonderful.
They bought him a uniform, a school bag, notebooks and a lunchbag. What a miracle. A boy begging on the street and getting into all sorts of problems, with a deep, deep sadness in his eyes, was now with his Mom and attending school. Nothing can compare to that. Nothing.
The others, I didn’t hear much concrete. It didn’t seem like they able to move back to their relatives, but covid hit, everything changed and I never heard anything else.
Now, 16 months later, I’m visiting Mozambique again. Walking out of the well-known “Mundos” restaurant, a strangely familiar young man says hi to me and calls me “Jonathan.” I barely recognise him, but it’s Josias, the oldest of the group that received coding lessons.
He’s so happy to see me and proudly tells me that he now has a job. He says he still has the “Learn to read” books I gave him and that he reads well now. Awwww. That’s just the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.
Because that kid. He was already 17 almost 18. With a mouth full of completely rotten teeth, and I was like, “What can we do with Josias?” “He’s too old to go back to school.” It looked pretty hopeless.
I guess, with everything above, I just want to say this: “Don’t give up on people.”
Don’t think: “I can’t see a viable way to help these people.”
Do exactly whatever you can, even if it seems crazy. It’s going to have an impact. It will change the way that they think of themselves.
More than anything I told them they were valuable, that they were worth my/our time. That they had a future and that I wanted to see them grow. We prayed together every day. We committed our vision and our lives to God and asked for His blessing.
Kids (and adults) will grow into what you tell them you think they will become. Keep believing in them. Keep telling them how wonderful they are. Because they are wonderful. Oh so wonderful.
I love you. Have an amazing week or weekend.
Final note: The guys running the training with me were the real heroes. I would be there to set things up, arrange things start the training and do some of the reading, but then would leave to coordinate and get lunch for everyone. When I left, they were the ones who keep searching for, interviewing and visiting possible relatives. Many thanks Ali and Cecilia. You guys are amazing.
I run an educational nonprofit in South Africa called “Code for Change,” though this project was in my personal capacity. We’re now building a collaborative coding platform for teens in Africa to learn how to code. Check it out at: www.CodeJIKA.com
If you have idea of how we can work together or a new project, reach out to me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonathannovotny/