by: Hruy Tsegaye
From where shall I begin? My six hour jail time in Juja Police station, my dramatic door to door salesman experience with Kenyan Universities, or how the Ethiopian Government officially advises its travelling citizens to buy dollar from the black market instead of providing it through its commercial banks? Though it’s customary to follow the chronological order, I think I will start from the middle.
Nairobi, adorned with the dying sun’s reddish light, looked a little less scary this time. On my first visit in 2016, I was so startled at the site of the city’s monstrous traffic jam; the entire freeway from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the city centre, with hundreds of cars stuffed, looked like a graveyard built for cars in the middle of a swamp.
However, on July 17, 2017, I was lucky and it only took me 25 minutes to reach to the city centre; the air was breathy and comfortingly warm. This was my second visit on behalf of iCog Makers Initiative. For the past 2 years, iCog has been collaborating with 23 Ethiopian and 1 Nigerian Public university for a project called iCog Makers.
iCog Makers is all about investing on Africa’s youth so the continent can embrace the looming future of the hi-tech era with ease. The initiative has successfully recruited 374 students and 43 instructors so far while executing 21 two-day AI and Robotics seminars in 18 public universities.
In addition to the in-person training, the initiative offers a free online training. It also aims to launch an annual global, or at least continental, summit on the opportunities and as well, the daunting omens of emerging technology in general and their specific impact in the continent.
The glue holding all these is the annual iCog Makers challenge; a tournament between partner universities focusing on the challenges of humanoid robots, self-driving cars, industrial software, autonomous systems, and pro-poor applications. Yes, we are building a tech savvy community in Africa for the coming singularity.
Back in Nairobi, I was dog-tired by the time I hit the bed in my tiny hotel room hoping that the next day I would have the time and the energy to address at least 4 public Universities. Before I slept, I texted Martin Kamala— a brilliant tech guru in the Technical University of Kenya— for a meeting arrangement.
I knew Martin from my first visit which was an X-Prize summit focusing on a teaching tablet challenge. He is an honest and very open man for collaborations and it was through him that I established the preliminary communication with two Kenyan Universities.
Tuesday morning was sunny; I had erroneously assumed that Nairobi would be rainy like Addis in this season. At 9:30 in the morning, I was cleared by the security guard so I could talk to the Dean of the Engineering Faculty at one of Kenya’s oldest University— University of Nairobi. The tower in the middle of the University stands tall. Gazing at its top now and then, I made my way to the ICT centre. I passed a group of mature women who were making disturbingly loud noise tooting a vuvuzela. I thought it was strange given their proximity to the library and the main administration office.
To my bitter disappointment, the doors to the centre were closed and a grave silence reigned in entirety. Mumbling and cursing all the way, I strode back to the information desk. The woman, contently smiling, said, “It’s a strike”! While she was explaining how I could reach some relevant people inside the administration building, the loud tooting of the vuvuzela penetrated my eardrums. Over my shoulder, I saw a good-looking woman passing by accompanied by few more protesting individuals and she blew the devilish plastic horn from South Africa one more time. I run to the shelter of the main building hoping the menacing concrete can block the shrill sound.
After knocking a couple of doors, an elderly administrator told me that I had to go to the Chiromo campus. I was not happy because it was not at a walking distance; 4.5 kilometres is far for a walk even by the East African standard. On my way out, he added, “don’t go today, they won’t be working”.
The one thing I cannot do in Kenya is remember the street names and the turns hence, after a failed attempt to walk back to the city centre, I hired a Boda Boda rider. In Nairobi, motor bicycles are the fastest transportation and no other vehicle can take you to your desired destination in a shorter time through the maze of the incessant traffic jam.
By the time I reached Kenyatta University (its City Campus), it was already 11:30AM and when the guard stopped me with an intimidating whistl-ish sound, I was praying the strike is just in one university. The security at the city campus was irritatingly detailed and the guards, all three of them, were super hostile. A blood trusty pack of wolves would have a much less effect compared to those guards— could they have been the manifestation of the three-headed Cerberus? It took me more than ten minutes to convince them that I was a legit businessman who was trying to contact the appropriate official either for a brief moment or to get a proper appointment.
Here also, there was a strike but not as vibrant as its comrade in the University of Nairobi. I was told that I should go to the main campus, which is 28 kilometres far from my present location. Because I couldn’t afford Uber and because I needed time to figure out which Matatu goes to that direction, I decided to visit Kenyatta University the next day. The Boda Bodas are out of question; they will not go such a far distance because it’s time consuming and if they do then it will be easier to open a bank than pay their charge.
After lunch, I received my first good news; Martin had nailed my appointment with the school dean for Wednesday. I spent the afternoon here and there. Nairobi had become an expensive city in 17 months because in my last visit, I was able to afford many of the city’s attraction for a less painful price.
I started the next day quite early and headed to Chiromo campus at 8:30AM.
The campus is located inside the city perimeters so it only took me 4 minutes from my hotel and of course it can only be done with the great Boda Bodas. My early arrival was to no avail; I was instructed to come after three hours. The reason was offered in a short sentence “They are in a meeting addressing the strike”.
I waited in a nearby kiosk. There is nothing to tell about the place because it was a lonely shelter by the side of a relatively quiet street. One would wonder about Relativity Theory when one is in absolute boredom and ironically, before I reached to a conclusion about that theory, my alarm rang and I run back to the campus.
Despite my high hopes, there was no official to talk with me and all I got for my effort was a solid promise that they will be in their respective offices on Thursday morning or afternoon. I begged for their phone number but it was like banging one’s head on a stone; I got hurt!
I left a short letter with the secretary of the dean of Computing and Informatics School while the secretary of the ICT director told me that the director had just returned from a journey and the probability of him coming to the office the next day was an odd no one would bate on.
Lunch was upon me. I had decided to visit an Ethiopian restaurant just for curiosity. It was upon me because I knew that the charge would be extremely expensive. Isn’t it a wonder how a restaurant selling the same national food charges extremely expensive bills just because it is in the wrong country? Kenya has a lesser tax rate for business people compared with Ethiopia and Nairobi is a cheaper city compared to Addis Ababa, but I am willing to bate on my head that the price will be higher compared to the very same restaurant with the very same service and quality but with the unfortunate fate of being in the right country. I googled the nearest of them and the result displayed Abyssinia Restaurant.
Lunch was good; it was really good! The cuisine was perfectly Ethiopian. Indeed the price was sky-high!
I started negotiating with the Boda Boda drivers in front of Medanialem Ethiopian Orthodox Church (the Saviour’s church). My next visit was to the Multimedia University of Kenya, which is one of the best, if not the best, university in Kenya specializing in ICT and Computer Science. It is located 21 kilometres away from the city centre.
The Boda bodas were merciless and they demanded 1,500 Kenyan shillings, an equivalent of 15 dollars. After the third driver, I looked towards the saviour church for some divine help. I took a dozen of long strides and passed by one or two blocks just to stumble on an idle Boda Boda driver. After a couple of friendly talks and one big fat lie, I told him that I was a poor foreign student whose pocket money had become Noah’s crow. I could not believe my luck because the price he settled for was only 550 shillings. Thank you Saviour!
After a 30 minutes ride, I was at the gate of Multimedia University. As I made my way to the technology faculty dean’s office, I saw a wild warthog roaming in the campus. Before it disappeared from site, I took some pictures. It was big and brown, and, to my surprise, clean.
The Chairman of the Computer Department received me warmly. He was also the acting faculty dean (of technology) and he didn’t make me repeat what I was there to propose. He said, “Mr Ruy, Don’t waste your words on how good the project is. Forget the educational impact on the students and instructors, just the idea of linking African Universities and their students in an interactive project is good enough” and smiled at me and concluded, “ You have sold me at linking”.
I was happy to find an open-minded man in an African University! By now, I have visited more than 30 African universities and only a handful of the officials have the courtesy to climb down from their ivory tower and listen to outsiders. Ivory in Africa is abundant and for most of the African officials, the tower could be literary ivory though most of them lack the technical or even the theoretical knowledge for the metaphorical tower.
Mr Peter Muturi was one of the exceptions and we began to discuss about the implementation strategies. He was keen on the details. At the end of our discussion, he insisted on having the original hardcopy letter for collaboration and the agreement document. I know the rationale behind his advice. It is always the best approach in Africa; come with an original hard copy document and then send the scanned version in a soft copy.
My meeting at the Technical University of Kenyatta was scheduled for 4:00PM and a quick glance at my watch terrified me; it was already 3:30 and I was still 21 kilometres away. We agreed to meet on Friday afternoon for further discussion while Mr Muturi promised to pass the proposal to the higher officials and as well to the other departments namely Electrical and Electronics.
I run to the main street. I knew the Matatus were no good; they could not make the journey in the remaining 25 minutes. After I wasted three precious minutes, I randomly stopped a Boda Boda driver. At times, luck is a strange thing! He just asked only 600 shillings for the ride. Even the fee for Uber would have been something between 1200-1600 shillings.
I told him I had to be inside the campus of Technical University of Kenya before 4PM and to this day I regret saying that. The following ten minutes were the scariest moment in my whole life; he drove like Trinity from The Matrix.
After ten minutes of nightmarish ride, I found myself— in one piece— at the gates of the university. I know no one will accept my proposal but I will say it regardless; my safe arrival has to be accepted as a universal miracle and every religion should celebrate it once a year.
Once I passed the security check, I called Martin and he told me he couldn’t make it before 4:20PM, at least. Nairobi’s merciless traffic jam had swallowed his car. Instead of wasting the 20 minutes, he insisted on starting the meeting without him.
I was no stranger to Professor Odech Pido; the dean of Creative Design and Arts School and another exception among African professors in universities. Long before iCog Makers Initiative became a sure thing with multiple partners, we had discussed about the iCog Makers Project and our idea to link African universities through it. Even back then, he was as open and as candid as he was well informed.
After a productive discussion, I pushed the matter of urgency and inquired to finalize the agreement within the week. Professor Pido was willing to finalize it but the Kenyan way wasn’t. Against all odds, the professor decided to hold a brief meeting with the Deputy Vice Chancellor and told me to wait for him for ten minutes.
I was happy to see such dedication and while I was proposing to include faculty deans from the remaining schools, his wife and colleague Dr. Dona Pido joined the meeting. She is one of the very few foreigner lectures in the university.
She has this grace or appeal that one is forced to acknowledge her presence and even when she is not speaking, you will feel that she is saying something and you have to listen carefully. Even though she had a black and white image of the Initiative— probably she heard it via mere hearsay from Martin or Professor Pido— her questions were deep and somehow technical.
I tried to elaborate it in a few sentences and she simply passed to the next question; a very unexpected inquiry!
“Why are all the competitions and challenges male”?
Pardon me please? I have heard her clearly but…
“Self-driving car, Soccer playing robots, Drones, all these are archetypal male by association. What about cooking robots, laundry drones, or cleaning cars”?
Emm the reason why we chose this is because it’s a one package deal. You see, when you enable your robot to play soccer, you will learn a wide scope of skills in image processing, localization, autonomous system programing, wireless communication, algorithm, interfacing, designing, hardware integrating…
She interrupted me with a smile and said, “I feel you Mr. Sigaye, I am not questioning the educational aspect. Forget it, I was just being curious. Well you know these things are mostly for boys and your initiative would benefit by offering something for girls. Don’t take it seriously but I am just giving you an insight about gender roles and associations even in the robotics world”.
Professor Pido, with a fat smile that can pass as a skinny laughter, interrupted us. “Maybe you too should continue your discussion while I discuss with the DVC” saying this he left the office.
Before I knew it, I was engaged in a lively chat with Dr Donna Pido. We had covered ranges of topics floating on ideas that stretched from super technical concepts on pro-poor technology to the far shores of philosophical and anthropological notions like the African value system and the future of strong AI.
Martin, breathing heavily, knocked the office door and barged in like a furious Maasai warrior in a hurry to save his village. “Is the meeting over”?
We told him everything. He left the office with a greater speed that belittled his entrance; he was going to attend another meeting.
Doctor Pido and I went to the lounge and continued our tête-à-tête over Kenyan tea; this time we were sharing some of the inadequacies in the Kenyan’s business culture. The tea was good; it is tea served with milk and we don’t have it in Ethiopia. Oh I remember, I think we have it in the eastern part of the country and I have drunk tea in such manner in a city called Jigjiga.
When Martin, David Ochieng (another acquaintance from my previous visit to Kenya) and a lady whose name I have forgotten joined our table, Dr. Pido and I were having a lively conversation on the African Epistemology and how to save it from the curse of Eurocentric bias.
The lady who joined our table was a well experienced instructor of sign language; she teaches teachers, company staffs, and other international and local NGO employees the American, Kenyan and other sign languages. She also teaches children.
She was there to discuss with Martin about the possibility of animated avatar that can teach children with hearing disability how to read English. We had a lengthy conversation about the possibilities and challenges of such a system.
After two hours, Professor Pido joined our table with the good news that the faculties have accepted the proposal and they have passed it to the legal office. When I strongly insisted on a definitive day for the signing, everyone on the table scolded me in a friendly way that there is no such thing as definitive day in Kenya and things might take time even after they have passed the acceptance stage.
How do you say “I am hungry” and then “I am hungry for love” in a sign language?
On my way to my hotel, I was thinking about the other topics too; Doctor Pido shared an anecdote with me and it was a funny story. She can tell it in a funnier way but I will try to tell you in its shorter version. It was about two students who engaged in a bloody fight because one accused the other of witchcraft and stealing his grade. The accused had “A” while the accuser had “B” and according to the accuser the other student’s true grade was “B” but via the power of witchcraft he had stolen some grades from him and had demoted his grade from “A” to “B” while cashing the dividend to his own benefit elevating his final grade to “A”.
The next day, in simple words, was good. In the morning I got the chance to discuss about the proposal with the University of Nairobi’s School of Technology dean although I was unnecessarily directed to the main campus before I do so and I wasted good shillings and fat time on the back and forth journey to Chiromo. Dr Angus was a stern woman, this could be because I was a foreigner or it could be because I represented a private company. She could not accept the fact that a private company, without setting a hidden trap to charge direct fee once the agreement phase is finalized, would be interested to work with public universities in a win-win scenario.
I explained most of the details, even our company’s business angle. It was only when she heard about our business angle that she started to loosen and finally accepted to see the proposal and the agreement document.
She promised to keep the communication via email and Skype and she instructed me to send the official documents to a certain email address where all the department heads have access to download and only then will she propose the idea to the faculty.
It was a fine deal for me since our project is a multidisciplinary project. In fact, the more the merrier!
In the afternoon, I met Francis. He is my old acquaintance in Nairobi as well iCog Makers Representative in Kenya. He is a Mechatronics undergraduate and despite his excellent knowledge of the subject; he never got the chance to work in the field. He told me two reasons; Kenya’s economy is not ready for Mechatronics and he doesn’t want to be a lecturer.
We decide to go to Kenyatta University in the afternoon. I was right and the journey was long. It was not because 28 kilometres is too far but it was because 28 kilometres through Nairobi’s traffic jam is the equivalent of Admiral Byrd’s long journey to the arctic.
We were welcomed by a very cooperative security head at the main gate and after I completed the process, we were directed to the Corporates Office. Well the reason was unexpected. “Francis, you know you will not make it to the technology dean’s office before 5:30, so it is better to talk to the Corporate Office head, who is nearby, then come tomorrow for further discussion with the dean”, said the smiling lady.
Even though she was talking to Francis, she used English so I could hear them too. It was obvious that the campus is very big and one needs, with wide strides, at least, 12 minutes to walk from the main gate to the Technology Schools. Mind that both, Francis and I, are from East Africa and our countries are the top two nations in the world when it comes to winning the Gold medals in long distance running, yet we both swallowed our defeat and admitted it was too far for us and we won’t make it before the given time. In short, Kenyatta University is wide!
Our discussion with the head of Corporates was great. The official in charge of Corporate Affairs is called Professor Grace Bunyi and she was a friendly lady. To my surprise, more than two of the officials I talked with were women, ehm go Kenya! It didn’t took her tiresome repetitions to understand the value of the initiative and the opportunity it presents when it comes to linking universities and even industries across Africa. She said, it was customary for the schools to come up with the projects and unless they agreed to participate she could not pass it to the chancellor.
“You guys are one step ahead, you need to climb down one or two steps and begin with the schools. If they accept it, it will come to me through legal and I will pass it to the chancellor, so boys begin from the beginning” she said it in friendly tone and that was the end of day three in my door-to-door salesman saga in Nairobi.
When I started Friday Morning with a cold shower— by choice not by lack of hot water— I was in a high spirit. I left my hotel before 9AM and headed to Fig Tree Market to print 60 pages of documents (colour printed and expensive) which I had planned to deliver to three universities.
Thanks to Francis, now I know from where to get the Matatus which are headed to Kenyatta and Juja. One of the universities in my list that day was Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. This one was the furthest from all the public universities nearby Nairobi. It was located 45 kilometres away and if I am not mistaken, the county was different from Nairobi’s administration.
In Kenyatta University, the dean of the technology faculty and the chairman of the electrical department were not available so, I headed to the office of the computer department chair. Harrison Njoroge, a man with a firm handshake, accepted me to his office. When I told him that I was from Ethiopia representing a private company and I was there to propose a project idea, his face turned from stern to super stern; as stern as the face of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager while announcing their epic failure.
After five minutes, we became good friends! He ascertained that the educational feature of the project is clear and his opinion about students engaged in extracurricular activities is positive. Yet, he told me that some officials in the university might not accept this easily and it will take time to discuss about the pros and cons of the project.
He promised me that he would deliver the documents and the collaboration letter and further discuss with the other departments on their weekly meeting on Tuesdays.
I continued my journey to North passing two small towns called Thika and Ruiru. By the time I reached Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology it was midday. There is, roughly, a hundred meter distance from the main express road and the campus gate and as I made my way these last steps, I bought groundnuts from an elderly man at the beginning of the extension road to the university. The nuts are slightly salty compared to the ones we have in Ethiopia.
When I reached the gates I began to take pictures. I was taking the pictures in front of the gates and I was not hiding or anything. A car came out from the campus and stopped next to me. An arrogant man began shouting at me. “Why are you taking pictures of my university?” he said it in such a snobbish tone that I smiled broadly and replied that I didn’t know it was forbidden to take a picture of public universities.
“You didn’t know”?
“Yes I didn’t know and there is no sign saying so!”
“Oh really, I will show you who I am then! Do you know who I am? Who gave you the permission to take pictures of my university”?
I thought he was saying what he was saying because of the mishmash in his English. So I repeated what I said with the emphasis on the ‘public’ and said, excuse me Mr, I didn’t know it is forbidden to take pictures of a Public University and if it is not allowed then I will not take any more pictures.
He said something in Swahili and I said, I don’t speak Swahili so speak in English and I thought it was a public university and if I am not mistaken it is indeed and since there is no sign that forbids pictures, I assumed it was okay to take one.
His face became red, red like the red wine from the Andalusia meadows. He turned off the car’s motor and asked to see my student ID. I told him I didn’t have a student ID because I was not a student and I was there for an official business. He snatched my passport and after a brief glance, he said “so you are a foreigner”!
At first, I didn’t notice the tone he used when he said ‘a foreigner’. He then began to rant something about how a serious offence it is to take pictures of his university. I think he have said something about being the head of security guards or ‘owning the university security’.
It is a simple misunderstanding. Since there is no sign forbidding it, any tourist with a camera will take pictures specially, the places he is sure to visit and in this case I was about to have a meeting with the dean.
I replied politely, “Yes, I am an Ethiopian and if I have offended you in any way, am sorry but I appreciate what you have done by avoiding the police to this silly matter”.
He was a typical case of people suffering inferiority complex; you remember those security guards or secretaries who want to show their power just because they think that visitors don’t respect them? I meet crazies like him on a daily base here in Ethiopia.
He called the guard by the gate and said “he is going to see the faculty dean, register his info and let him in”. He returned my passport and while he was getting in the car he said something in Swahili to the guard.
I won’t make my ordeal that followed this incident a big deal but I ended up in jail.
The second security guard, smiling like a kitten, accompanied me as I made my way to the university and collected my company ID and passport saying that he was registering me as a guest. After that he said since I have displayed an improper behaviour which was suspicious, he was ordered to escort me to the dean’s office insuring that I would not make any further trouble.
I knew he was lying because of his silly smile. And as if I was a fool he led me to their security office where they detained and interrogated me. They started accusing me, and before I knew it, I was a terrorist. In 15 minutes I had explained everything and the security head said, “Okay, the guard will delete the pictures from your phone and don’t do this again. You are forgiven for now so you are free to go”.
Then again on my way out he said something in Swahili to the first guard and another man, a potbellied elderly man, who was called over the phone to ‘interrogate me’.
I was taken to the department of electrical engineering. Imagine how startled the chairman was when one foreigner accompanied by two security guards entered his office and instead of the foreigner explaining the project, he watched the guards explain it as the covert operation to infiltrate the university’s security.
Yeah he was so startled. He, like a frightened witch in front of the Pope, exclaimed “I have never met this man before and I have never heard of such project”. Reluctantly, he accepted the document I forwarded, opened it and said to the guards “This is addressed to the chancellor through me. I have nothing to do with this”.
I don’t even know why he has said that but that was the end of it.
I was pushed to another security office where I was lectured, by the two guards and a kiss ass clerk, about the art of letter writing. 30 Minutes later, I reached my boiling point. After the university guards had threatened to kill me (apparently they told me that if it was a Kenyan who was in this situation and if it was an Ethiopian Security guard; he would end up shot point blank), I firmly told them to stop their silly parade, after all I had an appointment with Peter Muturi.
I knew they were trying to get some money but after I had apologised sincerely and deleted the pictures, I lost my patience with their stupid and super irritating way of accusation. I could see the shift in their approach as they became very aggressive and abusive. After an hour of pointless argy-bargy in three different security offices, I demanded either to be released or to be taken to the proper authorities.
For the first time in my life, I was arrested. A police car came, thank God there was no siren, three detectives, all in civilian cloth, accompanied me in the back seat and I was taken to Juja Police station.
I have read and watched about preferential treatments towards Muslims. You know what Life is a good teacher! Before that day, I did not understand the depth of this cancerous attitude and how it was affecting Muslims.
The detectives began to ask me whether I was a Muslim. I said I wasn’t. Then one of them said, “How can you explain your Islam look with your wolverine like beard”?
Is this what the world has turned into now? Yeah I know there are very very bad, utterly stupid, and mostly Arab looking terrorists who claim that they are fighting for Islam while referring themselves as Muslims. But I had never imagined that people are now accused of terrorism because their face looks like Islam? Is it even a thing; Islam face? A man may look like an Arab, Chinese, European or a Smurf, but a man cannot look like Islam.
I was not dressed like a Muslim, I am a black man maybe light skinned, and my beard is not long, so you cannot mistake me for an Arab. How and why they said ‘Islam face’ is still a mystery to me. Okay I will admit that my hair style and beard looks a lot like Wolverine’s but since when did Wolverine become the model of a fundamental so called ‘Islamist terrorist’? It is [the wolverine look] a style resulted from poor attention to my haircut and beard.
For one hour, I was accused of being an agent of both Bokoharm [because they had seen a Nigerian visa on my passport] and Al-shebab and my company was labelled as a covert organization in East Africa for Islamist fundamentalists. But at least the police were professional and they didn’t abuse me or threaten to kill me.
They then allowed me to call my contact in Nairobi who can testify on my behalf, to make it short after a six hour arrest I was released. Sadly, no one has said sorry except my friends and the university professors.
When the sun died, Martine, Ochieng, and Charles, my rescuers, took me to Nairobi’s favourite steak house. I was empty but no more!
Saturday morning I called Peter and apologized sincerely for my absence. When he found out my reason, he laughed and said, “Welcome to Kenya”! We arranged an alternative and I met him at a wedding. The accidental symbolism was perfect! I handled a brief phone discussion with Professor Pido and he promised me that he would finalize the agreement before the end of next week.
As usual, my last night was lovely! Party till midnight, with Ugandan singers!
In the morning, on my way to the airport, I discovered a funny fact about my phone; it doesn’t delete pictures automatically instead it moves them to a folder called “deleted pictures” and waited for 30 days before actually deleting them. A true joker always smiles after the end!
I love Africa, well who doesn’t? But, I don’t like the way we, African’s, communicate. Many students in Kenya know the 50 something states in the US or a lot more Ethiopians can recall the states even with their capitals, sadly not a single university in these two nations communicate even just to say hi.
I know the public universities in Kenya will be closed for the election, and probably more than half of the officials I contacted will forget the Initiative, but I have hope that it won’t take them another election to master the art of communication.
A connected Africa, is the independent Africa!Social tagging: African Universities > Emerging Technology > iCog Labs > nairobi