Death of a Digital Ghost: The best of Africa’s unheralded brains

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Africa focusWhen Guido Sohne died inexplicably in May in Nairobi, Kenya, card-carrying techies in Africa and around the world mourned.

They’re still mourning. Just 34 years old, Sohne, a Ghanaian, arguably was the most brilliant of Africa’s software programmers. He was found dead in his living room after he failed to turn up for work at Microsoft Corp.’s Nairobi office, where he was helping the company develop a special platform that would make Microsoft programs free or very affordable in 52 countries in Africa.

“Sohne is another of those people that I think of as living in ‘the Africa nobody knows,’ people who should not exist if you never read past the screaming headlines about disaster, disease and mayhem in Africa,” wrote G. Pascal Zachary, a Stanford University journalism professor and former Wall Street Journal reporter, in a post to the Tech Talk blog of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.’s magazine, Spectrum.

The institute is the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology. “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 Africa’s routine troublemakers,” Zachary wrote of the man he called his “oldest friend in Africa.”

Zachary’s post, headlined “The Agonies of an African Programmer,” was written just three months before Sohne died. “[Sohne reminds] the world’s software community that some of Africa’s best brains remain at home, animated by visions of future triumphs,” Zachary wrote.

Indeed, Sohne was a passionate advocate for African-made computer code using open-source (free) software. Open-source software, or OSS, makes its underlying code available to users so that they can change, improve and redistribute the software for local needs.

Its development and usage is growing in Africa as institutions seek applications with greater versatility and alternatives to costly proprietary software.

A Princeton University dropout who coded in more than 20 computer languages, Sohne was a founding member of the Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa; was responsible for the first open source project in West Africa; and won awards for creating two of Africa’s top 50 Web sites. He also made minor contributions to such OSS projects as the Linux Cross Reference tool, Red Hat’s Interchange e-commerce system, Ruby’s Rannotate and JavaScript and Ruby implementations of a 2D bar-code system, DataMatrix, aka Semacode.

Although he described working as a software developer in Africa as “a trying experience,” Sohne saw the continent as a future technology contender. “It’s not easy being a Web African,” he wrote about five years ago on his Web site, sohne.net. “Don’t give up. The future of the Web African software industry lies in enabling the scattered bunches of individual hobbyist programmers. Those people who would be coding even if it didn’t pay because that is what they like doing.”

Microsoft’s decision to locate an office in Nairobi and to hire Sohne, once an ardent critic of the company’s earlier anti-OSS stance, was nothing short of strategic. International software developers are taking a keen interest in East Africa, particularly Kenya, the hub of East African business and home to a vibrant community of young (mostly under 25) IT gurus, telecom enthusiasts, software programmers and engineering students.

Google, for example, inaugurated an East Africa Gadget Competition this year, in which undergraduate and graduate students were tasked with creating functioning applications of their own designs. The goal is to encourage the students to “envision, design, and develop gadgets that can impact consumers globally,” Google says.

And Facebook, in collaboration with the University of Nairobi and Silicon Valley’s Samasource, inaugurated the Nairobi Facebook Developer Garage challenge this year. It was won by Wilfred Mutua Mworia, a 22-year-old software developer/designer/engineer attending Strathmore University in Nairobi part time. Mworia developed a “MarketPlaceOnMaps” application based on Google maps, which allows users to search and view the location of the property advertised on Facebook’s Marketplace.

Sohne’s sister, Sandra, says foul play is not suspected in her brother’s death. In uncannily prescient language, Zachary wrote in his Spectrum post: “Because he lacks a public body of work — and has never been appointed by an African government to any prestigious “placeholder” position — Sohne seems like a digital ghost…

Around the world, across the reality of cyberspace, he cast a long shadow, one of a handful of African technologists who roams across the full spectrum of IT issues.