Build Better Software By Going Farther Together

Originally published at Traackr Engineering.

TL;DR: Growing up in an immigrant community in the New York Metro area, you never think the unique, random, and crazy experiences you have in such a setting could have a direct impact on your career in tech, until it does. And I’ve learned many lessons, and here’s one of them. If you get out of your own way, you along with your team, will accomplish great things.

Growing up, my family was quite plugged into a faith community that comprised mostly of recent immigrants to the United States from Egypt. Most of the non-liturgical music generated by the community was geared towards the ears and culture of those who immigrated here. I was part of a different generation, born in the USA, but very much Egyptian. It was very difficult to relate to some of the art and music that had been imported and shared with us.

By the time I got to high school, I had different ambitions than my peers. While most kids were out there being kids, I had felt a deep responsibility to help create art that we could connect with. After a few attempts, my work was often dismissed as dissenting, and non-adherent to our traditions. I stayed persistent, despite doors (sometimes literally) being closed in our faces. Despite the initial rejection by community leaders, our work was getting recognition. The youth of the New York/New Jersey metro area started to know and enjoy our music.

Making A Record


In college I had a new vision: an album. My hope was that it would be an album that would embody the values and essence of our traditions, while connecting them with the creation of something original that our generation could resonate with. I wanted to send a message that even though a ton of art and music was handed to us, that we could be empowered to become creators of art and music, ourselves!

I found an excellent team of like-minded individuals. We sought funding, and eventually partnered with a local church who liked our idea. They offered to bankroll an album, in exchange for inventory. This did mean however, that I did not have complete creative control over the outcome. (dun.dun.dunnnnn!)


While most of our ideas were welcomed, quite a few were met with concern. I was often asked to hold back, edit, or even omit, for the sake of not rocking the boat too much. I had to make a choice, was I going to “compromise” on our vision, or was I going to trust this collaboration with an outside partner? This partner was older, a lot more experienced, and had a perspective that was a lot broader than my own. He knew intimately the ins-and-outs of our community, across multiple generations. He obviously believed in me enough to work with me, but seemed to restrict what we were trying to create for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time.

There were moments I really wanted to lead and just create, yet felt like I had to be a team player, and there were a lot of reluctant compromises.

Unexpected Outcomes


We powered through, and the record was produced. The end result surprised me, and was beyond what I could have imagined: two sold-out printings, and an east coast tour that lasted four years. In 2001, I even got a phone call from office of the Ambassador from Egypt to the United States. On behalf of His Excellency, the office invited us to perform at a gathering of dignitaries and officials from all over the world, at an event honoring the music of Egypt. It was pretty incredible and completely unexpected!


But aside from all this “big stuff” that I’m mentioning, it was the people-impact that mattered most to me. We met and received letters from youth all around the world, with stories about how our work had impacted them, or encouraged others to follow suit and create music of their own.

I am convinced that had it been all up to me, and my direction alone, we would not have had the impact we experienced. Another way to say this: if we did this alone, we would have had total creative freedom. But at the same time, we may have never had reached such broad audience. I was satisfied, although there was less “getting my way” and more “getting out of my own way”.

Ok, great. You may be reading this, and thinking “what on earth does this have to do with building software?” and my answer is: “Everything.”

“Don’t Throw The $necessary Out With The $unnecessary”


As a hot-headed 21 year old, although I was commitment to achieve something for my community, there was a blurred line between the overall desired outcome and the means to achieving that outcome. Art is highly personal. Making the art is as much of a goal as the outcome. If there was a particular song that was going to be cut from the record, or a direction that needed editing, I didn’t always handle it gracefully. I nearly quit the project until my mentor told me, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. I had no idea what he was talking about. Once it was explained to me, I thought that was the weirdest metaphor ever.

But if you replace baby and bathwater, with the necessary/unnecessary thing of your choosing, the lesson starts to take shape. I was given a choice, if I stayed in this partnership, would the vision still be achieved? As I looked around, and saw how much freedom we actually had, was I willing to throw the whole project out the window because of 1 or 2 cut songs? I eventually decided to trust, and to refocus my attention on the goal, and preserve the relationship through the details. Had I disengaged, or quit, I would have missed out on something huge. The proverbial baby would have been lost.

That piece of advice kept me in the game, but the actual lesson I needed to learn was one that has to do with the importance of “us” over “me”. It’s the fact that if I’m working on something with a group of people, it’s more important for us to be aligned than for each of us to do things their own way.

But, I’m an Artist and I Cannot Be Stifled!


They say that building software is an art. And there are a ton of similarities between those who make art, and those who write software. Unlike the building of a car or a house, where there are clear specifications for how each part comes together, building software retains the imprint of the developer. Even with strict team standards, the developer’s personal style finds its way into the code. By looking at a piece of code, I can usually tell who on my team wrote it. It’s why we say that we “write” software as opposed to “assemble” or “manufacture” it.

When Being Skilled Isn’t Enough


Unless you’re one of the unicorns of 1-2 person teams, who get acquired by multi-billion dollar corporations, it usually requires more than 1 or 2 engineers to create something that can see the light of day. Our VP of Engineering has a saying, “Software is a people endeavor”. We build software together. “Together” would mean, a group of people who have spent various durations of time (from months to decades) perfecting their craft, each with their own sense of “the right way” to do something.

Looking back at the production of that record, yes I had the skills and the expertise, but our partner had a much deeper understanding of our community I was serving. His perspective helped pave a way for this new thing to take root and land on listening ears. Together, we were able to create something that was familiar enough to be mostly* accepted, however different enough to challenge, inspire, and spark conversations among communities in our diaspora. Smart and talented people can accomplish some amazing things, but only if they’re aligned. Make no mistake, getting alignment is challenging.

* Actually, we got banned in one of the dioceses. I received a letter from a well-respected Bishop, telling me that our music was not allowed in any of the churches in his geography. While that may seem like a setback, at the time it reminded me that we didn’t keep it too safe. 

Letting Go: Side-Effects May Include…


Getting on the same page as a group, requires individuals to give up a degree of control. This is required when building software as a team. Usually, letting-go is usually met with the acceptance that comes with being a professional. But software engineering often attracts people who put so much of themselves into their work. Because of this, letting-go can be met in with the following emotional responses:

  • Frustration: Often times, including myself, I’ve witnessed engineers be frustrated when a particular course of action, or even a pull request, is not approved, or requires changes that would move the outcome in a completely different direction. You think to yourself, ”would the Sistine Chapel been what it was today had Michaelangelo been ruled by a committee?” Righteous indignation takes over, or maybe it’s the blow against one’s ego that can happen when work is challenged in its current state. Been there? I know I have.
  • Apathy: Tables aren’t flipped, but hands are up in the air. (And I don’t mean this celebratory emoji 🙌.) Apathy leads to detaching from both the work and the goal. While the impact of this is not immediate as the previous item, it does make teams vulnerable to morale being slowly chipped away. This will have long-term and debilitating effects.
  • Acceptance: There are others, however, who can remain detached enough from their work, but see it as part of a collective, and will welcome changes and advice, because ultimately, there’s a shared trust in the team, and a strong commitment to what the team is trying to achieve.

But Don’t Follow Blindly


We have to be aligned to make great things happen. And alignment means letting go. That’s not to say that blood doesn’t get spilled, or tears won’t flow. That should happen with a team of experienced individuals, however, there’s a mutual respect and striving for what’s best, collectively. And this sort of refinement by an engineer and their peers, can lead to some great outcomes. (I’m not advocating for decisions by consensus, but that’s another blog entry.)

As engineers who work on teams, we have to constantly manage an important balance. It’s one between what each of us brings based on our individual experiences, convictions, and baggage, with the roles we’re assigned, with the goals of the organizations we work for. Now there’s absolutely a place to draw some hard lines, and offer non-negotiables, when you see a particular course of action is going to put the big goal at risk. Those should be rare occurrences. Be sure you understand the difference between risks to the goal, vs. risks to the way you want to do things.

But There Is Hope: Some Helpful Tips


Having trouble letting-go? Like my experience with making music, and my experiences in the present: here are some strategies that help me do just that:

  • Focus on the goal: The shared goal you and your team have, should be one that you really believe in. If you’re not on board with the goal, you may want to reconsider your employment situation. But let’s assume you’re still on board with what your team is trying to achieve. Having a larger goal that drives you is extremely important for satisfaction in one’s career. That goal has to sit a step beyond how you write code. Commit to a goal and it will  help you entertain other possibilities of achieving it. This will make it possible to let go and try things a different way.
  • Make it about the work: Don’t take things personally! It’s not about you, and most of the time, your team isn’t focused on you, it’s about the work. By having the discipline to not take things personally, you allow your team to challenge you, and then it builds trust that allows you to challenge your team. Because collectively you care about the same thing, the work.
  • Get a hobby: Ok, so your team has a norm of doing very strict test-driven development. (I’ve been on such a team, before.) The engineering lead wants to see the tests written out before a single line of code is written. What a drag, right? You love building software by running and gunning it. So do that! Just don’t do it at work. By having interests and outlets outside of what you’re doing at work, allows you to get go of things that may be very personal to how you work, because you have other areas in life where you get to do these things. You can let go of the small stuff, so you and your team can work better together to achieve the big stuff!

Parting Words


Decades later, I barely remember the things I argued about while making that album. I value the music we made and the things we achieved so much more than what we had to lose. I tell this to all my fellow engineers out there who find themselves sometimes frustrated.  In the constant negotiation and struggle, we hope to make each other become better engineers and help refine our individual an collective crafts. By staying committed to a bigger picture, we give ourselves a better chance to achieving the things we want to. And it goes back to an old proverb that has come across my path time and time again: alone, we can move quickly, but together, we can go far.

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MIDI, Time-Travel, and the Simpsons

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I just had an esoteric experience.

Let’s rewind to 1994.  It was a cool autumn night, or maybe it was summer, who really knows?   As a 16 year old, I was obsessed with orchestration, arrangements, and composition…  you know…  like most other 16 year olds.    I would often sit with a piece of music, and try to hear each instrument and learn each part.  Sure, I could have just gotten the sheet music, but this was more fun. It was a way to train my ear, and see how close I can get to the composer’s original vision.  It taught me a lot about composing, orchestration, as well as song-writing.

Obsessed with The Simpsons, it was only a matter of time, I did the same thing with the hit TV-show’s infectious theme music by Danny Elfman.

Well, mission accomplished!  I listened to that song till my ears bled, and figured out as many of those whole-step runs as I possibly could, and saved the results to a MIDI file, to be played with pride on my then brand new Korg X3, which had decent enough orchestra sounds, for 1994.  And MIDI being the resilient format that it is, is still very much relevant 20 years later in 2014, when I found this file and decided to give it some new life.

It was like entering a collaboration with my 16 year old self, negotiating, learning from, and adding to.  And the result is what we have here, same MIDI file, a couple of additions, piped through MachFive+VSL to give it some new life, uploaded to SoundCloud ever immortalized by the inter-webs.

Special thanks to my good buddy Peter Mansour, for taking time this Saturday and laying down Lisa’s breaking-out-of-the-school-walls with her heart wrenching solos, (but this time on the alto sax)

This goes out to all the Simpsons fans, musicians, and time travelers.

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There and back again…

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Looking out the window of this vehicle I see the plains of southern Kenya, mountains, acacia trees, and Masaai herders with their livestock. A week ago I was surrounded by something very different. 

A number of years ago, a woman began taking in children that were left on her doorstep. As the years went by, the number went from 2 to around 60. This woman was not a wealthy heiress, or a philanthropist who was giving back because she was given so much. No, she was just a woman who lives in the slums of Nairobi. She was a tough lady with years on her face, with a presence that is somewhat intimidating, and in her care were children from the age of 2 to 17. Through the kindness of the neighborhood, and other charities, she is able to put her kids through school. She calls them future doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, musicians, and she’s not joking around. And I was there.

We hung out with these kids for about 5 hours, just hangin out, playing games, being silly, and then some honest conversation with the older ones. In a dog-eat-dog neighborhood, where the task of feeding ones self is a challenge, let alone one’s own family, and confidently this woman seeks to feed 60 children and youth, daily, and for as long as her days will allow her.

Kibera Girls Write Love Songs

After 4 days hanging out in Kibera with my old friends at the Kibera girls soccer academy, I felt somewhat rejuvenated again. I learned some tactics at the orphanage which taught me how to diss someone 5 different ways in Swahili, which was a huge hit at the Academy. Someone would give me a pound (you know, bumping your fists together), and at the last second, retreat my hand, extending my finger and wagging it saying “masaa badu” basically saying “come back later”, would result in screams, giggles, and the occasional threat for retribution.

Seeing Pete walk through Kibera for the first time, reminded me of my first time going through there, and how I was without words because it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. As I walk through the streets which once burned two years ago at the hands of thugs, and violent men and women who were paid by their elected leaders to indulge in ethnic violence and the murdering and displacing of innocent people, and also knowing that as I write this, an arms race is underway to prepare for the 2012 elections, with access to Somalia’s surplus of automatic weapons, I wonder if we can’t learn from very (very) recent history. Kenyans are peaceful, but like most places that struggle in the developing world, many can be easily bought by the wealthy to commit atrocities so that the ruling elite can stay in power. But for now, Kibera is back to normal. It is a place I love. You can’t just see a photo of Kibera and know what is happening there. You have to walk on the streets, and talk to the people, and even then you really don’t know what is happening in this place. Fried fish, grilled corn on the cob, vendors of fruits and vegetables, and the smells of the open market are mixed with the burning garbage and open sewage. There are both smiles, greetings, and suspicious looks on every corner, But through the maze, behind the mosque, and next to the beauty parlor is a haven for education, personal development and equality. And here, the girls of the KGSA are working with my good friend Peter, who is teaching them about singing, and the art of songwriting and it was on Thursday that they wrote their first love song.

During one of the lessons, the news came..

“Paul, did you hear, Mercy died.”

I felt the loss of both meanings of the word. Apparently, she was poisoned, but most people believe it was a suicide. Mercy in 2007 was a girl who worried me, I met her, she was pregnant, and was attending the KGSA with plans to drop out. She was depressed, reserved, and couldn’t look me in the eye. In 2008, I was surprised to have seen her so happy. The baby was delivered, and yet, she was still in school! Getting help from relatives, Mercy was confident, happy, and doing great in classes, I told her I was looking forward to congratulate her the following year as a high school graduate.

The news of her death really broke my heart, as she was so close to making it.

There is no time to waste, we have to act while we have the time.

The weekend brought me to the wild, where I spent a few days with Peter, photographing animals as we drove through their natural habitat. It felt great to be there with the “good camera”. The clear night inspired me to ask a hotel manager if there were any darker spots around the hotel where I could take some star photos without the risk of light pollution.  The manager suggested that he could shut off the lights of one area of the hotel, so I could take a few star photographs. I thought that was a bit of an extreme offer and at first he made it seem like no big deal, and said he would see me the following night at 11pm to make arrangements.

At around 10:30pm, the F&B manager who I spoke with the night before, arrived, but things weren’t as simple as he made it seem the night before. He said he was going to have to call guards because of things that may or may not happen in 4 seconds of darkness, and when I inquired more, the only answer I got was a stern look and the statement “I do not wish to further divulge on this topic.” It was clear that his offer had some strings attached so I quickly rescinded. 

The following conversation with this man, led me to believe that I was dealing with an egomaniacal, but somewhat powerful man, who just made us feel very uncomfortable, making threats about cameras watching me that were bigger than the SLR i had in my hand, and he wouldn’t stop buying us drinks. He went on and on about people with small heads, and dark and shady behavior. He repeated time and time again that he is just a smalltime team player, yet, when he bought a pack of cigarettes, but had his underlings open the pack up for him. It just reminded me too much of Forrest Whittaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin but on a very very small scale. I’ve never seen anything like it before. We had a 2 minute break in the conversation when we thanked him and got the hell out of there.

Back in Nairobi and I have 4 days left. This one flew by.

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Beans, Sun, Jellyfish and Hope

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My neurotic fear of food poisoning has lessened in the last few days, as I’ve been here in Bagamoyo, TZ. A year ago, I was horizontal for 3 days with a nice case of typhoid, and amoebiasis. So far, my system feels ok. It costs only $1.00 for a plate of beans, beef potato stew in red sauce, and coconut flavored rice. Not bad, huh? But you get much more than what you’ve paid for at Baga Point, an outdoor / indoor eatery where the staff will join you for some pleasantries or even to bum a smoke. It was a lovely night, that was a bit stressed from counting every last Tanzanian shilling I had, since the exchange of money was not as easy as I would have thought, however, after the beer (Kilimanjaro brand, to be exact) and after the food came, the worries lessened, and as the stories were told, my own problems seemed somewhat less of a problem.

What caught my attention for the night was a story told by a new friend of mine, which involved the retrieval of a missing car in 1994 from Burundi, a country thousands of miles from his home on the coast of Tanzania, which took him through the path of bandits, goat accidents, the Rwandan Genocide, monkeys, lions, and the occasional flat. It’s been a while since a story had me at the edge of my seat!

I was definitely floored at every detail of this man’s story which actually had a few lessons:

1. If you love something, you have to fight for it, even if death may come your way.
2. Never carry a weapon, it shows you fear people.
3. If your life is in danger, don’t share your plans, just move.
4. Do good to others, because when you need it most, the same will be done for you.

I managed to find a routine here in Bagamoyo, each day starting with an early half hour swim in the Indian ocean, along with the Dows (fishing boats), crabs, jellyfish, seaweed, and the occasional great white shark. Afterwards, my swim is followed by some tea at Baga Point, then some food and getting ready for my day.

Fresh eggs, fresh everything! We call it organic, but they just call it food and it’s much more affordable.

Why Bagamoyo?

Many months ago, a colleague of mine said “Hey Paul, since you go to Africa, you should talk to my friend, he is involved there, too”. I was then introduced to the Josef and Anne Kottler, a couple from Massachusetts, whose daughter volunteers at an orphanage / youth center in Bagamoyo called IMUMA, and they themselves have been there, and have since been committed to supporting the work that’s being done there.

Little did I know that meeting the Kottlers would result in me being here, under the stars, in a small guest house where the power is in and out, and relishing the vibrance of the surrounding community, their songs, stories, faces, and wisdom.

Because Seeds For Hope, an NGO that I’m on the board for, partners with African-run development organizations, IMUMA’s story seemed very much in line with our own mission statement, so I had to check it out for myself.

Day 2 of my trip brought me from Dar Es Salaam to Bagamoyo. I’m surprised I’d never heard of Bagamoyo before this, being that it has such historical significance in Africa’s past. Bagamoyo (literally “Bwaga Moyo”, or “Lay down your heart”) was called this, because Africans would have to leave their heart there, as they would never see their homeland again, for you see, Bagamoyo was the first and also one of the major ports in the East African slave trade.

The remnants of the old missions, and European influence are very much hidden, but there is a section of town, where the ruins of colonial Bagamoyo remain, which I did not see until my last day there. Bagamoyo town is developing, I only noticed one or two paved roads, where the mode of transport is on foot, by bike, motorcycle, and the occasional car. I felt completely off the grid, and I could not have been happier.

It’s the kind of town where you can walk around, and have a conversation with practically anyone, of course people looked at me like “who the hell is this guy?”, not many non-Tanzanians in Bagamoyo, but I did my best to hold my own. Greeting the elders, laughing with kids, giving the tough nod to the tough guys, you know, as I would in Manhattan. I also learned that while language was a huge barrier, and my Swahili, as good enough as it is for Nairobi, was not good enough for Bagamoyo it helped me at least break the ice.

Besides language, humor goes a long way. A smile, and a clever remark, translates well into any language.

But for real, I became that guy, who, when I don’t know how to respond, i just responded with “cool”

Luckily there are like 10 different ways to say cool in Swahili:

Safi
Poa
Mzuri
Shwari
Fiti
Freshi
Salama
Simbaya

And if you add the word “kabisa” at the end of any of these, and you have even more permutations.

I’ve had 5 minute conversations with people where we just go back and forth asking each other “how are you” in the zillion different ways, as if we were going through the phrasebook line by line. And this happened with more than one person

Habari? Mzuri
Mambo? Poa
Uko freshi? Kabisa
Habari ya asubuhi? Mzuri
(Repeat for 5 minutes)

I wonder if this is acceptable for foreigners, because if someone did that to me in the states I’d probably be like “enough.”

But, back to IMUMA.

IMUMA, is the orphanage / youth center I became acquainted with. I met Sharrif as soon as I arrived at the Moyo Mmoja guest house in Bagamoyo. Sharrif is the founder and director of IMUMA, and has dedicated his time and his life to serving the underserved youth in his community. 

IMUMA is the combination of 3 Swahili words: Imani (faith), Upendo (love) and Matumaini (hope). The mission of IMUMA is to help children (ages 3-16), who have either been orphaned, abused, neglected, or have some situation that puts them at a disadvantage in regards to their peers. Their goal is to improve the lives of the children of Bagamoyo town, and to give them a chance at fulfilling the dreams of their future. They do this by creating a safe haven for the young people who are not in school during the day, where they are engaged in many activities from reading, writing, dancing, drumming, and craft making. IMUMA also offers a pre-school, and has provided a way for 33 children to attend primary school (while primary school is free, miscellaneous fees will determine who will be able to attend primary school, or not). In addition, 6 of IMUMA’s students are on the verge of beginning secondary school. 

The stories of these kids were heartbreaking (this is what you expected?), but it’s different when there is a face, and voice, to a story, it is real. It is us.

When I arrived at the IMUMA compound in the small neighborhood of Nia Njema, I knew something special was happening here. The place was just alive with kids, doing all sorts of activities, and plenty of community members and volunteers around, either supervising, or teaching, or feeding the kids.

During this time Sharrif and I spoke about many things, and we got to know each other. I was definitely glad to have met him, and his drive, sincerity and leadership was a huge inspiration for me. He introduced me also to his wife and his two beautiful children.

I also met a fellow musician at IMUMA named Major Drummer (Major D) and another volunteer named Hedi, who was on holiday from Japan.

These guys were practicing an East African traditional song and dance, with the kids 



Under a mango tree, Major Drummer (Major D),  Hedike, and I met to solve the worlds problems. I have found real kinship with these guys and glad our paths have crossed. MD has given me a few things to think about:

1. The mountain never moves, it is people who are moving, eventually, if you have lost someone, you will find them again.

2.The big fish eat the small fish (but this, I already knew)

3. At the end of the day, things will work itself out

There is a treasure of East African culture that you can find in a small town like this. The stories, the songs, the dances, and the wisdom from elders. Life in a town or village is much slower and more predictable than highways we drive on, but the relationships, and occasional power outage, keeps things interesting.

I’ve travelled many places, and I believe there’s nothing new under the sun. 

I feel my time here was way too short, and I wished I had more time to invest, but I feel I will return for sure. Bagamoyo will find me again.

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Meeting the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy

I woke up today, just like any other day. Opening my eyes minutes before my alarm clock, and the usual tension between my bed and the outside world, as to which would serve me better for the next few hours. My bed will serve me, but I could serve the outside world… and so I got up, and out.

But first Current Stats (changes in red)

Arrests: 0
Police Searches: 2
Near Death Experiences: 1
Stomach Issues: 7
Illnesses: stomach parasite, bee sting
Bandwidth: 1.5 KB/sec
Kilometers Ran Without Injury: 10km

Ok back to business:

As many of you know, I am on the board for Seeds For Hope, a non-profit org started by my sister and a few friends, in order to provide the means for young people to get educated when their circumstances prevent them. The vision is clear, and while we are small, and sponsoring about 20-30 young people, the time has come to expand. We’re working on a campaign now, to create more awareness in the US about the growing need of education in countries like Kenya in the way of fighting and eventually crushing poverty. While there are many actions needed to be taken to end poverty, education is just one of them, and that’s where SFH fits in.

Nadia gave me the responsibility to go out and find contacts and make relationships with people, that we can both build relationships with, and also interview, as part of a short film that will be one of the main venues of our campaign.

Coffee With Gerald


Gerald was a man I got in contact with, through a friend named Debs. Gerald who was brought up in Western Kenya, has made it his life’s mission to educate young people. This guy is SO active, not just in his full time job as director of a Primary School in Riruta (outside of Nairobi) but he volunteers at Vision Africa, and administers a 118 school partnership in the Kibera slums, among MANY other things.

Gerald and I spoke over coffee, and then he invited me to take a trip with him to Riruta, to check out his school and meet the kids, and see if we could arrange for some video footage, and interviews for Saturday. We took a nice but bumpy Matatu trip out to Riruta, to a place called “Precious Junctio” named after the Precious Blood Catholic Mission in the area.

We arrived at the St. John’s Academy, a primary school for the equivalent of K through 8. One room for each grade level. 9 Rooms. The teachers are paid roughly 4500 KSH per month, which is about 60 dollars, roughly 2 dollars per day. School fees cover all expenses from rent, to salaries, to food, to logistics… and they’re barely making it. The kids however, are resilient! Many of them are performing better, according to the national standards, than the “upper class” school, JUST next door. They are proud of their school, and proud of their work. Unfortunately, many will not be able to continue to high school.

The grade 7-8 classes were much smaller, and mostly women were attending. Turns out that many children drop out after grade 6, because it is a weed-out year, in the Kenyan system. Many people don’t see the need at all to be educated because jobs are just unavailable. Why spend the money for a degree if you can’t even get work afterwards? This is the big question that many people ask.. and it’s a question that our organization will have to face.

I got a chance to meet the kids, and talk with Gerald in depth, and I see this as a great opportunity to find a school to partner with.

Kibera Girls Soccer Academy


Later that afternoon, I met up with another man that my friend referred me to, named Abdul. Abdul is a technician for one of the major telecom providers in the country, and he has made it his life’s work, outside of his day-job to change the lives of a group of young women in Kibera. It started out as a soccer club, where these girls could get away from the stresses of their home lives, and some of the high risk situations that they are in, in order to form community and partake in something positive.

After some time, Abdul kept seeing the need for these girls to get educated, and to overcome their situations, but unfortunately, the money to pay for secondary schools is just unavailable! Usually girls in their early – mid teenage years can be taken to early marriages, and other less-favorable situations, but he wanted to give these girls a chance.

With very limited resources, he decided to start a secondary school of his own, and not only is he running it, but the girls themselves take on MUCH of the administration. They are making and building their own school! While their school is not government approved, the idea that they will devote 6-7 days a week to their education, even if it doesn’t have a presidential stamp on it, is something impressive.

I met these girls, and they really really were a blessing to me. On their own accord, they are taking their education into their own hands, despite what the society around them would rather have them do. The name of the school is the Girl’s Soccer Academy.

When the number of girls doubled, and private funding for meals did not increase, the girls decided that they will skip meals, in order to make sure ALL are fed all the other days.

I cannot wait to spend more time at this school, next week. This is a story that has really touched my heart, and I hope that through this campaign, these young women will be able to tell their story to you all.

Old Friends, New Opportunities


So back to my old friends, Alex and Joseph.  Yvonne Poulin, a massage therapist and CEO of African Touch, an organization that provides low-cost formal education in Massage Therapy for people in Kenya, is also friends with these guys as well, and actually has known Joseph for about 4 years! She has been working so closely with him during this time… totally encourages me to know that he has a lot of support out there. Yvonne has basically connected Joseph with the opportunity to belong to a Mechanics Apprenticeship. After we met with the man who would be J’s teacher, Alex and Joseph and I just hung out for about an hour outside the Yaya mall, where we just chatted. Spending time with those 2 is always so special to me. They are survivors, with so much potential, but so much risk at the same time. Asking me questions about life in the states. While they are able to survive in the toughest conditions, and have been knee deep in the harsh life of the Nairobi Streets, they maintain an innocence at the same time, its just humbling.

These guys share their food with me, even if it comes little at a time.

I’m hoping for the best for them. These guys, ever since my 2006 trip, have just been so much of my motivation for returning.not just for them, but the idea that they represent something huge… the potential of the human spirit, undermined by circumstance, but ready to just grow, and come alive. Empowerment. That’s what it’s all about for me. Empowering people to just live.

Small steps, small steps, small steps. But I have to keep going with this, even if it is for a short time every year. It’s the short time that I really do live for.

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Test This.

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

Testing has begun.

Let’s take a look at a typical testing schedule here:

8:00 AM – No one shows up
8:30AM – Equipment failure
9:00AM – Team shows up.
9:12 AM – Power goes out
9:17 AM – Finding the electrician to connect the generator to the building where our office is.
9:35 AM – Learning why the electrician cannot connect the generator because only one building can be connected to the generator at a time, and since I guess people’s lives are more important, the generator must remain connected to the hospital
10:00 AM – Introductory Meeting
10:01 AM – Meeting interrupted momentarily to celebrate the return of power.
10:15 AM – Hang up sign asking people to stay out of the testing room, and to refrain from disconnecting the machines in order to test new equipment
10:17 AM – Testing interrupted because gentleman wants to know if he can use the room to disconnect machines in order to test new equipment
10:17 AM – Sign is explained
11:00AM – Testing begins.
11:01 AM – Fill out MySpace survey so my 90+ contacts can know who my first crush was.
11:05 AM – Now: Fixing bugs

My culture has taught me to be a perfectionist. It’s not done, until it’s perfect. There’s no such thing as “almost”. ”Can someone be almost pregnant?“  is the question that was posed to me any time I did anything almost to completion. If it can’t be done the first time, it’s not worth doing. etc. Apparently the pyramids were a one shot deal. So after many years in the business, I’ve learned to accept the fact that a system can and will have a certain amount of imperfections, or “bugs” as they’re called.

But even after being a software developer for the last 6+ years, when I get a bug, there’s that small part of me, depending on how much sleep I’ve had the night before, that takes it personally, only because, well, that’s how I was brought up, culturally. Sometimes I want to shout back, “What do you mean the list isn’t sorting properly???” The fact that I can take constructive criticism, given my background, is a miracle, and a testament to the American education system.

Building a House of His Own

Elly Ojijo Ndolo. I have known this man since 1999, and he’s been a great friend of mine. He’s definitly one of my best friends here in Kenya. Someone I can just talk to and feel totally at home with. He has this natural ability to lead people. He doesn’t need to convince, or force, or control – he’s just himself. He’s humble, he loves, he cares, and he’s wise and strong. Bam – the perfect combo for a good leader.

On Sunday, it was announced that Elly was to be ordained as the priest and pastor of a church in Tanzania. After the service we had a get together at the house of Fr. Moses with the old crew. As I looked around the room, I saw faces, who were just kids when i came in 1999, and new faces, new generation since then. All together, singing songs in Elly’s native language, Luo, from the Jaluo people in the west.


Ngima Lomba
Ewan Watio
Ngima Lomba, ngima polo lomba
Ewan watio, Nengima!!
You know what, just listen to it here:



Elly and his wife Pendo, at the announcement


Emmanuel, confused?


Crackdowns, Creation, Clenched Fists

As time is going by, I’m definitely getting more attached to the guys I serve and meet with every Tuesday. It’s gonna be really hard to say bye in a few weeks. Life’s getting a bit more complicated for these guys. Police crackdowns in Kibera is making it almost impossible for people on the fringes to just get by. Police here are looking to make money, and to make trouble. They need to make their fellow Kenyan smaller in order for themselves to feel bigger. It’s atrocious! And the harassment a lot of our guys face scares them, and us. We have to move our meetings earlier so they can get here and back to Kibera before the nightly rounds, where cops will look for a bribe, or throw in jail. we promised them a day away from the city, to Lake Naivasha , which actually happened today (Saturday)

To be honest I’ve been writing this out over the course of a week, cuz it’s just been so busy around these parts!  But the story of our trip will come in a later blog. In the meanwhile, I have some great pics, some stories, yea!

Anyway back to last Tuesday and Elly. It was his last day here in Nairobi and he has been a part of this church for decades. That night, he was to depart and no longer return as Elly, but to return as Father Joshua. The guys were really sad, and made Elly a poster for him to remember them by, each one of us signed it. I also made my contribution, as you can tell, of a little cat chasing a dog: Everyone did their thing:

 

We talked about symbols, how symbols represent ideas, beliefs, places, people. There’s the world famous, cross, crescent moon, and star of david, the pillars of monotheism. There’s the don’t walk sign, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. I asked them, “if someone were to make a symbol for you guys, this group, what would it have to express? The guys came up with this list:

Unity
God
Peace
Sharing
Love
That sounds about right:


My Maasai friend Robert snapped this one of us candidly and I’m very glad he did.

We said bye to Elly, knowing one day our paths will all cross again, though unfortunately, my time will be up here before Elly returns from Egypt.

Father Joshua, best of luck, brother!!

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iTunesSpy with WordPress Hack

iTunesSpy is a great little tool that i just installed on my blog that tells my readers what I’m listening to at the moment… assuming they care, that is. You might ask, “so what?” Well, what if i told you, that it tells my readers what I’m listening to… WITHOUT ME HAVING TO TYPE IT IN… yes, my friends… it’s automatic.

Check out their website for details, support, and installation information: iTunesSpy
You can download the current version here: iTunesSpy v. 2.0.2

Well, the thing is, installation was not as simple as their documentation made it sound.
So after you install the script please refer to these steps below:

Step 1: Wrapping the headers in admin.php

When itunesspy plugin is installed in WordPress, activating it adds the iTunesSpy menu tab to the WP-Admin Dashboard. Since admin.php is included in the wp-itunesspy-xxx files, the header information ends up being sent twice: Once in the dashboard itself, and then when the iTunesSpy section is loaded. and this of course, is very, very bad :) To fix this, go to root>/wpadmin/admin.php and look for:


header('Expires: Wed, 11 Jan 1984 05:00:00 GMT');
header('Last-Modified: ' . gmdate('D, d M Y H:i:s') . ' GMT');
header('Cache-Control: no-cache, must-revalidate, max-age=0');
header('Pragma: no-cache');

Wrap this code in a header check so it looks like this:


if (! headers_sent()) {
header('Expires: Wed, 11 Jan 1984 05:00:00 GMT');
header('Last-Modified: ' . gmdate('D, d M Y H:i:s') . ' GMT');
header('Cache-Control: no-cache, must-revalidate, max-age=0');
header('Pragma: no-cache');
}

This will get rid of the errors you may receive saying that the header is being requested after it has already been sent.

Step 2: Editing menu.php

The iTunesSpy tab also includes menu.php, which makes a reference to the $wpdb variable, which is not set in iTunesSpy, so this will cause an error. And errors, well, they suck. So, to fix this, go to /wp-admin/menu.php and replace:


$awaiting_mod = $wpdb->get_var("SELECT COUNT(*) FROM $wpdb->comments WHERE comment_approved = '0'");

with:


if (isset($wpdb)) {
$awaiting_mod = $wpdb->get_var("SELECT COUNT(*) FROM $wpdb->comments WHERE comment_approved = '0'");
} else {
$awaiting_mod = -1;
}

Final Step: Rearranging one of the functions in wp-itunesspyAdmin.php

I received an error saying: function wp_iTunesSpy_setdefault is already defined, or something of that nature. So to fix this, make sure the first conditional looks like this:


if ($user_level > 7) {
if (get_option('itunesspy_authcode') '') {
update_option('itunesspy_authcode', 'some-access-key');
}

if (get_option('itunesspy_amazonfeedlocale') ‘’) {
update_option(‘itunesspy_amazonfeedlocale’, ‘us’);
}

if (get_option(‘itunesspy_input_mode’) '') {
update_option('itunesspy_input_mode', 'get');
}

if (get_option('itunesspy_input_option') ‘’) {
update_option(‘itunesspy_input_option’, ‘fopen’);
}

}

And please erase the entire function : wp_iTunesSpy_setdefault which is defined below the conditional.

At this point you are good to go! Follow the instructions on the iTunesSpy homepage and you’re set to let the world know what you’re listening to… if they care, that is.

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