Engineer and educator Lindsay Craig reflects on six years of teaching electrical engineering in Uganda, Africa. Gulu, Uganda has been rebuilding for twenty-three years after the Ugandan Civil War, and he has been helping teach technology in Gulu since 2014, among other projects. During his visits, he has seen the introduction of paved roads, helped multiple technology education hubs, bungee jumped, eaten plenty of amazing tropical fruit, and most recently, built a variety of technology pieces for musical and performing artists. The nation he has seen is one of entrepreneurs, hagglers, and builders, many of whom hope to bring something new to their economy through technology. Read below to learn more about the blind Ugandan woman who is teaching robotics, the musical artists who sew LEDs into their hair, the tech educators who have started their own businesses, and the people from all over the world who hope to help them.


Those of you who read EETimes regularly know I have been traveling to Uganda for six years to teach engineering, electronics, creativity, and computer programming. Much of my time is focused on the capital, Kampala, and in a northern city named Gulu, previously the epicenter of the Ugandan civil war. I thought it possible that this year would be my last visit (at least for a while) and I find myself reflecting on the changes I have seen in the various communities I visit.

The improvements I see are obvious to me. I visit once a year, skipping across the hard work that the people living here are doing. I know from working in a startup that when you are doing the day to day work, it’s less obvious and much harder to measure. But, as an outsider, I notice when the airport has more LED lit shops. It’s obvious when the market places become filled with newly made bright shirts, pushing the older, second-hand wares out. I am definitely glad that the journey from Gulu to Kampala is now paved, taking only five hours.

gulu

Six years ago Gulu had no paved roads, now there are workers all over the city building roads

The first time I traveled that road, it took at least a half a day with unpaved roads. Happily, things like enormous cheap avocados, “odi” (locally produced peanut and sesame butter), and tropical fruit remain as they have been. Almost seven years ago, when I first traveled to Gulu with my friends from Fundi Bots, people could not believe that we were planning to start teaching robotics. Even in the capital, we were greeted with wonder and doubt. “Like Transformers? Here? In Uganda?” Now I encounter young men fixing phones in the Gulu market place, and the robots of Fundi Bots are being showcased in a German museum because of their unique designs.

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Left to right: High school intern with GSM agricultural prototype, Gulu engineer with Arduino incubator project, young man repairing phones in Gulu marketplace (SMT)

As I type this I sit in Gulu’s TAKS center (Through Art Keep Smiling) waiting patiently for some “sticks of pork” and chips- a favorite of mine even though I eat less and less pork these days. I’m watching butterflies underneath the shade of a large tree. I expect the pork will taste the same as always (deliciously natural with little more than salt and chili), but the center has recently been painted, and I can hear people mowing grounds nearby; a contrast to what I saw when I first started visiting. The faces of African leaders and artists on the walls are the same identities as when I first visited, but now the images jump out in bold black and white. The last time I was here, and the times before that, they had faded sketches on unpainted walls.

The center is a place where local art is sold, computers (now much newer computers and musical instruments) are available to the public, people use exercise machines and consume greasy sticks of delicious pork. The inside was silent and slightly dusty when I first poked my head in six years ago. Now twenty to thirty people are enjoying the day, surfing the internet and doing the things people do when they have access to computers- saying hello to loved ones, rewriting their resumes and some are probably working hard to promote their own personal line of art.

Part of the work that I do is to help educators expand their capabilities so that after I am gone the communities can continue to grow and learn. Technology and education is a vast ocean. I tend to splash around on the surface in a bunch of different areas, and educators all swim in different directions, depending on our interests. Ideally, if I return, I can then learn from those I have taught, as well as sharing my new knowledge. To help the growth continue while I am gone I chose to donate a set of QuestBots to my blind educator friend, Elizabeth Abur. Over the past five years, I created QuestBots with one other co-founder to help teach math and computer logic to anyone, starting at the age of three. Teaching toddlers how to debug their own code isn’t just a bundle of joy for everyone. It will have a long-lasting positive influence on their problem-solving abilities. During one of my annual visits to Gulu, I wrote the manuals for QuestBots and worked with Elizabeth to create a QuestBot version for blind and sight-impaired students. This trip I gifted her a brand new QuestBot kit with braille. We added the braille while sitting in Oysters And Pearls, Uganda, where we first met. Last I saw her she was sitting side-saddle on the back of a motorcycle clutching a huge backpack filled to the brim with her new robotic teaching tools. (Yes, most of my educator friends are actually this awesome.)

Elizabeth Abur

Blind tech educator, Elizabeth Abur, reads braille on a QuestBot- blind students are now able to explore robotics thanks to her efforts

Her new job has her developing curriculum for the blind and sight-impaired school children all across Uganda. (Did you know that Uganda is one of four African countries that recognizes sign language as an official language?) When I first met her, she was one of a few math teachers at one of the first education centers for blind and sight-impaired people in Uganda. Now, just five years later, she is leading a nationwide effort with the support of her government and fellow educators. Our efforts have also been the first time that blind and sight-impaired students have had the opportunity to learn robotics in Africa. It has been amazing meeting her once a year and hearing the joy in her voice as she tells me about her efforts and the growth of her baby boy.

Nyege Nyege

Nyege Nyege Art Festival: left to right: Sewing LEDs into dreadlocks, giant crocodile sculpture just waiting for actuators & our first on-stage installation (sonar sensor with LEDs)

Interesting things are happening in Elizabeth’s life and all over Africa. Gulu grows, as evidenced by the cement trucks and larger population. Every year I hear of different nations helping: Japanese, Chinese, United Kingdom, and Swedish engineers have been laying asphalt and planting the seeds of clean water projects. I know a couple of Dutch DJs and music enthusiasts (along with a HUGE local and international crew) who have helped local music talent to achieve international success. I talked, shouted really, to a Canadian on the back of a motorcycle who may have been part of a three-month internship to help local efforts.

Most importantly I have run into Congolese, Somalians, Nigerians and other Africans who look at Uganda’s entrepreneurs as an example across Africa. Recently a Nigerian engineer and educator heard about the push for East African manufacturing. He hopes to learn from my Ugandan friends about CNC related technology. No doubt the first African produced cell phone in neighboring Rwanda has helped people realize that the years of collaborative efforts are starting to create real economic progress. Recently Russian and Rwandan scientists started to collaborate on peaceful uses for nuclear power, among other industries. But it’s not all progress and peanut butter.

There is the possibility of any culture receiving outside help turning to dependence mentality as their default setting. The NGO that I visit has less and less American presence, despite the projects being led by locals growing in size. A young Somalian man I met recently on a dusty football field, had walked eighteen days to reach Gulu. He told me he is looking for a better life. In order to find that better life he will probably need more education and at least one opportunity.

Victor Kawaga

Victor Kawaga, long-time friend and board member of Pan-African Robotics Competition, shows me a robot design powered with recycled laptop batteries at a cafe in Kampala

Africa recently announced a 55 nation trade bloc agreement to connect all the nations on their enormous continent. The economic impact is beyond my understanding, but I do know that engineers, educators, and people working towards a more prosperous future for the world applaud all the forward momentum, as well as the local and global collaboration. To take strides forward without knowing where one is going, or if one will even reach the destination is something that humans have done longer than recorded history.

Sometimes the most important thing is to focus on the next step. When asked how something will be achieved in Uganda, the Acholi and others will often simply say “somehow.” Agile methodology in practice.

As for the women joyfully ululating from the back of the construction truck in Gulu, the young people with shovels and work gloves on the streets, the kids just learning that they can control robots, the farmers willing to try new methods on their hot equatorial farms and those that help them build, all I can say is: I don’t know what the future holds, but today these people are strong, and they have made the human species better through their strength, beauty, kindness, and resilience.