Why Amateur Science Fairs Matter

So this happened.

Fundi Bots, the organisation that authored this menacing artefact, this severed hand grasping at unseen ghosts, caused such offence to the MD of a telecom engineering firm that he had to strike at once “Conmen! j’accuse!” he tweeted.

You and I, the privileged, OTT-affording, well-schooled and cell-phoned can imagine science fairs. They happen in schools where people are actually white and not just culturally so, and we can imagine that there is plenty of value they have to little Coloradians, Torontese, Sacramentotes, even Harlemites.

If we have the empathy left, we can imagine the value that our own local kids miss out on by not having such fairs, after all, the chance to build a thing, the chance to sit and build a thing, even just this mechanical tangle of sticks that folds and stretches on its own, the chance to know that you made it, the chance to know that you can, the chance to know that being black, impoverished, trapped in an underdeveloped, understaffed, under-equipped, neglected Ugandan school does not mean you can’t make a hand do-do itself like those other kids in America… the chance to create an amateur grade school science project in Uganda…

It’s painfully needless, excruciatingly needless, agonisingly needless to say that this has immense importance to a child who, up to that point, had expected nothing from school but to cram a few numbers, get a few canes, drop out either because they got pregnant or just because Uganda is poor, and then live the rest of their lives as someone’s English-eloquent housekeeper, boda-guy or construction worker so someone smugly elite can be charitably impressed that James, the grass-slasher guy who speaks Lusoga, Luganda and Swahili also speaks decent English.

So yeah. You just wasted MBs reading what you already knew: that Fundi Bots is an organisation that, to really simplify the definition, brings school science fairs to Uganda.

You just burned units of internet to read me say what you already know — that keeping kids’ minds open to the ability of what they can achieve is a pleasant alternative to writing scornful twitter comments.

But I am not here to praise Fundi Bots or enumerate its achievements. I don’t even like Solomon King, its founder. He is one of my dearest old friends, but I don’t like him. I find his height sinister and his taste in shoes frankly barbarian. I hate SK, as he is fondly known. By others not by me. I am not fond, so I call him Solo.

I am here to wonder, to ponder, to meander through the labyrinth this tweet dragged us through.

Why? How? Where from? Who for?

Seeing a social media video of a mechanical glove offers two options.

One is to be uninterested. If so, scroll on. There was plenty more in the TL. There was a hashtag about Gravity Omutujju that was ripe for “Mute mute-ujju” puns. There was a dubiously-sourced letter allegedly from the commissioner of the Uganda Underwear Police, Mr Simon Lokodo himself, attempting to ban consensual sex from taking place in Jinja town that weekend. And if all that bored you, there was always Trump.

Other option: be interested. If this be your choice, the next step is clear: Read. Follow links. Google terms. Find relevant information. This is not only fair. It is what scientists do for a living, as professionals well as in their spare time as amateurs. So whether you are an idle twitter troll or MD of an engineering firm this is what is expected.

Upon doing this you would learn that the black arm was from an organisation that introduces Ugandan school kids to basic science fair projects. Quick and easy work.

Option three, to make no attempt to learn what you are talking about and instead fly straight to scorn? I cannot get that.

Why? Why would this be the thing the MD chose to think?

Was he on social bundle and therefore restricted from google, there-further unable to wiki, and consequently, having nothing but his imagination, or what serves as its equivalent, left to conclude that con games were afoot? (You will excuse me. I could not leave the pun unintended.)

Why the instant and insistent — he stayed on about it on twitter for hours — accusations of malfeasance?

It sounded uncomfortably as if he thought this must be one of those shifty shiny-eyed African tricksters at work. You know you can’t trust them negroes. Scamming funding for this from the White Man must be that negro chicanery at work. These Ugandans!

Is that it? I am legitimately asking. I hope to be told it is not. But is it? Is it an innate self-directed racism that instinctively assumes the worst of a people? Because it fits the profile of the racist: Racism is never rational. Racism is proud of itself. Racism is unapologetic. And racism is so entrenched in its belief that no fact, reason, logic, or the reality that arduino was invented 16 years ago and is still in use to this day, in direct contravention to the assertion that they became obsolete 25 years ago would sway racism to reconsider.

It is a plausible theory, the Ugandan who is racist to Ugandans. It’s a common maneuver one sees often, where, to increase your own relative self esteem you just lower your esteem of those around you. It works but you have to struggle very hard to defend it against the evident facts like the Arduino being introduced in 2003.

And who? Who would be duped so? Fundi Bots has support from some very prestigious organisations. It is hard to envisage any of them handing patronage over without due diligence. Who was conned? Who in the audit staff or the oversight system of any of this illustrious list of funders is so much more gullible than Vince the tweeter? Vince saw through the scam in an instant, yet these whole teams of people who check for scams for a living? It escaped them all.

I am beginning to think Vince does consider himself much cleverer than everyone else. Just not as a Ugandan Uncle Ruckus. He sees himself to be a homo superior, a genius, tech-whispering, time travelling telepath (just collecting the skills it would take Sherlock to close the case) who can tell in a flash exactly how giving school kids an adventure in imagination is a con job.

Is this why he would be so feral, snarling and scratching and hissing back at anyone who dared question him, with his ad homimen attacks, his diversions, his chest puffing out to display his lanyard (I am an engineer! Behold my works and despair) like a shield to protect this precious conceit that he is Vince The Wisest of Oracles and those that dare question his words must be put in their place?

As the discussion went on it transpired that he was not as erudite as he believed or wanted us to believe he was. Not only did he know nothing of Fundi Bots itself, the subject on which he chose to opine with such verve, but even his example of his own engineering expertise was debunked, quickly, with a quick Wikipedia search.

Vince was a waste of time. The sort of person you should not give the nanosecond of day.

A wise aunt’s words come to mind and you can borrow them. They are the wisest things a tweep can learn. If you walk past a fence and a dog from within starts to bark at you, don’t bark back. Walk on.

So I should not be writing this. I should crumple this paper and toss it into that bin there. I should instead do something about Kyalya, or I should do my House of Falament piece about the new president we are going to have in 2021.

But no.

There remains the thing about Fundi Bots, about what makes it necessary in the first place, why it is important that what he dismissed as an amateur, school science fair, non-Tesla, bronze-age looking, black-juju, unvarnished, primitive, vulgar, lower-class, mango-tree school excuse for robotics is so important.

For every hundred problems we have in Uganda, in Africa, in the world, there are 16 hundred ideas that could offer the chance to solve them. Most of these ideas are not in the heads of MDs of Engineering firms. Grown, already-educated minds tend to be weighted down by preconceptions and biases, trapped within boxes within boxes within boxes.

The ideas we need are inside the minds of kids bored in classes. One half of the solution is languishing in one corner. The other two quarters are ricocheting randomly off opposite ends.

All it takes is one spark of inspiration, one thing to come in and make that kid think of what is possible, then let her or his imagination do the rest. Connect the dots, bring it all together.

All it takes is a mind that knows what it is capable of.

But these kids in Uganda… I see so many of them, not just from my own school days, when I came from a privileged primary education in Kenya to doldrums in Kampala, but all the way to the rookies I had to supervise when I was an minor editor at Vision Group, all the way to dwanzies on twitter.

So many of them never made enough because they were never shown what they could make. There was no one to inspire them, no one to challenge them, no one to dare them, no one to give them a fair science chance. And even when they tried, there were told they were not enough, that those things are for the rich, or the white; they were browbeaten and mocked and scolded and diminished.

Now when they are being shown how to make a simple robot hand in their science fair club, it is cast aspersions upon, as if it is just a crooked lie. What if they grow up believing this? That they are not capable of more than just a crooked lie?

What you are taught becomes what you are, what you are becomes what you teach. Man hands on suffering to man, it deepens like the coastal shelf.

(Oh, sometimes poet, see Ugandans and their plagiarism!)

This is why we can’t just walk by the fence. We need to shout them down. We need to drown them out. We need our voices to be louder than the voices of those who say our kids can’t do it.

Those of us who believe in our kids have to support those who actualise that belief, we have to let our kids know we believe in them, we have to let those who don’t believe in our kids know that we don’t believe in their skepticism, and we have to let Ugandan kids believe in themselves.

We can’t let them tear at our dreamers, our makers, our builders, our triers, our strivers and not challenge the gall to say this about us. It’s not just about the Fundi Bots kids who are going to learn to tinker with that arm. It’s not just about the robotics. It’s about the music and the filming and the apps and the code and the architecture and the medicine and the farming and future and all of us.

So even though this post is not endorsed by Fundi Bots or Solomon King or his team (because I don’t need his permission to say what’s on my mind) I am going to close by alluding to their motto.

We have to be fundi.