Reflections On Afghanistan’s First Hackathon

How would your hometown look after 40 years of war? This is what Kabul, once known as the “City of Gardens” and the “Paris” of the region has witnessed and is now known for. The Soviets, multiple civil wars, Mujahideen, Taliban, the American-led struggle, ISIS activity and many smaller conflicts have left their residue on not only the land but on all hearts and minds involved… “the inner wounds of war” outlast even the rubble. Would you still be able to imagine a positive future or succumb to the dominant climate of hopelessness? That is a choice every Afghan must make. 
 
I was able to visit the country last month for our AngelHack global series of technology competitions, known as hackathons. We’ve all seen plenty of war torn imagery of suffering and debris from the region so I’d like to highlight another side of the city that is fueling those who choose to carry hope: the underground revival of a new Afghanistan I captured a glimpse of.

I usually encounter a full spectrum of people, from optimistic to cynical thinkers. In Afghanistan I felt it was the same, except amplified x1000. People who were negative were so adamant that there was no hope of things improving. People who were optimistic were so incredibly strong about their optimism I felt empowered just being around them. To maintain optimism in a place with so many constant reminders of the dark side is no blind naiveté. They were anything but ignorant and because they have been countered and questioned every day from every angle, they were some of the most resilient I have seen. One of our attendees wrote in his blog on our event, “I am not an only-positive thinker. I mean you will probably not succeed with thinking positive, you have to show commitment and dedication all the way.” They know optimism needs to be backed up with serious grit, vision and action. The contagion factor of optimism means these few can create a powerful ripple effect around them.

This is a group of some of Kabul’s young optimists, including the Founders of Afghanistan Needs You with over 75K supporters. They saw that most of the exact people who could best rebuild their country (the young and talented) were in a mass exodus so have created this to rally youth to stay and invest in Afghanistan during what they see as a critical transition point to a promising future. Many conflict-ridden countries have been attempting to reverse brain drain and lift up local leaders in creative ways.

After decades in the country, my grandfather was given 3 days to leave. I found his 20+ year collection of books is still sitting in Kabul! One even with a bullet hole through it… the ripple effects keep growing regardless.

Delving into this city where my family has worked for multiple generations, I thought of my grandfather who worked for decades establishing IAM Afghanistan and a school for the blind, NOOR, meaning “light.” He loved local philosophy, literature and collected Persian Proverbs. One of them captures the Afghan spirit that may be contrary to what you’ve heard: “Every man goes down to his death bearing in his hands only that which has been given away.” That is one peek into the once world-famous Afghani tradition of intense hospitality. Afghans are known for their strength, independence, beauty and hosting skills. I have to say every person I met with treated me like royalty, making sure I was taken care of, bringing me delicious Qaimaq chai (Afghan pink milk tea), offering gifts even when they had little, one even hearing we liked Sufi music and bringing a Sufi group through days of travel just to play for us.

Afghanistan was at the heart of the Silk Road where the ancient world traded treasures, culture, music & philosophy leaving a trail of incredible riches. Afghanistan’s abundance and beauty made it a regular target & the Romans, Greeks, Indians, Siberians and Chinese all left their influence. It is the birthplace of endless art and poetry including one of my favorite poets Rumi. While the spread of Western culture often comes with escalating materialism and greed, Rumi has been inspiring love and reconciliation all over the world for centuries with a new resurgence recently when the world may need this message the most. ~ponder that one for a moment~

I remember coming back to California after I visited Afghanistan in 2007 and realized what Mother Teresa was talking about when she said people in the West can have a deeper poverty than people we typically imagine live in misery. In Afghanistan, the way people take care of and love their neighbors is beautiful. Love and community relationships are seen as the most important thing when even the most successful people in the West are often lonely or even surrounded by people who would betray them in a second.

Qasaba Orphanage | these kids live in one of the most dangerous places on earth with no parents but are so full of love ❤

Their whole language is poetry showcasing their deep respect for values like love — telling someone you love them “ghorbonet beram” also means you are willing to die or be sacrificed for them, the ultimate expression of selflessness. Pashtunwali is an honor system and ethical “code of life” many deeply follow in Afghanistan, with calls to uphold respect, loyalty, righteousness of word, thought and deed, even with a duty to protect animals and the environment. One awesome example is the duty to provide asylum to anyone needing assistance from enemies, even a stranger or foreigner, known as Nanawatai. The sole survivor of a US Navy SEAL team, Marcus Luttrell, ambushed by Taliban fighters got to experience this first hand as featured in the film Lone Survivor. Wounded, he evaded the enemy with the help of locals who protected him in their village. They risked their lives fending off attackers and sent an emissary to the nearest U.S. base to secure his safe rescue.

Marcus Luttrel got to experience the Pashtunwali code “Nanawatai” first hand — the duty to provide asylum to anyone seeking protection from enemies, even a stranger or foreigner as portrayed in the film Lone Survivor.

Recently in Gaza, after realizing they have the highest unemployment in the world (over 70% for youth), I asked locals “why isn’t there any homelessness?” They gave me a knowing smile and explained to me they would never allow that in their culture. If the neighborhood found out someone had nowhere to sleep they would all rally together to find or create some shelter for them. Same situation in Afghanistan. One Gazan who spent some time in the UK said that this was his most shocking revelation abroad, that people in a country so much richer than them could allow its own people to live and suffer on the cold streets and turn a blind eye.

Traveling/working while female in the Middle East — It can be very tricky, lonely, and has a whole onslaught of unique challenges. Many places I go, I am the only female in the room or on the street. Sometimes it looks like an ocean of men I have to cross, and usually all staring. Someday I hope to shamelessly stare back the way Wonder Woman does in the British parliamentary meeting, but for now am perfecting the art of staying under the radar as much as possible. I had never realized how heavy and draining it can be to be stared at so much everywhere you go, hours on end, and it’s exhausting to always have a guard up that can’t be let down for a moment. I was once offended when someone told me I have a natural RBF but this is now one of my most useful travel assets. Some fancier spots in places like the UAE offer female-only areas which became some of my favorite places, even if it was just separated by a curtain.

male domination in Middle Eastern public spaces is not so different from much of the West 100+ years ago (Victorian London street scene)

The plus side is that a lot of the women you do meet there who have risen to the top may just be the most resilient and amazing females you’ll ever encounter. Often times in conflict zones the women are some of the most zealous about protecting the youth, pushing for justice and calling out evildoers publicly.

A great example is the woman standing in black, Dr. Gulalai Noor Safi, medical doctor and member of parliament in Afghanistan after returning from Germany to serve her country. She went against the warlord of Mazaar to stand for her people, and won. 
 
The woman sitting with the red scarf is Zakia Wardak, a Judge at our competition, entrepreneur and amazing host whose husband was a leader of Wardak Province before his passing… never felt safer than when she marched me around Kabul with her signature blend of confidence and joy, gun-carrying men parting everywhere for her. I had us all play an old game where you pick an ancient poem with a riddle for yourself. She happened to pick one on being a “mother of revolutions.”

Mariam and Behnaz, Artist and Technologist from Oracle who organized a lot of this hackathon and traveled from the US to mentor teams

Mariam pictured here is serving in the Afghan government and promoting female empowerment nationwide. You can’t see in these pics because these are outer public wear, but she has created her own style in her daily garb: customized Afghan traditional men’s clothing tailored to a woman’s body. It is technically within the “rules” but subversively pushing the boundaries (reminding me of another woman who made strength a style in Europe Coco Chanel :) Apparently when she was a kid, her father wanted to take her everywhere without obstacle so dressed her in boy’s clothing and she was known as “Sohrab” (a male figure in the Persian epic Shahnameh).

Malina Suliman, called the “graffiti queen” of Afghanistan, is another bringing attention to the plight of women. Since her art is intended for women she refuses to limit it to private or art spaces mostly frequented by men so places it where the target audience can encounter it. She and her family have been threatened but she won’t stop creating.

I do not want to perpetuate the stereotype that most men in the region have a belittling outlook on or mistreat women. In fact, most men I met were extremely respectful and thought the advancement of women’s societal status was one of the most important cultural issues. I attended a Startup Girls event that was incredible with a lot of male engagement and support. Another big part of the Pashtunwali honor code is Naamus: defending the honor of women at all costs and obligation to protect them from vocal and physical harm. Those who felt this felt it very strongly. There seems to be strong hope of gender progress involving both genders.

So what were we doing in Afghanistan?
 
At AngelHack, we run a Global Hackathon Series every year in around 50 cities all over the world. Each participating team endeavors to solve a local problem with technology and we have prizes for support including cash, mentorship, working space, and invitations into our HACKcelerator for winning ideas that show traction to Silicon Valley Week. That leads to later stage incubators, guaranteed funding spots and more… check out our Kabul event website
 
My great grandfather was a Scottish American who came to the Middle East for a literacy program called “Each One Teach One” where the cost of learning to read/write was committing to teach another. It spread like wildfire and millions learned to read through it. I know generations later all of that work is still paying off, so it’s exciting to see that planted seeds of love have a ripple effect beyond what we realize. I see this as something similar. At every hackathon, you walk away with evolved skills, new friends, you accomplish more than most do in months of dream building and look at the world through a more entrepreneurial lens. Technology is the literacy of the future so catalyzing this culture is very important. Often times, years later, we meet people who attended a hackathon and they tell us it was a turning point in their careers or lives. 
 
Silicon Valley resources are still only accessible by the elites if you measure on a global scale. And if you pay attention to innovation the biggest things are happening far outside Silicon Valley over the next few decades. So transcending borders is very important to AngelHack — we believe empowering entrepreneurs who are working so hard around the world and have never been given a real chance is one of the strongest ways to transform our collective future and enhance peace.

There is so much untapped potential around the globe — highly diverse talent across skill sets and incredible passion just looking for an outlet and a connection point. At our hackathons that is exactly what we aim to spark, to bring people together who don’t usually collaborate to solve problems under different themes. 
 
So this was the first ever hackathon focused on tech solutions in the country. Since people had never been to one, I was very worried about how things would go or if we would even find enough candidates to participate. Yet the event picked up promising traction the moment it went live. Afghans told me they keep an eye on many global opportunities, but usually there are listed to be some “exceptions” which usually includes Afghans — so most of the time they are not “eligible” to participate even in the rare opportunities extended to their region. Because of this they were so happy we expanded into Kabul, they know it is rare that they can show what are capable of so were very hungry for the chance to showcase and develop their skills. 
 
After doing this in many cities and continents, I’ve never had so many local groups reach out to offer support and extra prizes to the participants. There was so much excitement about encouraging an entrepreneurial culture we were able to offer prizes to more than 5 teams. Huge thanks to ATVI, Shetab Afghanistan, Aghaez, Kardan University, TechNation, Oracle and Bridge for Billions all for the support. 
 
Our event was not without obstacles. While everyone was on their way to the hackathon we heard a large bombing in the central part of the city! I was of course very worried especially when I knew so many were traveling on their way to the hackathon. I questioned postponing the event, but when I did check all my channels, I had an influx of messages from people saying they were stuck at different stations but to please still let them in even though they’d be late. I felt so sad but touched that people on lockdown in the midst of a bombing were just worried about making it into our competition.

No matter how much you clear with a venue in this part of the world beforehand “Can you guarantee strong wifi, A/V and electricity?” Nothing really counts because at any moment, anything can be lost for an indeterminate amount of time. Wifi flashed on and off on for most of Day 1, making our skype sessions with mentors around the world mostly impossible, yet no one complained. On Day 2, the entire buildings power went out right during the demos so we had to wait for the generator to kick in. I realized I was the only one freaking out about these things so we did the best we could and made it through.

In the end, despite all my anxiety, all of us were so impressed with the ideas the teams created in just two days.

The winning team’s concept is so wonderful it could be transformative not just in Afghanistan but anywhere in the world. I realized it may even be a modern version of the barter literacy campaign my great grandfather did in the region decades ago. Called Amozgar (meaning “wisdom”) it taps into the sharing economy in a platform exchange of skills and knowledge. In a place where few can afford education or special training yet many skills are widespread, this is an exciting place to test this model. More info on the team here. If you know of a way to support them, offer mentorship or even financial support as they test their model this August — October, please get in touch. We want this to be a local success story!

There were only two female attendees at our hackathon even though we reached out to many women to invite. They joined a team that on their own chose to focus on street harassment. They really opened our eyes at how much of an obstacle this is, holding back every woman from opportunity. One of our male Judges commented that this is a huge economic problem and that every family’s sisters, wives and daughters deal with this burden every day.

I want to close with a comment by one of our attendees Ismael:

Thank you Afghanistan for all the love and inspiration! We can’t wait to be back and see all the ripple effects of these ideas…

Media/Posts on Event in Afghanistan: