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Change Generation

This 19-Year-Old Self-Taught Developer Will Not Be Stopped

The US government wouldn’t let Martha Chumo come for hacker school. So Chumo is raising funds on Indiegogo to start her own hacker school in Kenya.

UPDATE: The original version of this post incorrectly attributed Chumo’s visa denial to Kenyan officials; in fact it was the US consulate.

Martha Chumo is a 19-year-old in Nairobi, Kenya. Last year, she got a computer to herself for the first time at an internship, and "learning to code became my obsession," she writes. She quit her job, bought her own laptop, and plunged into the process that is happening to smart, self-motivated people all over the planet in 2013: She started learning to code.

She became a moderator on Codecademy, pulled in almost 1000 followers from all over the world on Twitter, made the "Dean’s List" on tech learning community Treehouse, racked up 187 contributions on Github. She found a community IRL too—started practicing at the Nairobi iHub coworking/incubator space, landed a job as a developer with a local Ruby on Rails shop, and taught and mentored other aspiring coders.

A couple of months ago she ran a successful campaign on Indiegogo, raising almost $6,000 to fund a summer trip to Hacker School, the New York City-based boot camp for web developers, and AdaCamp SF, a conference dedicated to women in open technology and culture.

But the US Consulate denied her visa. Officials helpfully explained that since she’s not currently enrolled in college and is a legal adult with no husband or kids, there’s too much of a risk that she’ll stay in the States.

If you’re thinking that this denial got Chumo down, you’d be wrong. A few days ago, she launched her second Indiegogo project: this time, she’s looking for $50,000 to start her own school for developers right in Nairobi.

"I’m ineligible to go to New York for Hacker School, but I am not ineligible to learn and become a better programmer! So I am starting a dev school in Nairobi to give myself and numerous young East Africans a chance to learn, improve their programming skills, and build awesome technology for Africa."

There is a lot of inspiring stuff here, to be sure. One nagging question is whether the US did the right thing in keeping Chumo out of the country. The tech industry here is agitating for more open immigration policies, and Chumo seems like the exact type of person we want. Besides,
freedom to travel is an important right and its denial is obnoxious. But African brain drain is a real issue too—it’s been estimated to cost the continent $4 billion a year. While it’s obviously the US’s loss, by denying Chumo a visa, our government seems to have ensured that a talented, hardworking person will stay put and build something in her own community.