Not The End, Only The Beginning.
This post concludes my previous posts about the trip I just made to Uganda to spend some time on the ground with Johnny Long and Hackers for Charity. The context and details of the trip can be read on my previous blog posts here. If you decide after or while reading this to donate to Hackers for Charity, please follow this link.
I miss Uganda.
I miss Jinja.
I miss The Keep, the HFC Training Center and the Jinja House. I miss Sarah, the trusted manager of The Keep.
I miss Henry, the Hacker-Space’s future manager. I miss Jonah, Johnson and the other leather workers. I miss Luke, the night watchman.
I miss hanging out with the other Mzungu’s (white people) who are all charity or relief workers.
But most of all, I miss Johnny, Jen & Declan. I miss the Longs and the way being around them made me feel. ”
And yet, as I wrote those lines, I had only been away for a few hours. Just a plane ride from Entebbe to Doha, in Qatar. But that is all it took for me to wish I were still back there.
“ Having a 9-hour layover would usually be a reason for complaining, but not today. Today I have work to do, and need a quiet place to do it. Today I have to write this post. Today I have the gravest responsibility of all, or this trip will not have the consequences I set out for it: A rallying call for all the community, and not just a personal experience. Today I have to try and tell all of you what I have learned from this trip, what I did and what I saw. Today I have to be able to correctly express all that is still needed and what we can -and should- all do to help the Longs and HFC in their mission. Today I have to convince myself that I can actually write blog posts in a meaningful way. And for all of that, I hope that 9 hours will be enough.”
Well it turns out that 9 hours were not enough, as here I am two days later still struggling to write this post. Johnny posted on his blog a few hours ago about my visit and stay in Jinja; It was humbling to read all the nice things he said about me, and in the same time scary to think that now I was going to have to try and do my best to live up to them.
Thank you Johnny for this amazing post. You were thanking me for my support but you have it all wrong: It is I that needs to thank you for all you are doing, for being an inspiration to me and so many others, for reminding me that I am living a blessed life and that my petty problems are nothing compared to what you have to deal with every single day.
After reading that post I felt bad for still not having finished writing mine so here I am struggling with my keyboard again.
As I was leaving Jinja two days ago, I wrote this during the 3-hour drive to the Entebbe airport:
“It's a funny feeling I have, leaving Jinja. It's one I have never felt before. I'm not usually one for emotional goodbyes but this is different. I feel like I have been part of something real, and that I am going back to nothing. Well nothing like this anyways. I feel like I've made a difference, however small it might be, but a real concrete one. One that might actually help save lives. Yes it's lives of people I don't know, and probably never will, but its lives nonetheless. I now understand Johnny, and the Longs, in their move here. I now relate to their passion in what they do here. I have felt it. Of course there are other places around the world that need good people, and most of you might say we should start at home. Well home is where the heart is and the Long's hearts are in Uganda, and I believe Uganda is a better place for it. “
Those words ring as true today as they did two days ago, and I believe they will for many years to come.
Let me start this off with thanking you again, Johnny, Jen and Declan for welcoming me, a stranger in most ways, into your home and family. Thank you Sarah, Henry, and the whole Hackers for Charity staff and volunteers for making me feel part of the family as well.
Now let me put a notion that has been floating around in some of the dark corners of our community, for far too long, to rest. It has been whispered, thought, discussed and even sometimes shouted at to whoever would listen, by people in this community that, and I quote: “Johnny Long is just living the sweet life, funded by hackers”.
This had been bugging me for a while and whenever I would hear it I would rage against even the notion that it could be true. I knew Johnny, though we were not close friends, but for me it was enough to know a good man when I saw one. But then again, and being a rational person, how could I logically defend it since all I knew about what was happening in Uganda was what Johnny told us. Just like the people who were doing the accusing, our source of information was the same. It still was all stupid accusations to me by people who had nothing better to do than being trolls, but in the backrooms of my mind I wanted to be able to own that extra final argument that no one in the community could really claim. That is one of the reasons that pushed me in my decision to go to Uganda. Just a small one, though.
People tend to forget that a few years ago, before Johnny found his calling, he was at the top of the –hacker- world. He had it all. He was a recognized author, a celebrated hacker, and was solicited every other day by television networks for his expertise. But for some reason he found all of that wanting.
He had, and still has, an amazing wife, great kids, and wanted for nothing. Why would anyone leave all of this to go to a forsaken part of the world and help people? And if someone wanted to live off other people, why would that person go to Uganda to do it? Surely there must be other places where life is easier, safer. And if living off other people was what Johnny wanted, he surely had enough skills to black hat his way into tremendous amounts of money without leaving the comforts of modern civilization.
But that is not what Johnny Long is about. Johnny is about making a difference in the world. About saving lives, about living a life that has profound meaning.
So I went to Uganda. And in Caesar’s famous words I can now claim “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). The first two are obvious but what did I conquer? My fear of stepping into the unknown, and the smallest tiniest of doubts I might have had in my subconscious about HFC’s legitimacy.
I have seen and experienced it all: The Training Center, The Keep, the Bed & Breakfast, the Leather Workshop, the Hacker-Space, the love, the family, the amazing feeling of selflessness, and so much more ways that the Longs make a difference every day.
The training center is a harbor of hope for people wanting to make a better life for themselves. In Uganda, just knowing how to navigate through Word or Excel means you can get a decent job that pays a decent wage, and hence feed your family. The Keep is a sanctuary for all volunteers who are working in Uganda, a place where random encounters and discussions happen every day and lead to new life saving projects, as well as a lifeline for all the staff working there who get stable jobs for good pay with normal working hours. The bed & breakfast is a home away from home for any who stay there, and Jen and Johnny go out of their way to make you feel welcome. The Hacker-Space is gearing up to be all that you could expect and more. And the leather workshop is a magical place where so much love, care and skill is put into each and every one of the products that, if that was all there was to it, just owning one becomes an honor. But that place also helps more than a dozen Ugandan families live a good, safe and fulfilled life.
The picture below shows you all that were crafted in the workshop just during the week I was there!
I saw firsthand, and participated in meetings, regarding the ongoing development of the ‘Brick’ and Chrome-books project. The brick is a wireless battery powered web server, and works together with the Chrome-books as standalone training machines that can be deployed in remote areas of Uganda. The training materials are on locked SD cards so they cannot be contaminated. The whole thing is cloud manageable so you can do remote firmware updates and such other maintenance operations. The brick can also be used as a cache server as to help on slow connections. Everything is well thought of and taken into consideration to adapt to the existing harsh conditions of Uganda, and with one objective: Teach to help survive.
And if all of these were the Long’s accomplishments, it would be more than enough to justify the community’s full support. But I saw so much more. Like most humble and generous people, the Longs do not advertise everything they do.
I saw strangers walking in the Keep every day asking for Johnny, needing his help on one or the other subjects, and Johnny always being available to help out. Local mobile operators even send people his way when they cannot solve problems! I saw Jen volunteering at schools to help teachers in their daily work. I witnessed the Longs going out of their way to help one of their staff whose house had been robbed.
If at this point you are thinking ‘what can I do to help? Let me tell you: Come to Uganda! Why? Because as Johnny said in his latest blog post just being around hackers helps him stay in touch with the ‘hacker’ point of view. Just discussing problems with other hackers becomes part of the solution.
You will love it there. It can be a family vacation, a soul-rejuvenating trip, a life changing experience, or all of it at once.
One of the things we did is get the domain HackerSafari.com as one of the ideas we developed is trying to organize trips to Uganda where we can offer info-sec enthusiasts and members of our community a full experience where you would get, in one trip, to experience the country, get a class with one of the experts who would be part of the trip (Dave Kennedy already agreed to be the first, please let us know if you want to teach a course in Africa!), get a class with Johnny himself, and help out HFC by sharing your own expertise with young students and helping support the whole operation financially.
We are also setting up a wiki to exchange ideas and offer a platform for the community to interact. But we need so much more, and if you cannot make the trip there are so many other ways you can be part of the change.
Donations are essential (Donate here) but the community has so much more to offer. HFC needs a revamped website, so we need web designers. We need ghostwriters to help Johnny maintain his blog and keep the world updated. We need social media specialists who can help spread the word. We need coders. We need e-commerce people to set up an online shop. We need teachers who are willing to give online courses over Skype or webinars. We need to set up and code a wish list page where HFC can say what they need and people can submit help offers, whatever the nature of that help is.
The Longs touch the lives of everyone they come in contact with. They have found their calling, and dared to follow it. How many of us can make such a statement?
The HFC staff and workers call them "mama" for Jen and "papa" for Johnny. That is a huge sign of respect and love over there. This kind of respect cannot be bought, it has to be earned.
The Longs do not live a rich life, nor do they care or aspire to, but they live a spiritually fulfilled one and that is better by any standards. It is true that they mainly live off the community's donations, but most of that money goes towards their charity work and they live off the bare minimum. I have been around a lot of people and charity organizations in my day, but it is the first time I come across such selflessness.
None of us could do what Johnny and Jen are doing, or did. If we could we would have done it. But he is a member of our community and we take care of our own so if by just helping out in any way we can we help them in their global mission, we become part of the change.
I have high hopes for the future, and I wish to try and affect change more than I was doing so in the past, and I am glad to report that things are already happening, and actually started while I was still there: Our good friend James McMurry founder of Milton Security called me up and said he wanted to come to Uganda and help out. He also pledged one of Milton’s teaching boxes containing 10 Raspberry Pi’s with keyboards and dual boot SD’s. Thank you James!
The amazing Dave Kennedy also put Uganda on his schedule for early next year. Eddie Mize – EddieTheYeti- who has always been a fantastic supporter of Hacker for Charity through his art and booths at cons already started doing designs for the leather products and added Henry from the hacker-space to his portraits collection.
And so many of you already expressed your interest to come and help out, or just do a little something more from wherever you are. Thank you all and please hold on to these promises.
And no I did not get Ebola, nor any other disease one could be afraid of coming to Africa. What I did get is an awful lot of amazing memories that I will cherish for a long time, a renewed sense of self and a rejuvenated soul. I gained a true brother and a new family. I got to experience selflessness first hand, and I got to be part if the Long extended family. I think I am a better man - and a better hacker - for it, and I wish you all to be so lucky in the future.
I said at the beginning of this post that I hoped the ramifications of this trip would be a lot more than just a personal experience and as you can read it seems to be headed the right way. But if this turns out to be just a personal experience, it was worth it and I would -and will- do it a thousand times over again.
All I can think of now is how to plan my next trip!
Thank you for reading this post, I know it was a long one. As always, please share and help raise awareness by spreading the word.
I leave you with two final shots taken just before my departure. Peace.