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The Story of a Dreamer

22 Jun

Hello, my name is Solomon King, and I have a dream I would like to share with you. And to perhaps, convince you to help me make this dream a reality.

But first, allow me to tell you a story. Actually, it’s my story, and I hope you will forgive me, but it is essential to Fundi Bots, because I know it is the story of thousands of passionate girls and boys in Africa, and the world over.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by machines. My father stopped buying toys for me because he couldn’t see the point. I always tore them apart minutes after getting them. I simply had to find out what made them work and if I could make them better. It frustrated him, and it absolutely liberated me.

When dearest daddy stopped buying the toys, I started making them. Wire and rubber-band cars that ran on batteries and cassette player motors. Wooden “bikes” that rolled treacherously down the hill with us kids holding on for dear life. Helicopters that vibrated fearsomely but never got off the ground…

Through this exploration, I discovered and learnt a lot about machines, movement and electrical shocks.

But the more I learned, the more I experimented, the more I realized that I knew even less. The quest for this knowledge was hindered by the lack of places and people to learn from. I realized I needed tools, books and equipment that were not anywhere in Uganda. I scoured the darkest recesses of the school library and discovered Eric Laithwaite’s “The Engineer in Wonderland” and for days, dived deep and wide-eyed into the world of electricity, magnetism and the magic of linear motors.

But still, I didn’t… couldn’t find the right place to practice what I was reading. I knew that never in a million years would I find the money to buy some of the sophisticated equipment that was needed. The experiments in the books were being carried out in hi-tech lab and cutting-edge facilities.

So I kept asking myself, why hasn’t someone built a facility like this? A place geeks like me can go tinker with stuff and at the least, sate the thirst?

And in the bright-eyed naivety of youth, I told myself that when I grow up and make lots and lots of money, I’ll build a place like this and make it free!

I talked to my physics teachers about starting a Science Club, they told me to focus on my books and the upcoming examinations. Eventually, I ended up using all my pocket money buying junk electronics to tinker with. And over time, I became the resident repair-man in the school dormitory. The stuff that I failed to fix, I would ask to keep. I hoarded dead pocket radios and calculators in school to scrounge for parts. But still needed more. I fitted my dormitory door with an electronic card operated lock, but the thirst wasn’t sated. I hacked and mixed devices into a radio-watch but still… it wasn’t enough.

I needed something bigger, something better. I needed to move away from paper and super-glue enclosures to custom plastic casing. I needed to move away from sewing wires onto cereal boxes in an attempt to create circuit-boards. (This is actually a very tedious and error prone way of building circuit boards. Not to mention the extremely short life-span they had.)

In my Senior Four Vacation, I built my first robot. A beautifully ridiculous contraption called “Nigel”, after the Godzilla cartoon series. But Nigel did not have life. He did not have a “brain” to co-ordinate his extensive collection of motors. Everything was analogue, switching wires and motors around manually. It was unbelievably frustrating. I knew something was missing, but I didn’t know what.

And again I asked myself, why isn’t there someone I can go ask about this stuff? Why can’t I walk up to some professor in some place and ask questions?

And with the innocence of youth, I told myself that one day, I will collect the kind of people that want to teach and mentor and put them this huge lab and have kids walking in day in, day out asking them questions.

Then in 2001, I got onto the internet for the first time. My first searches were on robotics. And that is when I realised what was missing. Microcontrollers. Tiny little chips that could be programmed to move motors and flip switches and receive input from other switches.

Exactly what Nigel needed. Exactly what I had been dreaming about for many many years.

Except, it was unbelievably expensive! On a salary of $30 a month (before expenses), saving up $300 for a Basic Stamp II Kit was next to impossible.

And so, the dream died. And with the death of the dream, I vowed to myself that when I had saved up enough money, I’ll bring this stuff in and make it readily or easily available to dreamers like myself.

On the 3rd of October 2009, someone generously and unexpectedly handed me a collection of microcontrollers, programming boards and software. And I dove in againwaded deep and got back into robotics.

It wasn’t full time tech-hacking, but boy did it feel good. And it allowed me to dream again.

And then finally, last year, through Cafe Scientifique, I began speaking to high school kids about various topics, and the one that captivated them the most robotics. The topic was in such demand that the Cafe Scientifique co-ordinator asked me to speak at the National Science Week, and if possible, showcase a robot. I built a basic robot called Nigel 5 just for that talk, and the response was overwhelming.

On the spur of the moment, I told the students that I will be starting a robotics club soon, and if anyone was interested, they could find me at the back and sign up for it. I received more than 50 names and contacts, which represented more than 30% of the students in attendance.

In that singular moment, I saw the fire, passion and curiosity in the eyes of dozens of high school students, and I knew that perhaps, the time had come.

It was time to dream again, and perhaps more… to bring that dream to life.

And here we are. Fundi Bots. A very humble beginning to what I hope and believe will be a movement in Africa.

Will you share this dream with me?

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