Smashing Stereotypes About African Women In Technology
Akaliza Kera Gara is one of Rwanda’s leading female technology entrepreneurs and founder of Sharing Sun, a multimedia business.
Gara is also Microsoft’s youth representative for East Africa, a position she did not even apply for.
“I was nominated,” she said in an interview with AFKInsider. “After I was chosen, a representative of Microsoft asked me whether I would be interested and I said yes.”
As the Microsoft youth representative, she advises Microsoft on what technology is trending in the East African region.
AFKInsider asked Gara what she saw as some of the biggest changes in technology in East Africa in 2014.
“A trend that seems to be spreading is African techies talking to African techies,” Gara said. “In the past, we’d often look for experiences to travel out of Africa to learn about technology, but nowadays you are seeing many more internal discussions, local and regional, which I think is very exciting.”
Gara, 28, said her first experience with the Internet was when she was 8 or 9 years old and going to school in Switzerland.
Gara is still working on her education and experience while broadening her horizons internationally. She is living in Japan and working on her master’s degree, researching the history and development of the digital media industry in Japan, with a particular focus on anime.
Not only does she aim to finish her degree by this time next year, she hopes that she will be able to speak Japanese at a conversational level and also be able to read and write basic Japanese. Her interest in learning Japanese comes from her experience and respect for Japanese people in general.
“I didn’t expect Japanese people to be as polite as they are,” she said. “Even behavior that seems rude in the Japanese context would be relatively polite in many other countries.”
Any blatant stereotyping she has encountered being an African woman in Japan hails from other foreigners living in Japan, she said.
For example, when she told an American she was born in Uganda, he decided she must be a refugee. Another foreigner, a European, said she must love to dance and play the drums because she was from Africa. “I haven’t had any comments as direct as this from Japanese people but in much more subtle ways, many have shown me their assumptions about African countries, either that they are in a jungle, ravaged by war or abject poverty.”
Despite her connection to East Africa, Gara has studied, lived and traveled all over the world and has occasionally had to deal with some misunderstandings about working in the technology field in her homeland.
“When I was in the U.K., and I told my only client at the time that I was moving to Rwanda, she seemed truly puzzled. I had to explain that it was very safe in Rwanda and that I would actually be earning more money and be able to enjoy a better standard of living if I moved home. Many people — East Africans and foreigners — are quite unaware of the opportunities that exist in Rwanda,” Gara said.
Gara said she cares as much about leveling the playing field for men and women in ICT as she does about ensuring a positive reputation for East African technology specialists and entrepreneurs.
“Most of the sexism I have experienced in the industry is quite subtle,” she said. “The things that usually bother me are at IT events when people assume I will be more interested in fields that are less technical or fields that combine fashion and IT, for example.
“Another thing that happens to me at IT events is sometimes reporters ask me questions that have nothing to do with the conference, questions that they don’t ask the male participants, for example, about my marital status.
“These views do not just come from men but women too. I have met many, many girls and women who believe that IT is a man’s field. I am more concerned about changing those views because personally, I believe that as boys and men in IT field start to see more women in their classrooms and offices their views will naturally change too.”
Gara said she’s committed to empowering women and African ICT professionals alike. She looks up to ICT nerds as opposed to geeks, nerds being the pinnacle of intellectual greatness. AFKInsider inquired as to how her pursuit to achieve nerd status was coming along, to which she jovially responded, “Hahaha! This Master’s course seems to be helping!”