Google’s New Coding Champion Is a 17-year-old Cameroonian Whose Hometown Has Been Cut Off the Internet

Abdi Latif Dahir | Quartz | February 14, 2017

In Nov. 2016, Nji Collins Gbah, a tech enthusiast from Bamenda, Cameroon, started participating in the Google Code-in competition, the global online contest which introduces pre-university students aged 13 to 17 to the world of open source. Despite his tenacity, the odds seem stacked against Gbah. In 2016 alone, over 1,300 students from 62 countries took part in the competition. In total, they completed more than 6,400 tasks related to coding, research, documentation, quality assurance and improving user interfaces. During the seven-week program, Gbah completed 20 tasks using the Open Medical Record System, or OpenMRS, a platform that focuses on improving healthcare service in developing countries.

Nji Collins Gbah“I was anxious,” Gbah wrote in a blog post published a day before the deadline on Jan. 16. But “I had to find ways to turn my nervousness into creativity and fun.” Gbah said that he chose to participate with OpenMRS “because the whole idea of writing code to save lives was really amazing and I wanted to be part of it.” But one day after the competition ended, the government shut down the internet in Bamenda, Gbah’s hometown and the capital of the northwest region.

The shutdown also affected the southwest region and was instituted following protests in the two Anglophone regions against marginalization from the French-dominated government. Since then, the shutdown has drawn criticism from digital advocacy groups, and from United Nations experts, who have called it “an appalling violation” to freedom of expression. But on Jan. 30, almost two weeks into the blackout, Gbah was selected as one of 34 winners—and the first African—of the annual competition. His story, that of a young developer winning an esteemed hacking award, has been used as a rallying point for those campaigning against the shutdown...