I am Charles Lebon Mberi Kimpolo, from the Republic of Congo. I was born in a family of six children including two sisters and three brothers. I am the third born; a position from which usually many African children lack necessary attention from their parents, can you guess why?
Both my mother and father have no education. My father was working in the sugar cane industry and retired before I went to university. I was born and raised in a town called Nkayi. This is the fourth biggest city in the Republic of Congo, known as the “industrial city” because of the big sugar cane industry (SARIS), which contributes immensely to the economy of the country. Nkayi has several primary schools and only one public high school called “Lycee de Nkayi”, which is where I studied.
Being born into a poor family is one part of my story, but having parents who valued education is the most interesting part. It is because of the latter part that I now have the opportunity to share this story with you. Education in my family is still valued and since I am the first and, so far the only person with a doctoral degree in my family, my educational journey is being used to inspire many of the young people in my family.
I graduated with distinction with an Honours Degree in Applied Mathematics at Marien Ngouabi University, the only public university in Brazzaville, Congo. At that time, (2004), the Faculty of Science and in particular the department of Applied Mathematics did not have a post-graduate programme. It was clear that pursuing post-graduate studies meant going overseas where these programmes were available. For many of the Congolese students, the preference was to go to France for their postgraduate studies because of the political history between France and Congo, and the lack of a language barrier would mean an easier integration in to society. The fact that French Universities did not provide scholarships or bursaries to all Congolese students made it a challenge for students like me who were born into a poor family.
I had very limited access to the Internet in Brazzaville: I had to visit a Cyber Cafe and it was, and continues to be, very expensive and unreliable. I did not even have an email address but with the encouragement from one of my professors, I created an account and applied for the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) programme in South Africa. English was another challenge for me; if my application was successful I would need to improve my English skills.
AIMS, bridging the gap
I came to South Africa in 2004 and the time I spent at AIMS changed my career plans and my life forever. For me, the AIMS programme was a bridge between two different worlds — the unseen world where my talent and potential were not recognized, perhaps because of my family’s poor socio-economic background, to a bigger world where I was given the opportunity to achieve my potential. AIMS opened the world to me and helped me to believe in myself.
My time at AIMS also allowed me to meet many great people, those I could not imagine sharing a table with for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prof. Neil Turok (the founder of AIMS) is one such person. Respect, humility and openness were the main three values that I found in these people. I looked at the world in a better way and started building my aspirations.
AIMS provided me with the opportunity to study with world-class facilities; 24 hour free Internet connection, unlimited access to libraries and connections to different universities. I did not have any plan or dream to study toward a doctoral degree because I knew that my family was not able to pay for further studies, but with the help of AIMS, it became a reality.
Because the AIMS programme is very well recognized, graduating from AIMS added value to my CV and people were impressed to hear that I attended the programme.
Thoughtworks, a company that Africa needs
I was privileged to have come to know Thoughtworks, a global IT consulting company which offers Africans unique career opportunities to develop our continent. I had heard of great global business leaders in the IT sector and I was fortunate to have met Roy Singham, founder of Thoughtworks, and Chief Technology Officer Rebecca Parsons who are my role models. They stand out in a list of intellectually broad, passionate, self deferential, charismatic and driven leaders that the world needs.
Thoughtworks advocates passionately for social and economic justice. Thoughtworks’ core mission is to better humanity through software. In terms of my personal life, since I joined Thoughtworks, life is treating me well. However, I don’t want to forget where I come from, my true identity. I would like to reach out to people who live in similar conditions to those I was raised in. I am very passionate about making a difference in Africa. Starting with the South African community and not forgetting my home country, where many of the challenges I described still exist, I would like to give back to these communities which made my successful journey possible.
My desire to give back to communities inspired me to think of the “Young African Technologists (YAT)” initiative, which aims to promote education through technology in under-privileged communities. YAT’s main objective is to groom the next generation of African technologists, to help others move from desperation to hope for the future. I am still unable to get the opportunity to go back to my country and share my experience and try to help the youth as much as possible but I hope the expansion of the YAT initiative across Africa will make this happen.
In summary, I believe it does not matter in which country you are born or in which country you are living, nor does not matter how bad your family socio-economic conditions were or are, it is amazing to see that there exist many bridges (AIMS and Thoughtworks were mine) in life which will help you move from where you are to where you want to be. It might be difficult or it might take time to find these bridges, but it is important that you start believing that they do exist. If you persevere in doing the little that you are able to do, one day you will certainly find your bridge and be in a position to write a more amazing story than mine.
Thoughtworks believes that ambitious missions need disruptive thinking. I have one ambitious mission for the YAT initiative to successfully run in every single African country. I need your disruptive thinking to achieve this.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.