Before getting involved with the Web Foundation I spent nearly a year traveling through Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. During that time I had the chance to meet a lot of incredible people who faced tremendous hardships. What struck me most at the time was the way in which they refused to let their problems stop them from achieving their goals and, instead, chose to work hard in the hopes of opening up new possibilities for change. Over my next few posts I’m going to highlight some of the people that had a lasting impact on me and helped me realize why the Web will be such a powerful tool in enabling under-served populations to get what they so desperately want: the freedom to choose their own future.
The first of these inspirational people is Freddy Mafira, a priest in a small village outside Vic Falls, Zimbabwe. I met him in an internet cafe in Vic Falls and we quickly became good friends. He invited me to attend church with him the next morning and told me he would be helping with some elderly people in town if I wanted to come along. That next morning, Freddy delivered his first sermon in English and, with the help of the gentleman beside me, I did my best to sing hymns in Shona, their local language. After the service, we visited an old man who had attended church regularly until he’d suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to walk or communicate. Freddy delivered the day’s sermon just as he had each week since the man’s stroke. This willingness to go out of his way to inspire those around him and give hope to those most in need resulted in him having near-celebrity status. Walking through town it was clear that everyone knew Freddy as they waved, smiled, and greeted us at every turn.
After the visit, Freddy took me to his home and introduced me to his family. He had three children – Pride, Princess, and Praise – and took care of his sister who lost her husband years ago. Pride was born without a tibia bone in his right leg so had to be amputated. Then about four years old, he had outgrown his prosthetic limb and used makeshift crutches to assist his movement. I learned that to support his family, Freddy helped local fruit and vegetable producers sell to businesses in Vic Falls and Harare. During the days we spent together he often spoke about his desire to learn new languages (he already spoke about five) and skills. His mentality was that if he could continue to do, know, and communicate more, then he would open up new doors that might result in additional income to provide food and education for his family.
It was exactly this open-minded determination that made me realize the power that the Web could have for people like Freddy and those around him. By working with partners to enable local leaders to access and publish relevant content, tools, and services on the Web using computers and mobile phones, we can have a much broader and deeper impact in the community. Building on Freddy’s determination to open as many doors as possible, we can help him, and those like him, to create his own doors and then watch as he shows everyone around him how to do the same.
Freddy and I have kept in touch since we met in late 2007. Though his country continues to face many tough problems he remains as passionate as ever about the possibility of change. He recently told me about a new business venture he is planning in order to better support his family and community. He is gathering people together to start a computer center in his village so that they can access the Web, learn how to use email and word processing tools, and build their own websites. His ultimate vision is the same as ours and it can be summed up with one overused and under-appreciated word: empowerment.