MAMENDA, CAMEROON — A teenager in northwestern Cameroon has become the first African to win Google’s global youth coding challenge, despite an ongoing internet blackout in his hometown.
Nji Patrick Gbah’s tailor shop in Bamenda is buzzing with business and pride. His son, Collins, was recently named one of 34 grand-prize winners in this year’s Google Code-In, a global challenge for young programmers.
He used to punish his son for “joking” with the computer.
“I was feeling that he is just spending his time without doing house chores. At times I used to seize my computer and lock it in the house and I tell him not to use it anymore because I was believing that he is just spending time on that computer for nothing,” said the teen’s father.
Nji Collins Gbah has won a trip to Google headquarters in California this June with the other top finishers.
The competition was open to students between the ages of 13 and 17. More than 1,300 young people from 62 countries participated this year.
“The only thing I want to say is focus on studies,” Collins said. “Get to know more about the opportunities that are around you and go to sites which have real information about opportunities like this.”
But that may be hard at the moment for his fellow students in Bamenda. In mid-January, the internet was cut to English-speaking parts of Cameroon, amid ongoing unrest.
Collins had to plead with his uncle for travel money so he could go to to Mbouda, a French-speaking town 30 kilometers away, to get online and compete. He had just a few days to complete 842 programming tasks.
Many believe the government ordered the internet blackout, though there has been no official confirmation.
Teachers and lawyers have been on strike in the English-speaking regions since November. They have been joined by activists calling for secession. Some demonstrations have turned violent and dozens of people have been arrested.
Officials say activists have been using social media to spread anti-government messages.
Cameroon’s minister of post and telecommunication, Libom Li Likeng, told VOA there has to be a responsible use of technology. She says although social networks provide lots of opportunities, they have noticed that many people use them for unhealthy purposes.
African countries have been increasingly responding to unrest by cutting internet access. Uganda, Congo and Mali are just a few other examples.
Last week, a U.N. rights expert called the internet blackout in parts of Cameroon “an appalling violation” of freedom of expression.
Residents in affected areas say it is impacting the economy as money transfer services and ATM’s are not working.