Passion & Service

Tabitha, Marie, Eric and Charles are a few friends that I grew up with who would often spend the night, sometimes for days or even weeks. However, they weren’t quite like the rest of my friends at elementary school. You see, for the entire duration of my childhood years, my father worked as a professor at Central State University, a historically African/African-American university, and Tabitha, Marie, Eric and Charles were some of his students studying abroad from Africa. As a 10-year-old boy, I mostly just knew that they seemed to be very warm and friendly and would always play soccer with me! However, my parents did not shield me from the fact that Tabitha and Marie, Rwandan sisters, had seen their parents murdered in the Tutsi genocide. With all that my young mind could comprehend, I learned that the world stretched beyond my middle-class Ohio neighborhood and that the resources we have received are most enjoyed when helping those who have endured less-fortunate upbringings.

The experiences I had as a boy brewed in my mind until I finally decided to go and experience Africa for myself (on a service trip) upon graduating college in 2008. I found that, although many of the Africans we encountered were poor in possessions, they were rich in spirit and I fell in love with the African people.

Meme Lina, Orphanage Mother in Katatura (Windhoek, Namibia)

Meme Lina, orphanage mother in Katatura (Windhoek, Namibia).

One of our main outreach activities was to speak to high school students about the realities and possible solutions to the growing devastation of AIDS.  Although our small team of a dozen spoke in over 100 classrooms, each class presented a new challenge.  It’s hard to give hope to these teenagers when you understand the reality that they claim as their own.  By the statistics, an astonishing 90% (in one school) of the children we talked to each day have AIDS, whether they know it or not.  I’ll never forget how one middle school boy said it when asked what problems their society faces today: “AIDS…the disease which breaks our hearts.”  Of the hundreds of kids at the high schools we visited, you may very well be able to count the number of students who continue their education on your own two hands.

AIDS…the disease which

breaks our hearts

One of the greatest things I learned from these encounters was the value of education.  In a land where the American dream doesn’t exist, it’s much easier to see the lack of parity between the educated and the uneducated.  In some of the villages we visited, a simple, well-balanced education would literally help save lives and prevent countless diseases.  In turn, this would allow Namibians to focus on developing their communities, instead of spending so much of their resources to fight off disease.

Teaching a classroom full of students in Rundu, Africa.

Teaching a classroom full of students in Rundu, Africa.

Another significant lesson I learned was the potential of technology.  After a session in one classroom, three young men named Johannes, Edward and Christian came to talk to me one-on-one.  They shared their dreams with me about how they wanted to become doctors and engineers.  Even though I knew their outlook was bleak because of their lack of opportunities, it was hard not to share in their hope.  I gave them my e-mail address and told them that if they sent me an e-mail, I would do everything I could to find them scholarships to apply for in America.  Unfortunately, I never received a single e-mail.  It saddens me to think these children’s lives could be dramatically changed if they could learn how to send a simple e-mail.

Even though I knew their outlook

was bleak because of their lack of

opportunities, it was hard not

to share in their hope.

I returned to the States from my first trip to Namibia (2008) with a new passion for humanity, a degree in computer engineering, and a sense of responsibility to help the “underprivileged.”  I quickly got in contact with a Namibian friend named Martha and figured out a way to pay for a cleft palate surgery for Weyulu, a little boy who I had met in an orphanage. Things in Africa don’t always happen quickly or as planned, but after much conflict, it was incredibly rewarding to finally receive before-and-after pictures of Weyulu’s surgery.  I soon began to ask myself: “how do I combine my passion for helping people with my excitement and abilities in computer engineering?”

Before and after pictures of Weyulu, along with my Namibian friend, Martha.

Before and after pictures of Weyulu, along with my Namibian friend, Martha.

How do I combine my passion

for helping people with my

excitement and abilities

in computer engineering?

I soon realized the power and influence of technology upon my return to the United States.  I spent countless hours creating a DVD for those who had supported my trip to Africa.  One night, I showed one of the videos and spoke to a group of 200 students on the University of Cincinnati’s campus.   At the end of the night, nearly 15 students felt moved to go on overseas trips!  It was at this point where I really began to envision the impact I could make on the world with the use of my engineering skills.

A Namibia video presented to 200 students at UC.

After returning to the United States, a vision began to form in my mind as I corresponded with Martha.  Martha had developed a plan to start a business called Imani Investments, which was comprised of three main components: a book store, a coffee shop, and a radio station.  With Imani’s success, Martha’s main desire was to “invest in the youth, orphans, and widows” by empowering them through reading materials and encouraging them with positive radio programming.

As a way to build capital and raise funds for Imani, Martha planned on selling real estate.  I quickly became excited as I realized I could use my engineering abilities to invest in the future of Namibia’s youth!  I decided to take a job as a web-developer for the next seven months (Tellus Web) to learn the basics of web-development so I could return to Namibia and build a website for Imani in 2009.

I quickly became excited as I

realized I could use my engineering

abilities to invest in the future

of Namibia’s youth!

After “training” for 7 months, putting together a plan, recruiting a graphic designer, and again raising the $5,000+ to return to Namibia, I made my second journey to Africa in June of 2009.  Seven weeks later, we had created a fully functional and professional website  that could help Imani build capital and achieve its goal of empowering and encouraging the youth of Namibia towards a brighter future.  Unfortunately, although we delivered the website, handed it over to a local Namibian team and ensured it went live, the project never made it off the ground for reasons beyond our control.

Imani Real Estate Web Site Design

Imani real estate web site sesign.

The needs of African children range from high-level material needs to low-level infrastructure needs. After many months of planning and dreaming, my wife and I recently launched (Dec. 2012) a one-for-one apparel line  to do our part to help address the high-level material needs. The concept is simple; for every shirt you purchase, we will send one to a child in Africa (we are starting with the Breath of Heaven orphanage in Lusaka, Zambia). It has been extremely satisfying to use the computer skills I have gained over the last decade to design and launch an e-commerce store (www.BarebacksClothing.com ).

Barebacks clothing t-shirts.

Barebacks clothing t-shirts.

I believe we can begin to address some of the low-level infrastructure needs through research. It was during my second trip to Africa when I first received an e-mail from my UCR adviser, Dr. Philip Brisk. With a strong personal desire to see my work have a positive impact on the world around me, we narrowed my research focus to an area called microfluidics. Microfluidics is a technology that miniaturizes and automates biochemistry such that it is possible to perform clinical diagnostics, DNA analysis, and many other applications on a tiny fluidic chip. One of the primary goals in the microfluidics community is to produce inexpensive, disposable, microfluidic devices that can perform clinical diagnostics. With microfluidic research driving the cost of some devices close to $1, this emerging field promises to make a concrete impact in serving underrepresented populations by producing affordable healthcare technologies.

I’ve walked through the decrepit hallways of the Katutura State Hospital in Windhoek, Namibia, and peered into the rooms to see the devastating effects of AIDS and disease. I’ve looked into the face of Weyulu, whose cleft palate should have been corrected at a much younger age had there been proper diagnosis and care. In fact, much of the heartache and pain suffered in Africa could be prevented with basic diagnosis and healthcare. Unfortunately, it is too-often true that the people-groups and societies with the greatest medical needs have the fewest resources available to meet those needs. As healthcare costs increase world-wide, microfluidics has the potential to make quality healthcare more affordable for poor neighborhoods and countries; it’s been extremely exciting and rewarding to play a key part in research that has such great potential to give back to the world!