Marlene Mhangami is a remarkable woman. She was the first African woman to join the board of the global Python Software Foundation (PSF). PSF develops and maintains the Python programming language, one of the most popular programming languages in the world. Marlene was also chair of the first ever pan-African PyCon (Python Conference). She co-founded ZimboPy, a non-profit that empowers young women in Zimbabwe to pursue careers in technology.
In this conversation, Marlene and I discuss what it was like joining the board of PSF, particularly as a young African woman. She reflects on the resources she had, and the ones she didn’t, when she taught herself how to code. On many occasions, Marlene has needed to act against traditional views of what a Zimbabwean woman should do. In equal part, she’s needed to resist misguided donors with antiquated ideas of how to teach technology. Today Marlene sits at a crossroads, with open source and non-profit work down one path and the private sector technology industry down another. Which path will she choose – or will she find a way to bring these two worlds together?
- Marlene Mhangami’s personal website shares a host of her other work, writing, speaking, and coding to support science and technology for social good. Among other things, she writes about the state of open source in Africa and shares interviews about her work with PSF and ZimboPy.
- The Python Software Foundation (PSF) is an American non-profit that runs and maintains the Python programming language. Baked into its mission statement is its goal to support a diverse and international community of programmers.
- PyCon Africa: Marlene was the inaugural chair of the first PyCon Africa in 2019.
- Rebecca Enonchung: Marlene’s shoutout goes to Rebecca Enonchung, a founder, investor, and advocate for female tech entrepreneurs in Africa. She was featured on the cover of Forbes Africa Magazine in March 2020.
- The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power: Marlene’s recommended reading is this memoir from Samantha Power, the current administrator for USAID. It tells the story of how Samantha matched her beliefs and activism against the US State.
If you enjoyed our chat with Marlene Mhangami, you might also enjoy these conversations with other technologists and self-starters in Africa:
This transcript is an excerpt from the full interview.
The Challenges of Open Source in Zimbabwe
Rowena: In one of your blogs, you were talking about a conversation in a Slack community that you’re part of, about open source. You were speaking with some of your African colleagues about, “let’s get more open source projects going in Africa.” And the feeling that came back from that conversation was:
“Open source is for rich people.”
I know a lot of the work that you’ve done, serving on the Python Software Foundation, you had to do as a volunteer. There’s only a certain kind of person that can do that – I mean, clearly you can balance three jobs, but for the rest of us – there’s a kind of work that you can do for free, and a kind of work that is harder to do. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that statement, “open source is for rich people”. Is it true, is it false? What does that say about Africa, and America? Unpack it for me.
Marlene: Definitely. When I started joining the Python space, I really was surprised to see how many people are directly hired from contributing to open source.
And that’s on a global scale where a lot of people in the tech space are encouraged to contribute to open source because a lot of recruiters look at your open source profile and are going to directly hire from that space.
Marlene: I’ll be in conversations with people and people would be just like, “Oh, why aren’t African people actually doing stuff with open source? Why is it only….” …and kind of looking down on some of our communities.
Because people are not contributing to open source.
When I talked about open source to my community on that WhatsApp group, people said, “You can’t do it because it’s literally volunteering your time and your energy.”
From my experience in Zimbabwe, our economy is really struggling. And so the majority of people cannot afford a very strong Internet connection where they can be online all the time. And then people also are not going to be able to afford using all of their time and energy for free or just volunteering for that possible chance that something could come out of it. Even to contribute to open source, you need resources.
If you’re a parent, for example, you need someone to take care of your child. Well, people don’t consider childcare. People don’t consider the fact that you need Internet, which is expensive. You need electricity, and sometimes – it’s gotten a little bit better this year – the electricity goes out in our country, so you need fuel for your generator. You need food to eat. There’s so many factors!
When people say, “just contribute to open source,” it’s not that simple, particularly for people who are living in places where economically there’s a lot of challenges.
For myself as well, I definitely came from a point of privilege because even that year that I could explore, I was only able to do that because my parents are very well off. They could give me the space to be able to do that.
Rowena: Thank God for parents. On so many levels.
Marlene: Exactly. Without that I wouldn’t have been able to take that time to volunteer. And it’s sad because even when I think about my own career, I don’t know if I would have had the opportunities I would have had today without spending a lot of time volunteering.
Rowena: Yeah, for sure. I would love to see more people like you, Marlene, on the Python Software Foundation and elsewhere in leadership roles.
And maybe there’s something where, say, a stipend or some fellowship program, for people who don’t have the parents to support them, just to give them a year to play around, to get that exposure, to find their feet and make their voice. I think that would be really powerful. And maybe it’s a missed opportunity.
Marlene: I would love to see that, too. Let’s make it happen.