Story of Henry Wanjala
I clearly remember the first time I saw a computer. Someone was playing a video game called Road Rash 3 at a church. I remember staring at him, not understanding what he was doing. I couldn't help but wonder how the game actually worked. This fleeting, early moment ignited a passion in me that was to inspire one of my life's defining journeys.
To relate this story, allow me to go back to the beginning.
My father died when I was a young boy, and it was decided early on that my siblings and I would move to a village so that we could live with my auntie and further our education. There were 12 of us living in a two-bedroom house with no running water. But I had other things on my mind. I was determined to stay in school and get an education.
Each day, I woke up very early to walk the three kilometers separating my auntie's house from school. I remember sharp stones poking into my bare feet because I didn't have any shoes to wear. Despite this fact, or maybe because of it, I have fond memories of that period of time in my life. We all loved each other very much. In this supportive environment, I learned the values of hard work, of helping others, and of being resourceful. I wouldn't have traded any of it for the world. Fast forward a few years. One of my first memories with computers is when I learned to type on a keyboard. I was 15 years old, and I knew that I didn't have enough money to access a computer at an internet cafe or training center let alone to buy an actual keyboard. A solution came to me when I spotted a box with a picture of a keyboard on it. I cut out the computer keyboard picture and carried it around with me so that I could teach myself how to type. As my high school teacher taught the class to type on real keyboards, I practiced moving my fingers to learn all the letters and symbols across my makeshift cardboard keyboard.
It was in high school that my curiosity for computers really took off. In 2005, a high school friend named Micheale Okwii told me that his dad was starting an internet cafe business. When he told me about it, the first thing I wondered was whether I could help out at the cafe even if that meant just being around the computers and not touching them. Micheale told me that he would ask his dad. I was filled with anticipation as to the possibilities. The following day, he came back and told me that I could help them sweep and mop the cafe each day before school if I wanted to, but that was all I could do. My immediate response was yes!
At this point, I didn't know anything about computers, but I did know that this was an opportunity for me to be around computers, and that was what I wanted most. I was grateful that Micheale's father was willing to let me volunteer as a cleaner at the internet cafe. Enthusiastically, I woke up every morning at 4:00 am and walked three kilometers to the cafe. It took me about 30 minutes to clean, and when I was finished, I headed off to school.
After three months of working at the cafe, they allowed me to touch the computers and learn how to properly turn them on and off. Being able to touch the computers was the first step for me, and it was at this point when I knew I was going to be able to start slowly gaining more knowledge about computers. Eventually, as they trusted me more, they gave me the responsibility of turning on the computers each morning after I cleaned.
During my school holidays, the internet cafe was a haven for me. I spent all of my time there cleaning and using the computers to learn as much as I could. I still was not being paid for cleaning, but at this point, I wasn't concerned with money. What mattered to me most was that I was getting hands-on experience. I used this energy to learn and understand as much as I could about computers.
This routine of volunteering and school went on and on until one day I was hired not only to clean the cafe but also to help customers surf the web and help my friend's father fix the computers. I was paid one USD dollar per day, but I didn't mind. I had learned so much! By the fourth year of work at the internet cafe, I knew I had accumulated as much knowledge as I could, so I decided to search for something else that would challenge me further.
While I still worked at the cafe, a Canadian girl named Melissa Meartens asked me for help with her cell phone. She had come to Uganda with her friend Ann to volunteer with a Canadian charity organization. Melissa, Ann, and I fast became good friends. During their two month stay, they noticed that there were a lot of street kids in Jinja wandering around by themselves begging for food. I loved helping street kids, as did Melissa and Ann, so we decided to get to know the kids better by playing soccer and talking with them. We began to build strong, trusting connections with the kids. When Melissa and Ann had to leave for Canada, I chose to continue my relationship with these street kids.
As I got to know the kids better, I learned some of them wanted desperately to go to school, some were passionate about playing soccer, and some just wanted a safe place to live and food to eat. I stayed in touch with Melissa and kept her updated about the street kids. Together, Melissa and I helped them enroll in school and tried to provide them shelter. Months later, we turned this collaborative effort into a non-profit organization.
Melissa helped me connect with the Canadian charity organization that she had been volunteering with during her time in Uganda. I introduced myself and began volunteering with this organization soon thereafter, an experience which ultimately gave me the opportunity to meet more awesome people.
Case and point, in my last year of high school, I met a Canadian mother and son, Brenda and Tanu Huff, who were both in Uganda volunteering through charity. Tanu and I quickly became as close as brothers. I desperately wanted to continue my studies after high school yet I didn't know how I would pay for it. I remember mentioning my desire to go to university to Tanu at one point and how I didn't know how I could pay for my studies. Little did I know how much he would take my desire to heart. Tanu came up with an amazing idea. During his time in Uganda, he had developed a love for Ugandan music and had asked me to collect all the dance style music that I could for him. He told me that when he returned to Canada, he was going to present the idea of a fundraising dance to his high school so that I could start university. Sure enough, when Tanu went back to Canada, he was able to make his idea happen. In total, he raised $4300-enough for me to start university.
The next chapter in my journey happened as I was walking along Main Street in Jinja. I spotted a truck with a logo on it that struck me because I thought it could have been some kind of organization relating to computer technology. I did some research and discovered that I was correct.
I knew that I wanted to connect with this organization, but I needed to locate that mystery truck. Over the next few days I searched around town and was pleasantly surprised when I found it right there on Main Street. At that point, I decided to wait to see if I could meet the owner of this truck, so I sat nearby and waited. It turns out that the owner of the truck was an American who was living in Uganda and working with computers. After meeting him, I asked if I could volunteer with his organization. He presented me with his business card and told me to get in touch with him if I was serious. I was so excited at this prospect that I sent an email to him that same day letting him know that I was very serious.
At the time, he was starting up a computer training centre and welcomed me on as a volunteer. It was at this training centre where I learned about computers in greater depth. I absorbed a lot, including knowledge about computer programming and web development.
After a few months of working there, I left Jinja for Kampala to study at Aptech University and pursue a degree in software engineering. Tanu and Brenda Huff's family/friends did whatever they could to continue to fund my post secondary education. In order to keep fundraising, I began painting pictures for the Huff family so they could raise the remainder of funds for me to finish my degree. So there it was, my dream was coming true. I went through University and graduated with a Software Engineering degree. Afterwards, I decided to move back to Jinja and once again volunteer with the same computer training centre. At that point, I had acquired enough knowledge about computer programming and web development that I became a more effective teacher. (I especially enjoyed teaching youth in Uganda.)
Through my connection with the American director of the charity with which I was volunteering, I was able to make some solid international relationships within the hacker community. These connections allowed me to learn more about hacking, to get involved with CEH: Certified Ethical Hacking, and to ultimately speak at Derbycon in Louisville, Kentucky in the fall of 2015. This conference was attended by over 3,000 people, each of whom had significant hacking expertise. The experience opened many doors for my career and helped me to see things differently as I discovered new opportunities I had not even considered before.
As a result of this experience, I am finalizing my CEH and now realize how much I want to be a Computer Hacker Forensics Investigator (CHFI).
I have remained very close with Tanu and his family, and I am currently visiting them in British Columbia. A few years ago, Tanu and I started a Canadian not-for-profit organization to bridge the gaps in our world. I am volunteering my time to code a unique web application for our organization which will launch soon! But that is a story for another time.
As I move ahead and look toward to the future, I hope to one day be able to continue to explore my passion for computers and especially to help the youth in Uganda experience some of what I have learned, especially in the area of coding and programming. I want to work again with the street kids that were there when this all began. I really believe that I can use what I have learned through my education to improve literacy in Uganda and moreover, Africa as a whole. When I look back at where I started, I recognize how fortunate I am to have met the people that I have along the way that allowed me to discover my passion and build a better life as a result. Because of this, I know I need to give back all that I can.
Just because you don't have access to a piece of software, computer or keyboard, doesn't mean that you can't learn Infosec. Sometimes there will be no one to help you figure out a command, but you have to problem solve and figure out a way to do it. Study each and every material you can get your hands on; It will pay off. If you work with passion, through the labour of love you will be more motivated with how much you get out of your efforts and how much you can accomplish. At some port, I couldn't compile software but that didn't stop me from learning.
Passion has always been what drives my motivation. I come from a third world country where people don't know about Infosec, but it never stopped the spark and the courage within me to learn. I believed in myself and that one day I could be part of a global need.
It might seem like it is very hard and you might wonder or be unsure of where to start, but don't give up. Educating yourself is important but success in this industry needs more than just knowledge. Networking A+, Linux operating system knowledge, a degree or any form or qualification in computer science or software engineering will be of so much help but you have to have the passion.