In February 2018, at PyCon Namibia in Windhoek, we sat down to sketch out a proposed DjangoCon Africa. More than five years later we finally got to hold our event, our plans disrupted by the global pandemic and by the civil war in Ethiopia.
DjangoCon Africa took place in Zanzibar, Tanzania 6th-11th November 2023. The organisers were an international group from across the continent and included the local PyCon Tanzania organisation that has staged four PyCons in the country already.
We adopted the same format that the first PyCon Africa used: an introduction and orientation day, followed by three days of talks and two days of workshops and collaboration.
We had ~200 attendees, of whom 103 were women, representing at least 22 countries from around the world.
The most important aspect of this event was the opportunity to bring together people, from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds and perspectives on software.
Amongst them there are two groups of people we’d like to mention as being especially significant to the conference.
The first are some of the regional travellers who came to Zanzibar.
Some of them literally spent longer travelling than they did in Zanzibar. Four attendees came all the way from South Sudan, travelling on buses: Juba to Kampala to Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. That was three days and three nights, that included waiting up all night for connections (they had to repeat the journey in reverse, after the conference).
There were other attendees who also took long-distance bus journeys; some too had to sit up all night alone in foreign city centres and endure other hardships and discomforts to get here.
The commitment made by those attendees, simply to take part in the event, moved and humbled us. We felt deeply proud that we had put on something that meant so much to other people.
130 of our attendees were students (75 of them women) from several universities in Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania. This was by design, and reflected the enormous work put in by the local organisers to establish connection with higher education institutions.
It’s not always easy for open-source organisations in Africa to be understood or recognised, but years of building trust and relationships have borne fruit. The event was held at State University of Zanzibar, which provided facilities we would have otherwise been hard-pressed to afford.
Gender and representation
In our programme of 26 talks 10 speakers were women. Ideally, the proportion of female speakers would have been higher still (at multiple African events we see that women typically represent about half of the attendees, and about a third of speakers).
Another positive sign was that for once, the burden of carrying messages about diversity and inclusion did not fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. There were several talks on those topics and it was a concern that was fairly shared across the genders.
In terms of technical content, DjangoCon Africa offered a standard equal to that of sister DjangoCons elsewhere in the world.
We held 26 talks on topics covering programming, society, careers, education, disability, agriculture - the full range of topics you’d expect at a DjangoCon, with the African perspective often at the forefront.
On the two final days of the event, of collaboration sprints and workshops, the sessions were packed. More than two-thirds of the conference audience stayed on after the talks for these two days. The workshops covered a variety of technical topics from deployment to data retrieval and display. The workshop days also focused on effective community-building across the region, sharing ambitions, experience and advice - especially for further events.
We received far more applications for financial assistance than we could possibly have supported. We were able to provide:
- air tickets for 27 African travellers from other countries
- travel from the Tanzanian mainland for 36 people, including 27 female students
- hostel accommodation for 67 people
Financial assistance was the single largest cost in our budget (followed by catering).
Sponsorship and donations
As usual, this event was made possible through the generosity of our sponsors, commercial and otherwise. We are enormously grateful to them all.
We were also supported by a number of private individuals - people in the international Python/Django community who wanted to help make the event a success. They contributed via our GoFundMe campaign, by buying “donation” tickets from our website or by sending in direct donations. Every single penny that we received was used in our financial assistance budget, to purchase travel for an attendee.
It wasn’t our plan or preference to rely on personal donations to make this possible, but when we had to ask, the community responded generously.
Official visits and recognition
One measure of the local significance of the event was the attention it received from government officials and leaders, as well as senior university officials, who wanted to see the event for themselves. They addressed the conference and stayed to talk to attendees:
- Mr. Mbwana Yahya Mwinyi (Director of ICT in Zanzibar’s Ministry of Education and Vocational Training)
- Dr Nkundwe Moses Mwasaga (Director General of the ICT Commission Tanzania) - the Commission also assisted in the provision of accommodation for travellers
- Hon. Hassan Khamis Hafidh (Deputy Minister of Health, Zanzibar)
- Ms. Siti Abbas Ali (Director of Zanzibar’s Department of Community, Development, Gender and Children)
Anyone who has organised an event like this is used to answering questions like “What is Python?” or “What is Django?”, or even “What is open-source software?”
In this case, part of the answer was there in concrete evidence: Python and Django are something that can cause 200 people from more than 20 countries to get together. Also, that behind those 200 people is an international community, of organisations and individuals to whom it meant something, and who supported it from afar. Even if someone doesn’t completely understand what they are, this is a powerful statement that shows what Python and Django mean and what their value is.
There was also interest from Tanzanian news media, who filmed and interviewed several attendees and organisers.
Python and Django in Tanzanian higher education
We were fortunate to have had the engagement of higher education institutions from the beginning, but the success of our event confirmed the value of Python and Django in Tanzanian education. It helped demonstrate their future value, which was seen in person by several faculty members at other institutions.
The attendance of the 75 women students was just by itself a significant achievement. Many of the young women attending were doing so beyond the established and familiar circles of family, university and work. A great deal of sustained effort went into making it possible; the outcome is their direct exposure to the reality of open-source software community, and to ideas, ambitions and people they would otherwise not have encountered.
We noticed their engagement with speakers. They were visibly inspired by the women they saw on stage; especially after a talk by a woman speaker, there would be question after question from women in the audience.
Community building and regional networking
We helped make numerous connections within Africa, and between Africa and other parts of the world. It was very encouraging to have representatives from countries with no history of Python community events in earnest discussion about how to get new communities started.