Dr. Fortune Mhlanga | Professor of Computer Science
As a child in rural Zimbabwe, Fortune Mhlanga could not know what he would someday accomplish for his country. He grew up without a TV set, much less a computer. His family owned a small battery-operated radio that they would turn on at night to hear the news. During the World Cup, Mhlanga and other children would gather at the house of a friend who owned a television to watch. These were his only experiences with technology until age 17.
When Mhlanga was in Form Three (10th grade here) the mission school he was attending in Zimbabwe closed at the height of the country’s liberation war. It seemed his education would have to be put on hold until something else could be arranged. However, at the time Mhlanga’s brother was in Detroit, Mich., finishing up his Ph.D. His brother was able to make arrangements for Fortune to finish high school at Harding Academy in Searcy, Ark. So at 17 years old, Mhlanga packed his bags and traveled alone to Searcy.
An unexpected turn of events
Because of his interest in math and science, Mhlanga was put into a computer programming class. This was the first time he ever had an opportunity to use a computer.
“When I went to Harding Academy, I had never seen a computer, never touched a keyboard,” he says. But within a few weeks, he was helping his peers with their work.
“There was a PDP-11 DEC computer, which was placed at the corner of the classroom, and we would discuss how to write a program, design the program, and sometimes write the program by hand on paper." Mhlanga recalls. "When your turn came, in the few minutes that you had, you got to go to the terminal to put in your program and run it.”
He had intended to study engineering in college, but when the time came for him to transfer to a university with an engineering program, he encountered problems getting his transcript. So he stayed at Harding. The closest major available was in computer science. This unanticipated turn of events would launch his prominent career in technology and computer science.
Changing the world
Mhlanga recently returned from the Pan Africa Media Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya, where he launched the rDNA (Reporting Development Network Africa) online platform. This software enables different countries in Africa to report on a website (www.reportingdna.org) about developmental issues in their area.
The project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"The challenges facing Africa have been well articulated: poverty, war, disease, dictatorships, drought, collapsed social service, low technology, high levels of unemployment and population displacement," Mhlanga says. However, the role of media in Africa's development and democracy agenda remains inadequately explored.
The conference dovetailed well with the idea behind rDNA, which is earmarked to become Africa’s leading virtual news platform showcasing best practice in the use of digital media to tell the development story, says Mhlanga. "Having an outlet to discuss developmental issues, such as culture, economics, politics and education, will help Africa move forward," he says.