John Atem Aguer Atem [Photo by John Pen de Ngong]
By John Pen de Ngong
KAMPALA, 20 February 201 [Gurtong] - He cannot afford the Advanced Level school fees to complete a 2-year secondary course paving his way to the university. As his fellow students are shopping for stationery and other scholastic requirements, he is buying simple electronics for his home science workshop in Kampala.
John Atem is a refugee living with his family in Uganda. He was born in Nimule, a South Sudan-Uganda border town, in 1999 at the heart of the Sudan civil war, barely 10 years to his country’s independence. Again, he was displaced by another war after independence.
Jacob Aguer Atem, his father, is an officer in the peace monitoring unit in the South Sudan Army (SPLA). He is assigned to assist the peace keeping force in Wau, Bahr al Ghazal region. Due to the ongoing civil war in the country, the economy has collapsed and Jacob Aguer’s salary is not enough to put food on the family table and put the children back to school at the same time. Asked about his reaction to news of his son’s best performances, Jacob gave mixed feelings: excited that his son has made a name; disappointed that he could not make his son continue to achieve his dream at the moment. Many South Sudanese families are facing the same situation.
However, that background does not only make John Atem’s story more wanting. The boy, 16 years then, was the best student all over Uganda in the 2016 examinations’ results, released late January 2017. The boy is now 17, but is a self-made adult in all his thoughts, character and the budding career in information technology.
One Sunday in Kabowa Church, a Kampala suburb, John Atem spoke at length to John Penn de Ngong, a talent scout at Junub Games (www.junubegames.com), a talent spotting and supporting organization in the field of games for peace using information technology among South Sudanese refugees and IDPs. Atem, going by a social media alias of ‘Joe Einstein’, is a self-trained software developer. Or he is earnestly trying to be one.
But there is something more than that. He believes in God. He also considers his parents as a second God. He wants to serve or save humanity through his fellow citizens. Out of the scores of the candidates that knelt before the South Sudanese congregation in an examination prayer request in 2016, only John Atem returned to thank God and his intercessors (Christians).
Humbly kneeling beside his mother, Elizabeth Achol Makuach, the boy was described, according to a story in the Bible, as the “only one among the 10 lepers that returned to thank Jesus Christ after they were healed.” The congregation was awed and wowed by his testimony.
John Atem is not only thankful to God and his congregation for being the best secondary school student in Uganda (2016), as reported by the media and his school, but he has scored with a distinction all the 8 subjects of his career interest. He got ‘8 in 8’, or Aggregate 8 in 8 subjects out of 10, ranking him in Division 1 and Position 1 of the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) examinations. These are his best subjects: Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Computer, Commerce, Political Education, Geography, History.
This was the greatest news of the year to his St. Mary’s Boarding Secondary School, Kitende. He did the same to Kingsway Primary School in 2012, when he scored Aggregate 6 in 4 subjects, Division 1, even after he went straight from Class 5 to sit for the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) in Class 7, skipping Class 6 with no effect.
His mother, who is his mentor, narrated some part of his story, which shows that the boy is a genius. She said the family learned of the news of his excelling in the media. Papers listed him No. 1 on the list of the UCE exams results. This means he was not only the record breaker in the South Sudanese and refugee history in Uganda but, most importantly, the best in the whole country.
THE BOY SCIENTIST
“We could not believe it.” She said. “I did not know my son would even make it due to the stress he went through from lack or delay of school fees, and then that thing of his,” pointing at a small piece of metal that Atem had bought from an electronic shop, and a mobile phone that he borrowed from a friend. Mrs. Aguer said the boy spent most of his home time working on his small gadgets, inventing things she could not even understand.
She said that the teenager grabs any gadget around and begins working on it. She had to hide her mobile phones at times because her son ought to allocate some good times for books. Atem investigates all electronic and electric appliances in the house. He questions everything that is man-made and has relieved the family of petty repairs on the households. She lightly smiled as she told the story, regretting no more the decision she made by dropping out of her early school to raise such children.
Then she said there is something more unusual of late. Some strangers, including Uganda parents, would come to the house asking for Atem to go and help their children, even those above him by age and standard. Some big businessman would drive all the way from Entebbe to their house in Kampala outskirt to pick him up and take him to his house. He is a mentor to many children. His parents wonder how he acquired that skill and wider contacts.
Atem showed this interviewer a number of things, ranging from the electronic metals he was holding in his hand to a number of mobile applications he is working on. Then his WhatsApp forum dubbed ‘FAST’ (Finalist Alliance of ‘Scientists’). It is the group he founded while in early secondary school class for physics discussions and practicals. The group has now advanced to software development. So far, he has adopted 5 software design languages, and is teaching about 20 members, most of them students.
John Atem, aka, ‘Joe Einstein’, has an overwhelming ambition. He is trying to invent some queer things. When he was 15 (2014), in Class 2 of secondary school, he attempted to build what he calls ‘ultralite plane’, some sort of a drone. His mother recalled that that small indoor ‘helicopter’ almost flew. Its rotors could propel and the lighting worked, but the idea died down due to lack of design materials. His idea of the ‘Frog chopper’ was inspired by an online challenge from some company, and the fact that he wanted to win the heart of some people to support his secondary education through the university.
The science enthusiast recycles home devices in his workshop. He recently discovered a defect in the gate alarm system. “I wondered why cats could sneak over the fence and the so-called sensors kept quiet.” He complained even thin people like himself could squeeze in slowly without triggering any alarm. Sometimes the alarm could start on their own and go on nonstop. “Then I realized our compound was in danger. So I reprogrammed the alarm sensors in a 3-digit code and it worked more sensitively,” the soft-spoken boy narrated his experiment shyly.
“Mama condemned me for interfering with people’s property. I always lay my hand on her phones and download these things;” pinpointing some apps on his phone that he borrowed from his schoolmate. “My parents keep them away from me like medicines labeled: ‘Out of reach of children!’ They think I am still too young for phones and computers.” He said he sometimes borrowed his father’s laptop when home to download some apps and carry out some literature reviews of other scientists to boost his inspirations.
Immediately after school, Atem raised some little money and started paying for a second hand laptop by hire purchase from a school friend. He now vows to do something to mark his crossing from boyhood to adulthood. He is turning 18 on July 11, 2017. He wants to either invent something or develop an App to mark this important initiation process in his life. He is excited about being an adult that comes with enough freedom. “John, I can’t wait to join you in July, no more a child!”
He is now working on a room-lighting system. He said he was disappointed when he spent his holiday in a dark room with his grandmother in Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement. “It was a challenge to me. I could not see my grandma at night. So I want to help her and mother and also many other village women, who cannot access electricity. Like God said, let there be light.” The young Einstein wants to invent ‘village electricity’. He believes so, regardless of other limitations at hand.
Asked how he would do it, he sighed that he was already through with the theory part of it using Van de Graf and Faraday theories. He is innovatively studying a similar idea from some companies online. Practically he needs some essential equipment. The other day he asked in a workshop for the price of some gadget, they told him it was 400,000 shillings, slightly above 100 US dollars. He said he wanted to do a simple independent lighting device that a woman could pitch on the ground and it produces light without any other source of power.
About other projects like the peace campaigns by Junub Games, he requested to join and develop games for peace through his peers like Lual Mayen, and schoolmate, Eric Kamuzu Kiano. He does not feel comfortable with the fact that he cannot go to Yei with his friend, Eric, without being killed for hailing from another tribe of South Sudan. He was born in Equatoria region (Madi land) by both Dinka parents. So he emphasizes that it does not make much difference that he comes from the Bor subtribe of Dinka, especially Kongor section of Twi Community. After all, most of his friends are not from Dinka, and he wants to help South Sudan attain the world’s level of science and technology as soon as he is out of school. He joked that the best customers, like best friends, need not necessarily be one’s blood relatives.
In conclusion, the ‘boy scientist’ is looking forward to specializing in his A’level subject combination of PCM/ICT (Physics, Chemistry and Maths with Information Technology). This combination, he believes, will open him gates to any university. He also aspires to major in Theoretical Physics, Maths or Computer Science at the university. He believes that will make him a leading researcher, a scientist for that matter, in ITC, computer engineering in cyber security or software development. Of course, he said he started 4 years ago as a hacker, but later dropped it in favour of software development.
Unfortunately, this ‘Little Einstein’ went back to the streets right after this interview. By the time this story was sent to press, he confirmed he had no more family assurance to join school this year. He could not even pay for admission letter from Light Academy or his old school for his Advanced Level Studies. His elder sister, who sat the same exams with him, and a younger brother with some cousins, are all innovative truants in their house. Yet he is not giving up hope. He is even asking if Junub Games or any other organization could link up with him so that he starts investing and developing his early self-made skills in such peer-driven projects. ‘Joe Einstein’ Atem still believes that he will go back to school either through his self-help projects or through a Good Samaritan like the one that made him complete his previous final class. As for a job, he is still below 18.
John Atem can be contacted through his talent scout, namely ‘Jon Pen’ (on Facebook), at USTASS (United Scribes, Teachers & Artists on Sustainable Skills) through firstname.lastname@example.org, currently working at Junub Games on Games for Peace Project.