We Should Support Etyang, Not Lock Him Up

April 18, 2005
Calestous Juma

The East African
When the Kitale schoolboy Harrison Etyang took to the sky with his homemade aeroplane, he was seeking to realise one of humanity's most enduring attributes: creativity. But Etyang has been welcomed in the same way sections of medieval Europe treated its creative minds: arrested and treated as a potential lunatic with suicidal tendencies.
In response to Etyang's experiment, the government has closed off the skies to homemade flying objects.
The government is justified in seeking to protect human life and keep the skies safe. But draconian measures that suppress creativity and innovation are a greater threat to society. Etyang needs support and mentoring, not mental tests.
History tells us that only those societies that supported their young inventors and celebrated risk-takers have worked their way out of poverty. Those that persecuted their innovators have remained poor.
The aviation industry would not exist without the long history of risk-taking and experimentation.
The Wright Brothers were derided by one of their teachers for wasting their time on a hopeless and dangerous task. He thought their parents should have cause to worry about them.
The challenge of flight has attracted mavericks down the ages. Prominent tower jumpers with wings such as Emperor Shun of China (2250 BC), Bladud, King of England (852 BC), Abbasa Ben Firnasa of Arabia ( 890 AD) and the famous Italian mathematician Giovanni Battista Danti (1490).
It is notable that many of the most celebrated inventors made their greatest accomplishments in their early years. A 19-year old French boy, Blaise Pascal, invented the mechanical adding machine in 1642.
Louis Braille devised his reading and writing system for the blind at the age of 15 in 1824.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell came up with their most lasting inventions before they turned 20.
In 1921, Philo Farnsworth, a 14-year-old boy on an Idaho farm, thought that one could reproduce a picture by scanning it in horizontal lines. This observation led to the development of television.
These and many other young inventors worked in supportive environments that tolerated and rewarded experimentation. However, Africa's creative minds receive little encouragement. Governments have been quicker to suppress new ideas than they have offered incentives that encourage creativity and innovation.
Probably the best starting point for nurturing talent is to strengthen the scientific and technological content of educational programmes. One obvious option is to make scientific and technological proficiency a requirement and in the same category as English and Math.
Secondly, society will need to develop a series of incentives that encourage rather than punish creativity. In Jamaica, the government devotes November of every year to a series of events aimed at promoting scientific literacy. After 18 years of concerted efforts, Jamaica is emerging as a scientific and technological leader in the region.
Etyang's case also raises a profound policy issue related to how society treats talented people from underprivileged families.
The country's educational system and society at large have no effective ways to support such people. They could benefit from a fund to support the country's talents and bring this to the service of the nation. Private enterprises and individuals could be a key contributor to such a fund if offered tax incentives to encourage their participation.
Millions of Africa's most creative minds are going to waste because of the lack of incentives that nurture creativity and systems that mentor young innovators. Etyang's case signals the need for immediate action.

Calestous Juma is professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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