The “Ultimate Music Awareness App”

Close friends will know that I’m a bit of a walker. In fact, a few years ago I did start to put down tentative plans for a walk across the African continent, but a Fellowship at Stanford put pay to that. I rarely use public transport when I’m on the road, preferring to remain above-ground and on-foot to get a better sense of where I’m staying. And although I’ll sometimes carry my camera with me, I almost always carry my iPod.

Most of my thinking is done while I walk, and most of my blog posts take shape that way, too. I carry a note pad a lot of the time, stopping often to jot down ideas. This post came together while I was listening to music, walking through Cambridge earlier this year. That walk witnessed the birth of the “Ultimate Music Awareness App”, and Apple’s announcement of iCloud this week prompted me to dig it out again.

So, what would my app do? Well, it’s quite simple really.

  • It would have an option to plays songs written on that day’s date, or which reference that day’s date
  • It would be location-aware, and create an auto-playlist of songs written about the place I’m walking through, or with name-connections
  • It would play songs by artists who were either born, or lived, in the area
  • There would be an option to play songs based on that day’s news headlines (for example, if a study found annual rents were increasing – or decreasing – then it would play “Rent” by the Pet Shop Boys). A summary of the news story in question would also be displayed on-screen for context
  • All of the playlists would be compiled in real-time, and streamed/buffered from the web
  • Playlists could be uploaded and shared on-line (and mapped) for other music lovers/walkers

If anyone ever developed this, I know I’d buy it. After all, it would be my ultimate music awareness app.

Three objects that define

House moves are always fun, particularly the things that re-emerge from old boxes years after they’ve been buried away. While most of it turns out to be useless, unwanted junk, sometimes you stumble across something which ended up having a bigger impact on your life than you ever imagined. Here are three objects, recently unearthed, which have done that for me.


I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when my mother bought me an old, ridiculously heavy Olympus typewriter from the “Under £10” section of our local newspaper . It was my first ever typewriter – I later ‘upgraded’ to a new model from Boots once I’d saved up enough money from my paper round – and I don’t remember much of any conversation we had before she bought it. But what I do know is that it unleashed my passion for writing. Homework was never the same again, and I must have written the majority of my poems on it, something I did a lot of in my younger years.

In 1978, the Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the Channel Islands, and for several months I took an unusually strong interest in the subject of oil – how it was found, where it came from, how much was left, how often spills happened, and so on. The culmination of this fascination was a ‘research project’ bound in a small A5 folder, imaginatively entitled “Oil: By Kenneth Banks”, which I still have to this day.

Today, writing remains a passion and is an important expressive outlet for me and my work. I’d never have imagined back in those days that I would end up writing for the BBC website, or PC World. I have a lot to thank that Olympus for. And my Mum, of course.


There was never really much to do on the estate where I was brought up, so the opening of a local club by Mr. Cooper was a main outlet for many of the children. It was a big estate, however, and the club had a waiting list. When I did eventually get the nod to join, Mr. Cooper had been using Commodore PET computers for some time in his other job – helping children with learning difficulties. During club hours we were allowed to play games on the PET, and were allocated around ten minutes each because of the high demand.

These amazing machines were powered by cassette players, and we quickly learnt the two commands we needed to use them. “LOAD” loaded the game, and when that was complete, “RUN” would execute it. I knew there had to be more to it than that, so during my short spells at the screen I’d try and figure out what else I could do. “LIST” was a revelation – a command to display the code. I soon realised that if I changed anything here, if it didn’t break the program it made it do something else. A programming career was born.

After a short while I was writing my own teaching programs for Mr. Cooper and earning extra pocket money from it. I have a lot to thank him for. Computers were hugely expensive in those days, and he gave me the opportunity to learn something which was only just starting to be taught in schools. Without this, a central pillar of my work today would never have been formed, and it’s highly unlikely I’d ever have been able to talk my way into an IT career, which I later did.


By 1993 I was out of school and – thanks to Mr. Cooper and a few other lucky breaks – working in the local IT industry. I’d already decided that a career in finance wasn’t for me. By a few twists of fate (described later on this page of my website) I found myself on a Jersey Overseas Aid project that summer, helping build teaching accommodation in Northern Zambia. It was a life-changing experience, and took my life and career into a totally new and unexpected direction. An interest and fascination – and later, career – in development was born over those few short weeks, and I’m still as engaged in it as ever, 17 years on.

Since that first trip I’ve had the pleasure and honour to live and work in a number of other African countries – Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya among them – and have made some incredible friends and even more incredible friendships along the way.

By September 1993, the month I returned from Zambia, the impact that trip was to have on my life was still largely unknown. Which makes it even more remarkable – perhaps strange – is that I kept a pair of socks from that first visit wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. These socks resurfaced during my recent house move. Some of my very first steps on the African continent are bound up in that marvellous red dust.

So there you have it. Three objects and three meanings that have helped define a life. Funny when you look at it like that.

What three objects define you?


Mount Elgon, Uganda (1998)I’m something of a walker. During my time at Stanford University my battered old trainers got me to and from most places, as they did in San Francisco and as they continue to do today in London, Cambridge and anywhere else life takes me. Walking – accompanied by my trusty iPod – is the only time I really ever get these days to think and contemplate. Classic downtime, I guess.

So it should come as no surprise to hear that three years ago I was planning the mother of all walks – across the African continent. It was a bold (and perhaps crazy) idea, and a ‘Plan B’ at that. ‘Plan A’ was to get a Fellowship at Stanford University and, as much to my surprise as anyone else’s, it came off. Stanford was the start of a real acceleration in kiwanja’s work, and since arriving there one sunny September back in 2006, things haven’t really stopped for me.

But there’s still the little matter of that walk…

Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated in exploration, and the bygone days of early African exploration in particular. John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley, Mungo Park and, of course, David Livingstone, all embarked on some incredible journeys. For someone with a fascination for exploration and adventure, a love of walking, a strong personal attachment to the African continent and a need to do a lot of thinking, following in the footsteps of someone like David Livingstone probably doesn’t sound too crazy after all.

I hadn’t got too far in my planning before the Stanford offer came through, but I had done enough to realise that the walk was likely to take a very long time and be pretty treacherous. Looking at a map of Livingstone’s mammoth 1851 to 1856 walk from the west to east coast of Africa, following it today would take you through more than the odd trouble spot.

In my very rough mock-up here, the journey would start off in Luanda (Angola) and take you east through the DRC, then south into Zambia, down into Zimbabwe (just – that would be where Livingstone “discovered” Victoria Falls), onwards through Malawi into southern Tanzania, and then on through Mozambique to Quelimane, our final destination – and time for a very long, cold beer and a good bath, no doubt. (Quelimane is a little further north than Livingstone’s finishing point, but it’s close enough).

I’m not sure how many miles this walk would total, but it’s looking like somewhere in the region of 4,000 to 5,000. At a walking speed of, say, four miles per hour for ten hours per day, you’re talking about 1,000 days (or three years). Livingstone took five but he – or rather his porters – had to walk around a lot of lakes and hack through a lot of forest. There are likely to be a few more roads around today, and sadly a lot less forest.

I still harbour dreams to do a walk – maybe combined with a kiwanja Foundation fundraiser –  but maybe not this one. For me there’s something very magical about walking, and walking in Africa in particular. After all, feet are the mode of transport we used about two million years ago when the first humans emerged from the continent to colonise Asia. On many of my Africa trips, starting with Zambia in 1993 (where I stayed in Livingstone for a couple of days, funnily enough) I’ve always taken every opportunity to head off on foot, to take in the sights, sounds and smells. You see so much more when you walk, not to mention meet many more people. Many of my Mobile Gallery photos have been taken that way.

My first ever website – dating around 2001 – was called Igisi Hill, one of two small hills in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda where I spent three months working on a conservation project in 1998. For a couple of weeks I’d take a daily walk up that hill to sit and experience the wonderful surroundings. A shimmering Lake Albert in the distance remains a highlight. Igisi Hill is the kind of place I’d like to have my ashes scattered, funnily enough.

Once I’ve taken – and projects like FrontlineSMS – as far as I feel I can, I imagine the day coming when I’ll hand them over and fulfil this dream. I’ve never quite understood my fascination for Africa, but it’s had a strong grip on me for over sixteen years now. Maybe the best way to find out is to take a journey through it.