Erik van Widenfelt

When he first arrived in Botswana, Erik wasn’t an IT guy. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in cellular and molecular biology, he joined the Peace Corps in 1986 and taught science and English in Ghanzi, a dusty outpost on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. When his two-year assignment was up, he stayed on.

Erik van Widenfelt
Erik van Widenfelt. Photo by Dave Clift

“I wanted to continue teaching, to grow the reading program I had started, and to give the school a bit of continuity,” said Erik, who comes from a family of teachers. He taught kids in their early teens. Many had trouble with basic reading skills. The school library was full of books— John Grisham novels, old encyclopedias, books in Afrikaans—books with little relevance to his students’ lives.

Erik worked with the headmaster to purchase books his students could read and enjoy. “I developed in them the habit to read a book successfully, even if it was easy, and let them work their way up to more challenging books.”

He taught for another three years, then moved to the capital, Gaborone, where he worked for the Botswana Book Centre, developing software for their book ordering and inventory systems. Though Erik had learned some programming at the University of Michigan, his computer skills are largely self-taught.

He got married and started a family. His oldest son is named Oarabile, which in Setswana means He has answered; his brother is Moratiwa, meaning He is loved.

A few years later, Erik left the bookstore to start his own computer business. In 2000, the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) hired him as a consultant. AIDS was on the rise in southern Africa. People at many of the companies Erik worked with were getting sick and dying. In 2001, as the BHP began their first large clinical trials, Erik was offered a full-time position. Since then, he’s been responsible for coordinating all research data.

“He understands what’s needed for large field studies when you don’t have access to internet or electricity,” said Max Essex, who has high praise for the data management system Erik created for the Botswana Combination Prevention Project. “He understands the importance of collecting high-quality data and then assuring that it’s accessible and analyzable by a variety of people with varying degrees of expertise.”

“I’m grateful to Max for giving me a lot of space and support to run with my ideas,” said Erik. “Peace Corps was similar. We were expected to be creative and trusted to be productive with limited resources.”

Because all BHP research projects depend on access to data, Erik’s job can be exhausting, with long and stressful days. To balance work, he plays drums, often performing with bands around Gaborone. “Music requires thought and effort, but is different enough from my work that it’s a wonderful distraction,” he said. “No circuits or software in a drum set!”

Yet there are similarities between computer science and percussion. As Erik explained, “Data management, like drumming, is a supportive activity. People don’t usually appreciate how important these efforts are until something goes wrong.”

About Martha S Henry

Martha Henry is the Director of Communications for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health AIDS Initiative.