Breaking the Silence

Silence always scared me.

My parents first noticed my stutter when I was three years old. For the longest time, I thought I would one day be rid of it. I went for speech therapy, I did fluency exercises, I prayed. But now, at age thirty, I’m fairly confident that it’s here to stay.

I used to wonder why it had to happen to me. In many areas of my life, it limited me. However, looking back on my life now, I also realise it made me sensitive to silence, in all its many incarnations.

Somehow, as I progressed through high school, the expectant pauses of those listening to me were more difficult to bear that the nicknames and name calling. Often, I would not speak up, even when I had something I wanted to say.

My default setting was silence.

The web changed that. I still remember the first time I typed a URL into a web browser and watched the HTML render letter by letter, paragraph by paragraph. It was an experience that shook me to my core, this new understanding that my writing could now carry out over a telephone line, and in doing so, reach not just an intended recipient, but many. The world.

Though I perhaps could not quite put into words at the time, on that first afternoon in front of a web browser, I instinctively understood the power the web had to break silences – silences imposed by societies and traditions, silences imposed by governments and regimes, and perhaps most importantly, silences imposed by ourselves.

The promise of the web was that it could give everyone a voice. Even me.

I first started web publishing in Notepad on Windows 98, manually crafting each page and uploading it to my Geocities site. It was an arduous process, and it was difficult to create and maintain more than a few pages.

It was around this time that I stumbled upon weblogs. kottke.org was one of the first I read regularly, and as I bounced around, from site to site, I soon realised that I wanted my own. The most popular blogging software at the time was Movable Type. Alas, I was still in high school, and could not afford a web host that ran Perl. In fact, I couldn’t afford a web host at all.

DSL was just making its debut at the time in Sri Lanka, and we didn’t have a telephone line at home, so no dialup for me either. This meant that I spent an inordinate amount of time at local cyber cafes, often running up bills that far exceeded my weekly pocket money. Eventually, the owner of one cyber cafe said he’d let me use the net for as long as I wanted if I’d watch the place for a few hours each evening, while he was out. Needless to say, I didn’t need much convincing.

And thus, with hours of free bandwidth in hand, I began my foray into blogging. I found a free web host that supported PHP, and following an online tutorial, I wrote a simple (read: terrible!) PHP script that I used to run my first blog. I even released it for download, though it obviously had just one user: me. The Year was 2002.

Screenshot of myJournal setup
It didn’t take me long to realise that my simple script was not going scale as my blog grew. My free web host that very kindly supported PHP, unfortunately did not give MySQL databases away. Towards the end of the year, a friend offered me a database on his server, and for the first time, I had the option of running a piece of real blogging software.

I knew Movable Type and Greymatter existed, but my friend’s host did not support Perl. I needed something that used PHP and MySQL.

Following some frantic googling, I stumbled upon b2, and from there, to this post on photomatt.net. I can’t remember exactly how, but from there, I somehow found myself in #wordpress on Freenode, and the rest, indeed, is history.

I’ve used every version of WordPress since 0.70, and though I spent much of my career outside of tech circles before joining Automattic, WordPress followed me wherever I went. For years, it was my blogging platform of choice, the house in which I created my online home.

Then, even when I stopped blogging publicly, WordPress came with me into university, where I used it to keep notes, and into my teaching, where I used it as a Learning Management System (LMS), long before any dedicated LMS plugins existed. In between, I often used it for freelance work.

More than a decade later, I applied to Automattic, and amazingly, made it past the trial, and into my current role as a Happiness Engineer. I now spend my work day helping people experience the sheer joy of being heard, that same joy I felt when I first began to publish on the web.

The WordPress support role is one that I inhabit fully, because if there’s anyone who understands what it’s like to have a technical barrier to expression, it’s me. It’s truly wonderful to be able to help others break through their own limitations, and end their silences, using the power of Free and Open Source Software, and the open web.

Over the past year, I’ve begun to break my silence as well. In March and September 2015, I had the privilege of speaking to audiences in South Asia about WordPress. Getting up on stage in front of so many people was terrifying, and even as I ready myself to speak at WordCamp Mumbai again this year, practising my presentation over and over again, the threat of silence lurks behind every block I experience, and indeed, every vibration of my vocal chords.

I still stutter, and could very easily experience some really embarrassing blocks at any point, whether speaking publicly, or otherwise.

The silence is there. But it no longer scares me.

There are a lot of things we cannot control in this world, many forces at work that we cannot even see. But, as members of this community, I think we can content ourselves with this thought:

Because of the GPL, and the way it works, WordPress will be available as a publishing platform for decades to come, and long after the next social network comes and goes, for as long as the Internet remains free and accessible, anyone with WordPress will be able to have their say.

What WordPress did for me, it can do for others. And that’s why we need to keep going.

Because every silence can be overcome.

29 comments

  1. Sam Hotchkiss says:

    Mahangu– you are one of my heroes, a club whose members I can count on one hand. Thank you for your courage, for continuing to share your story, and for making the lives of everyone around you better.

  2. Andrea says:

    Mahangu, stop making me cry! This is a beautiful, powerful post. Thank you so much for writing it, and for sharing your voice with the world.

  3. Joel Bronkowski says:

    I’ll never forget your talk at WordCamp Mumbai last year. Quite easily was the highlight of the event for me. Lots of appreciation for you brotha!

  4. Chaitanya says:

    Thanks for sharing your incredibly inspiring personal story. And reminding all of us why the world needs WordPress.

    I am proud to belong to WordPress community and call myself a WordPresser.

  5. What a truly wonderful post – indeed inspiring! You are amazing to have had to deal with stuttering your whole life, and going beyond it, in spite of it!! I feel a double kinship with you. First, because I too had the experience of stuttering, although luckily for me it was only for a year or so, during a childhood time when I was very stressed. The other way I feel a bond with you is because my daughter, Kathryn Presner, is also a Happiness Engineer at Automattic! In fact, it’s because of her that I started my own blog last summer. And you might be very interested in this post of mine, re early internet experiences: https://crossedeyesanddottedtees.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/before-the-internet/
    Anyway, thanks for writing a great post, and best of luck to you in all you do!!

    • Thank you for reading, Ellie! I’m sorry for my late reply. I was afk at WC Mumbai over the weekend, and am only just catching up on my email.

      Those BBS screenshots are amazing. 😀 Thanks for sharing!

      And thank you for stopping by to say hello! Kathryn and Tammie are doing an amazing job creating content for new public speakers at http://getspeak.in – it’s a wonderful resource.

  6. Aditya Kane says:

    I remember reading your description of the talk you proposed last year in Mumbai and I was simply blown away. Using classroom metaphors in support was always going to be interesting but little did I know you were going to be extremely popular in the Mumbai and Pune WordPress communities.

    I am truly lucky to have come across people like you who inspire so many including me.
    The WordPress world is truly lucky to have you as its advocate.

  7. Richard Archambault says:

    Bravo, Mahangu. Bravo. “But it no longer scares me”. That is such a simple yet powerful statement. I salute you, my friend.

  8. Marjorie Ray says:

    Thanks so much for telling your story. I loved reading about your evolution, where it has taken you, and how you have changed. Your honesty inspires me to keep trying to write too. All the best, Marjorie

  9. MUKESH says:

    Half of the initial story match to my life. I was unable to afford Computer that is why started from mobile and hacked into ISP to get free internet.

    😉

  10. Your story is remarkable, a powerful life statement of overcoming limitations. It inspires me to embark on a trip through cyberspace into a new world for me… cyber blogging. Thank you for sharing your inspirational story.

  11. Thank you very much for reading, and commenting, everyone! I’m completely blown away by the response I’ve received to this piece, and feel very grateful to be a part of this amazing community. 🙂

  12. Mike says:

    Well said Mahangu. As a fellow stutterer, just about all of what you say resonates with me. So great to read about your success. Way to go!

  13. Luisa says:

    My voice is extremely frail. There is no way I can “speak up” because my voice starts to tremble. I too, prefer to remain silent if there is a noisy crowd. If I have to “yell” my little voice comes out as a squeak. Drs. tell me it’s a neurological problem, that my vocal chords shake when forced. So I skip bars and large parties and meetups, but I mostly have accepted that my voice is like that. Your post is so inspiring and beautiful. I also have applied for a position as happiness engineer. I hope I get the chance!

  14. Daddy Bo says:

    I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not going to happen. Hoping my daughter keeps it up. She is AMAZING in every way imaginable.

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