Our team of six Intel Education Service Corps volunteers (Noel, Lisa, Marne, John, Abdul and Nara) worked for two weeks in Kenya to help two local organizations deploy Intel-powered classmate PCs for the benefit of their teachers and children. We spent the first weekin Thika with Orphans Overseas, and set off on Saturday, March 6th for the Kageno Project on Rusinga Island.
Getting to Rusinga was a bit of a journey. Back to Nairobi, then a flight over central Kenya, a two hour car ride, then onto the waters of Lake Victoria on the last ferry of the day (crowded!). Making landfall at Mbita we finished the final few miles in darkness, our overloaded taxis occasionally scraping bottom in deep ruts.
We arrived with eight new classmate PCs we picked up in Nairobi, and a week’s worth of remote installation and support experience. Although we had shed a few layers of our naïveté during our work in Thika the week before, we all had a feeling that there would be a few more opportunities to understand what it means to deploy and use PCs in a remote location. In places like this, remote takes on a whole new meaning. Remote means limited, intermittent and costly connectivity. Remote means ‘if you brought it, we have it.’ Mostly, remote means figure it out on your own!
We went straight to work the next morning, gathering with teachers from four schools served by the Kageno Mobile Computer Lab. We got to know each other and mapped out a plan for the week under the bird-filled trees of the Kageno Community Center on the banks of Lake Victoria. Our host, Kageno Kenya Project Director Alphonce Okuku, helped shape the plan and occasionally kicked trees to dislodge the noisiest birds. We set out to integrate new computers into the project, help teachers understand how the classmate PCs can help deliver their curriculum, repair some ailing desktops at various schools, and help teachers improve their knowledge and use of PCs.
The classmate PCs spent the night in their custom made rack in the back of a small SUV. When the car pulls out of its overnight shed, the equatorial sun hits the four large solar panels mounted on its roof (this thing looks like an aircraft carrier!) charging the two massive 200 amp-hour batteries which continues through the day. An inverter produces 220V AC, powering the router and the classmate PC power converters. A network signal is broadcast to classrooms by a big antenna mounted on the outside of the SUV.
This week, we went with computer teacher Arphaxad Nguka on his weekly rounds to 20 classes. He arrives before class time and, with student assistants, disconnects computers from their battery chargers and carries them into the classroom. At Uya Primary School the classroom is often under shady trees with incredible views of Lake Victoria. The classmate PCs are opened, logins are entered, and the tell-tale chime of students connecting to the teaching session start to sound around the classroom.
The students are clearly focused–almost entranced–as they maneuver the touchpad and keys to repeat the steps in the lesson. This week’s lesson started off with inserting pictures and clip art into documents. Passing the PC in turn is the norm, but sometimes the temptation to turn on the camera and make faces is just too much, and quiet fun may happen until Mr. Nguka restores decorum. We also installed a new learning program provided by the Maendeleo Foundationwhich the students learned quickly, having fun while improving their touchpad and keyboard skills.
Early in the week, some classes had eight or more students crowding around each classmate PC. Taking turns to repeat the lesson meant slow progress. Happily, we were able to fulfill the students’ #1 request: add more computers! The new classmate PCs doubled the installation, and the group sizes dropped to a more manageable three or four. Now as we assisted in Mr. Nguka’s classes, the pace was faster, and students had more keyboard time, and more topics could be covered. At first, Mr. Nguka coached them through the lessons and we were classroom helpers. But as the week went on, Nara began to occasionally take the lead, and the students enjoyed his humor and encouragement.
Students strive to meet the national education standards and preparation for the national exams is rigorous. When we quietly entered a classroom to see a practice exam being conducted, their concentration was absolute — no one looked up even for a moment. But in these schools, we saw additional burdens. Class sizes were large. Classrooms frequently had dirt floors, open doorways and windows devoid of glass or shutters. Three or four students sit in each desk, with plank seats and desktops. Grid power is miles away and technology support and expertise is minimal. Can a few computers make a difference here?
Yes, it can. One principal told us, “Our schools are of modest design, but we are constantly learning to challenge ourselves and provide the best for our students.” Attitudes and aspirations of teachers and students compare more to the expansive views of Lake Victoria outside their schools than the confines of their small classrooms. Here, the idea of computers in the classroom is more than learning to paste clip art into a report. It is about a future that the computers represent, and what is possible.
Of course there were problems. The earlier versions of the software and operating system worked fine. But our systems arrived with some updates, and we had to go through the painful process of rolling them back. Abdul served as chief brain surgeon, and by mid-week Marne had lead the charge to have a uniform installation on all 15 classmate PCs. Most importantly, Mr. Nguka learned how to keep the software installation consistent. Throughout the week we also had opportunities to work with teachers and repair some other PCs as well.
A project like this can only happen when there is dedicated and influential local support. Our thanks go especially to Alphonce, to Nguka, to Herma and Irene, to Dominique, Justice and Raymond, who helped us, fed us, drove us, taught us, told us funny stories, built bonfires, came to visit and made us feel at home.
Most memorable ?
– Getting to be in class with the students. Not only to help deliver the classes, but getting to interact with them after class. Lisa was mobbed by curious students more than once as she showed photos of family and home on her laptop.
– Working with the Mobile Solar Computer Lab – one of only a few we know about. What a great way to bring technology to off-grid locations.
– Seeing John telling his story to the students. Time and time again, students were riveted as he shared his story of growing up in Kenya, going through the same education system, and entering college to becoming a computer engineer.
– Our long after-dinner discussions with Alphonce. We learned how HIV has devastated this community. 18% occurrence sounds high until you hear it is actually an improvement from 42% a few years ago. The impact to families, education and livelihoods will weigh on the community for years to come. He led us to closely examine our own ideas and motivations about development and sustainability, and how they may fall short in the face of the pressing needs of communities like this around the world.
Slowly and with purpose, rebuilding from the HIV devastation goes on. And the idea of kageno, meaning hope, is at its core. Something like this just doesn’t happen every day, and we are very grateful to get to have a small part in it.
IESC Kilimanjaro Team on Rusinga Island, Kenya: Nara Sundararajan, Lisa Depew, Marne Dunn, Abdulai Sei, John Kariuki, and Noel Durrant.