Introducing computers

Sitting here in the computer lab, having just given a lesson to a young woman, a friend of the school director, I am suddenly very thoughtful about computers. That’s how it is here – I came this morning without any specific plan, I opened the computer lab, spent some time exploring the various activities installed for kids, and then I was introduced to this young woman, and now I’m teaching. On my other side is Monsieur An, a school ‘inspector’ who tends to hang out in the computer lab and the library with me. We make a good team. I like to talk about what I’m doing – explain this or that section of the library, this or that site on the computer, ideas I have – and he responds with incredibly lengthy lectures on Islam and all sorts of stories and theories on human behavior. I’ll listen patiently for about twenty minutes, and eventually he’ll stop, and then we’ll continue to work. Right now he’s having a lot of fun with the keyboard; I never really thought about it before but he’s right – all the vowels are on the top row.

During the past month I have been gradually ‘initiating’ the teachers in the computer lab, basically introducing them to the machines that they have access to, and actually have had access to for over a year. Every once in a while I’ll teach a teacher who has obviously never come into contact with a keyboard or a mouse before, and these lessons are always the most difficult, but also the most interesting – to be forced to think of ways to explain things that somehow never needed explanation for me. What is internet, for example. Today, for this young woman, I described it as an encyclopedia of infinite size that anyone, anywhere in the world can add pages to, and that anyone, anywhere in the world can access. Obviously its a bit more complicated than that, but when you take that essential concept, isn’t it such a beautiful idea? Free information, knowledge, access to opportunities for anyone, anywhere…. who has a computer.

Computering or ‘informatique’ is a rising phenomenon here in Senegal. Almost every night while watching Brazilian soap operas with my family, I see commercials for newly opened schools of ‘informatique’ – clean, sterile looking classrooms where young Africans dressed in suits and other western attire sit behind their personal computers and carry briefcases. Ask any number of young high school students what sector they plan to enter after they receive their diploma and they will say ‘informatique’. And then we have a perfect example right here at l’ecole Sebiroute. This computer lab was a gift from the government-funded organization called Seneclic whose goal is to distribute computers to all public schools in Senegal. I think about almost two hundred computer labs such as this one have been installed in schools across the country. It just so happened that in this case, the computer lab hadn’t been touched for over a year. Why? Because the teachers themselves didn’t know how to turn on the machines. And if the teachers don’t know, how will they teach the kids? So thats how I ended up here, and how I’ve been able to be of some use during this first month in my apprenticeship. Starting in January we hope to start computer lessons for the students.

Its kind of funny that I ended up in this role, since it is not one that I have actively sought. Personally, I have never really liked computers, and I don’t really like the idea that more and more of our lives these days – social stuff, work, family – take place in cyberspace. Or maybe I just don’t like the whole sitting part, and all the annoying buttons, the sterility of the job, waiting for the machine, depending on it. When I first learned that my apprenticeship was going to be here at the school, my only fear was – I just hope I don’t end up fixing computers…. But helping introduce computers in this school, so far, banal as this may sound, has made me really appreciate how useful these things are – has prompted me to imagine how access to these various tools and outlets that I’ve always taken for granted could have a profound impact on this school, the country’s education system in general, and even the broader realm of development. Some of the impacts will just be practical – saved time in typing and printing things. Then there is the access to information that can be used in class – articles and pictures and such. And what about email? Yesterday, a teacher wanted me to help him open an email account so he can be in contact with the NGO UNESCO.

As for this young woman on my left, its been a little tricky to figure out exactly what prompted her to want to learn how to use a computer, but I think its because she thinks it’ll help her pass her BFEM, an exam that most students in Senegal pass at the end of middle school. For whatever reason, she didn’t pass, but she continued high school up til the second to last year. And then for some reason she stopped. Now she is married, her husband is in and out of work, and she wants to pass the BFEM so she could go to training to become a teacher. She can’t go back to high school unfortunately because the school is already very strained in numbers, and her husband is not able to pay for a private school. And here comes the beauty of the internet: within a few seconds I was able to find a site all about the ‘teacher training’ program here in Senegal, explaining how it works. And then with a little more research I’ve found some sites that help prepare students for their BFEM. Is it enough? I don’t know, but it’s a start.

So I guess computers aren’t such a bad thing after all. Its not the first time that I’ve come across some element of our modernized, western culture that I consider an issue for us, that people long for here, and that in the right amounts could make a huge difference – cars for example, or fake sugar. Its just that we have all these things in excess.

And of course, one must never forget that I, along with most of the other fellows, found out about GCY through the web. So me being here, exchanging with these people on the other side of the world, learning about their education system and culture, and lending a hand in some of the most unexpected ways, would not be possible without this one bit, a good bit, of ingenious technology.