Fifty laptop computers arrived in Rotifunk a week ago. The shipment generously donated by Schneider Electric and TIP Capital were picked up from the shipping company’s warehouse in Freetown, and carried to Rotifunk by car. Our dream of a computer lab for this rural town is starting to take shape.
A few things I found needed to be worked out. After anxiously opening the boxes, they found they wouldn’t turn on. Someone realized the battery is discharged after sitting in a ship for a month. This means carrying them to a house with a generator to recharge in this town with no electricity. When they started, a message popped up about wanting to do a WIndows 7 update. But in a town with no Internet access, you can’t receive automatic updates. There’s way to handle this, too, in Sierra Leone, and someone was coming from the capital with a Windows 7 program disc to do their magic.
School’s been out for summer break and teachers are just returning to Rotifunk from their holidays to start the new school year. I called Teacher Osman Kamara who volunteers with the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) – the new owners of the computers – to hear how it was going. Osman had not yet arrived in Rotifunk himself, but said they will now be gearing up to start computer literacy classes.
In the meantime, some adults have been coming forward expressing their desire to learn to use a computer. Really, I asked. Like who? I was interested to hear which people were among the first to make their interest known.
One is the chief Imam, Osman said. The chief Imam is the leader of the community mosque. I thought, well, ministers need to write and keep sermons, so an Imam must do the same. Yes, Osman said, And he needs to keep written records and make certificates for things like marriage licenses. So, he wants to learn to do this on a computer.
They’ve acquired a printer and can now print things for teachers and other users – like a marriage certificate for the Imam to present to a newlywed couple. Or exams teachers have prepared. It didn’t take long to learn that printer ink is not cheap. They will need to charge a small printing fee for these requests. That’s far cheaper than going to the capital to use a computer or printer, when you add in transportation costs and a two day trip.
I can visualize the CCET office quickly becoming the local Kinko’s or Staples of Rotifunk. Unfortunately, now run with a generator that’s another expense for fuel. We’re keeping a solar energy system as a priority on our project list.
Chief Caulker early on expressed interest for the chiefdom clerks to learn how to computerize their records. They are starting a systematic system for recording births and deaths in the chiefdom. Computer records will be perfect to not only maintain data, but to start making spreadsheet reports on their statistics. Likewise, they keep land use records on who has rights to parcels of land and when they acquired these.
I listened to a land dispute case in the chief’s daily palaver court in a small village last February. People bring their disputes and complaints before the chief for settlement as in a court. In this case, the land was on the border between small villages and no one could remember when or if the person claiming land rights had gotten them. Who’s the oldest man in this area? asked Chief Caulker. A motorcycle taxi was sent to collect him in hopes of getting an objective and accurate reading on this. The day will soon be here when the chief could make a cell phone call back to Rotifunk for the computer data base on this. Well, if the village has a cell phone signal, which this one did not. But that will come, too.
The wheels of my brain start turning. When you move beyond computer literacy lessons and into actual applications, they need data management procedures. Do they understand the need to back up data, and how will they do this? A memory stick or blank CD will work initially, but they’ll soon need something like a remote hard drive. Mr. Kemoh, one of the teachers who studied IT technology will surely understand this.
I asked an enterprising young Rotifunk man how he would use a computer if he had one. He would start a business to transfer songs to people’s cell phones. Playing music on your cell phone is hot in Sierra Leone. And you’d be surprised how many people have cell phones. People who can download the latest songs on a computer can have a thriving business transferring these to people’s phones for a small fee.
Movies and videos are of course equally popular. They also open a whole new window on the world for people who have been to date isolated. With a computer and video projector I brought last February, we could show movies in the small village we stayed in of 25 homes. (Had to bring a generator, too, of course.) I brought a number of videos where children were lead characters in hopes of being both entertaining and educating.
What I hadn’t counted on was American English being such a barrier. When the subject matter is culturally different and the language is different than yours, or just hard to understand, you can imagine interest falls off quickly. How long could you watch a “foreign film” with no subtitles. Action films of course, do better. I found the early Harry Potter films hold universal appeal. Even when we fried the video projector with power surges coming thru the generator. (Only the fuse I hope.) Rather than give up, we just turned the computer screen towards the crowd gathered outside the house. With some small speakers I brought, that sufficed for our village cinema. The kids were happy.
Some adults just want to learn to use a computer because it’s now there. You may be asking who that handsome guy is typing away in the picture at the top of this story. It’s Chief Caulker’s Uncle Stalin. Seventy seven year old Uncle Stalin wanted computer lessons when we were together in a village. He had been a bursar on a freighter carrying goods to and fro from England in his younger days. That’s where he had learned to type.
I had panicked when I bought PC’s to take two weeks before my last trip and found they were loaded with Windows 8. I had to quickly teach myself how to use them to teach others. In two lessons, Uncle Stalin had mastered Windows 8 basics. He could turn on the computer and start up, locate the last Word document he made and start typing a letter without help. He was thrilled, and so was I.
It’s not too late for him – or for anyone in Rotifunk – to meet their aspirations using a computer. Yes, we have some ground to make up. But my experience so far would indicate, that’s not going to be a big problem.