When I tell people I spent a week in Ethiopia, I think sometimes they picture that I was doing exotic things in exotic places with exotic people. But the truth is that for most of the week I put on some nice business clothes and met with different investment firms, entrepreneurs, and government groups all within the city capital of Addis Ababa. We (another cadet named Zach, our adviser Dan Evans, and me) worked a semi-regular schedule during the day, carrying out meetings and interviews until we were off in the afternoon. Then we just explored and relaxed in the capital until the next morning when we did it all again. But luckily I was blessed to have an opportunity to break from that monotony and see a completely different side of Ethiopia as well.
One of the Ethiopian Entrepreneurs we were lucky to meet with was a nice guy named Michael, who specialized in computer science and is currently working on optical fiber cable network ideas for a few different businesses. We met with him to discuss these ideas, but the conversation quickly took a detour as he began to tell us of another project he is involved in. Michael works as a regional representative in MIT’s One Laptop per Child project in Ethiopia. He told us about his work with an isolated village in the Ethiopian Highlands that had previously never owned any technology before. The people of the village truly don’t have any reading or writing skills at all. The founder of the program Nicholas Negroponte said in a statement about the Ethiopian region that “You won’t even see printed labels or words on bottles, these people have never even seen words.” However, Micheael’s team supplied them with a dozen tablet computers three months ago to help teach the kids, and put them on a path to change those facts.
I had heard of this One Laptop project before but never have I imagined what it looks like on the ground here in Africa. We were fascinated, asking dozens of questions about his work when he mentioned that he was traveling to the village (≈ 3 hours outside the capital) that week and we were welcome to join him. The location is on the northern edge of Wenchi Crater lake, which we were planning on visiting anyway. What started out as a conversation about his optical cable network suddenly changed into planning our visit with him to this village. We were so excited; we were not expecting such an opportunity to interact with people outside the capital.
On Thursday morning we headed out of the city, meeting up with Michael and following him to village. As we traveled, the urban landscape dropped away and a completely new Ethiopia emerged. There are no large suburban neighborhoods that buffer the city between the countryside like in the States. After we crossed a certain point, the city disappeared and we were immediately met with farmland and spread out villages. The lake is not that far from the capital, but due to the quality of roads (and having to stop for many donkeys randomly crossing them) it took a while to reach our destination. The final stretch included a muddy mountain road at the very crest alongside the crater. It was a drop-off on both sides and fog covered our view as we watch our vehicles get stuck twice before we made it through.
As we got out of the car I was expecting to see a lively village, perhaps centered around one area with various people working. However, the “village” was really just a sparse connection of huts that spread out forever alongside the mountains. Every hilltop or small plain just had a simple circular building of wood and mud with maybe a sheet metal roof. We arrived at such a site, and it didn’t seem particularly significant except for one rectangular building that stood out for being slightly too developed. Its walls and angles were more straight than usual and it was fitted with windows that could open and close, rare for most huts in the highlands. As we walked closer down the mountain we could see solar panels aligned on top of the roof – technology that seemed completely out of place in its surroundings. This unique building was built by MIT as the village’s new school house and storehouse for the precious tablet computers.
As we moved down towards the school house people began materializing out of nowhere, especially the children. I guess it is a unique day to have a couple of “Ferengis” (Foreigners) to come visit in the highlands. This village is not open to tourism, and I bet we were some of the few white faces that many of these kids had ever seen. So naturally we were an attraction as many of the children were just as fascinated by us as we were by them.
Michael showed us into the school house, which was quite plain except for the wires running down from the solar panels to an enclosed server. On a table lie the pieces of technology that we came to see: around 20 tablets, blending right in to the surroundings in their rough leather covers. As we entered the children came pouring in behind us, eager to be a part of whatever was going on. Michael picked out a 6-7 year-old kid that he labeled as one of the quickest learners and gave him a tablet. He readily accepted it, and watching what happened next was one of the most impactful parts of the entire trip.
Forget the fact that this kid never grew up with technology. Forget the fact that he may have never seen an iPhone, or opened Firefox, or had his own Facebook account. When the tablet was in his hands, it was natural. As he began to play with it I was blown away by his ease and intuition with the device; it was like he grew up with it. It was amazing to see the working juxtaposition of high technology in his small village hands. He knew exactly what he was doing. But even more fascinating than his knowledge of the technology were the demonstrations of what it had taught him.
He scrolled through a few apps and picked one of his favorites – an alphabet game that spoke the name and sound of a letter when the picture was touched. He began to show off, naming each letter and sound before pressing the corresponding picture. He started at “A” and rushed through the entire alphabet perfectly. He then proceeded to sing the ABCs, and unexpectedly the other kids around him joined right in. I was in a tiny village in the mountains of Ethiopia (where the native tongue is the Semitic language Amharic), hearing a chorus of small voices sing the alphabet song. In the three months with the tablets, they had already mastered the letters and basic sounds of English.
As Michael begins to hand them out to all the other children, similar sounds and letter pronunciations filled the hut. I watched one group of kids gather around a tablet that was going through simple words in the English language. The program worked by repeating phrases with different pictures: “Ahh, Ahh, Apple!” or “C,C, Cat!” or “D, D, Dog!” I started laughing when it got to “O, O, Octopus!” These kids might not even conceptualize what an octopus is, but they sure can pronounce it!
Although humorous, this is my only place for critique. These generic apps work amazingly in helping them learn the alphabet, but they were clearly designed for an American audience. It would be incredible to see applications tailored to their own Ethiopian lives, relating what they learn everyday to the setting around them. “A, A, Africa!”
But the kids continued to play, and an adult encouraged one to get up and lead her classmates through the alphabet again. She stood up in front of everyone with the tablet and began to point to random letters, quizzing her classmates who got them all correct. The tablets are being used in a school environment and encouraging group participation, not just individual understanding. It was fascinating to watch.
As we continued to interact with the kids and watch them play around on the tablets, this incredible sense of excitement and hope kept building in me. It’s hard to describe, but when watching these children you quickly realize that this program is working exactly the way it is supposed to: These kids are learning from these devices in ways they wouldn’t be able to before, and they’re excited about it. An overwhelming sense of excitement and optimism overtook us, and we couldn’t stop smiling as we watched. This technology is empowering them in a direction to change their lives.
We stayed for well over an hour, hearing Michael talk about the program and watching the kids learn. We took dozens of pictures, trying to capture everything going on around us. The kids were all too shy to ask for their picture to be taken, but as soon as I pulled my camera out they flocked to be in the frame. Even as we said goodbye they ran up the hill with us, some even running after the cars as we drove away.
That was by far the best day I spent in Africa, and the best day I’ve had this summer (barring my 21st birthday). We left with such a feeling of inspiration and optimism, amazed at witnessing two completely different worlds collide. Or not so much “collide,” but instead we saw a “fusion” with one another, enabling these kids to learn in imaginative ways through the technology. Zach said this was the best thing he has done in a long time, and I agreed. We hadn’t even contributed anything! We were saying that because what we saw had such an impact on us, opened our eyes to a bigger picture of the world.
As we rode away I told Zach “I hope they realize it someday. I hope that someday one of those kids will say, ‘When I was only 4 years old, the laptop project from MIT came to my village, and it forever changed my future.’ What an amazing perspective that person will have. One day they might understand it.” This was not foreign aid, or handouts to their people. This was education, and just the first step in enabling them. Enabling the young minds of Africa for brighter futures. For a brighter nation, and a brighter continent.
Now I leave you with the song that was stuck in my head that entire week in Ethiopia:
WAKA WAKA AFRICA