OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone


Our first day with the kids and XOs
March 9, 2010, 1:48 am
Filed under: Logistics, Teaching

If we thought the first 48 hours were crazy, we had no idea what the next three weeks would be like. Because of the delay in receiving our laptops, we crunched what we’d planned to do in 6-7 weeks into 3 weeks. And, these three weeks included Jamie leaving in the beginning of the first (we’re very happy he was able to see the computers with kids and help with the first day :)) and Katie R leaving in the middle of the third week.  At the time, we had no time to sleep, let alone post blog entries. While we planned to update the blog after arriving back in the US, as usual, life continued and we weren’t able to update it as quickly as we’d hoped. So, just in case, any of you were wondering, here’s a look at what our final three weeks looked like.

~~~~~

After the chaos of the past 48 hours, the time-crunched nature of our project continued with the first day with all of the kids. On Monday, Chelsea and I got to DCI at 6:30 am to finish checking and updating all the computers. We organized our materials, set up benches and chairs outside for the parents and kids, and prepped for the arrival of 95 kids with their parents. Luckily, we had tons of help, especially from some of the kids and awesome volunteers. Katie R, Jamie, and Banie joined us after appearing as special guests on a local radio station.

Mr. Banya showing off the computers

Mr. Banya showing off the computers

With more than a little apprehension, we greeted parents and families as they came in, checking in students and confirming their ages. There was some confusion when some kids tried to get computers who were not on our list. We did our best to allay the confusion and to help as many kids as we could.  Below are some pictures of the check-in process.

Katie M, Jamie and our helper, Isata

Katie M, Jamie and our helper, Isata

Signing in

Signing in

After checking in, parents and students headed outside to learn more about the program and class. Banie and Satta did an excellent job explaining, discussing the program, children’s safety, and the importance of child ownership, and Solomon showed off the computer and its functions. It was very exciting for us to see the DCI staff and volunteers in action.

Solomon, showing off the XO

Solomon, showing off the XO

Banie, talking to the parents about safety

Banie, talking to the parents about safety

We continued by distributing the laptops, having each child write his/her name of his/her XO, and asking the parents to sign their child up for a class session. We ended the session around 11am, already thoroughly exhausted.

The day continued with preparations for our first day of classes, finishing our computer updates AND (drum role please) establishing internet! Thank you Zain! Katie R, Chelsea, Jamie and I headed back to the Pastoral Centre in the late afternoon, completely exhausted but very happy with the day.

Introducing OLPC

Introducing OLPC

Our class calendar

Our class calendar

Safety and Parents' Roles

Safety and Parents' Roles

I attached our outline of the opening ceremony – we didn’t follow it exactly, but this is what we planned. It may be helpful for those planning similar projects. Opening ceremony info

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In the news again
September 29, 2009, 12:01 pm
Filed under: In the News

Hi All! We are working on updating the blog post receiving the laptops, but for the time being, please see the Tulane New Wave article about our project.

http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/090809_laptop.cfm

Also, you should look at this article, also from the Tulane New Wave, about Rwanda: http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/090909_rwanda.cfm



The Most Productive One-Day Trip EVER
August 6, 2009, 9:49 am
Filed under: OLPCorps, Technology

In an attempt to catch our faithful readers up with our continually chaotic lives post-XOs, here is a blog about our life pre-XOs.

You know when you are waiting for an important call – a call from the doctor, or from a job interview, or from Cox Communications – and you have been waiting all day? And, after waiting hours next to the phone, you decide to run to the bathroom because you have been waiting all day next to the phone. And, just when you sit down on the toilet, the phone rings. That’s what our trip to Sahn Malen was like.

As you know, we had been waiting weeks for customs to release our laptops. Being incredibly bored and not having anything else to do until our laptops arrived, we decided it was the perfect time to go visit the other SL OLPC team. Katie and I met two of their teammates when we were in Rwanda and they were pretty awesome. Although the morning started out with bad luck for me (freezing cold showers with no electricity and the water running out do not bode well for the start of the trip), the trip was uneventful. Upon leaving Kenema, we first took a taxi to Bo (the 4 of us with 6 of our closest friends – we were in a 5 passenger car – about an hour away). Once in Bo, we found another taxi to take us to Pujehun town. The road to Pujehun is about 30 miles paved and 12 miles unpaved – about 2 hours. We shared the taxi with our closest 9 friends (again, 5 passenger). When we arrived in Pujehun, we found that most of the motor bikers had been arrested the day before because they did not have licenses. We had planned on taking a motor bike to Sahn Malen… we finally found two bikers and ended up riding 3 to a bike with several backpacks. I’m still sore from trying to hold onto the bike with my legs and trying to keep my back straight (and not fall off the bike) with my stomach muscles. Excellent workout! It took us about 30 minutes by bike to get to Sahn Malen. The Hondas knew exactly where to take us because our friends were the only poo-mwis there. In fact, people in Bo even knew who we were going to visit (one of the Sahn Malen team members has dread locks, an unusual hairstyle for men in Sierra Leone, so they know who he is).

Thomas, our Honda driver

Thomas, our Honda driver

The village, Sahn Malen, is really rural and the team has one of the few generators in town. They get many of their supplies from Bo (which is 2-4 hours away, depending on the type of transportation). We got there in the mid-afternoon and went to see the other team’s set-up (very low tech but good). They power the laptops with the combination of a generator, individual solar panels, and a battery (powered by solar panels). They were building off of a previous deployment in December, working with peer educators and two local schools to provide XOs to all children in Class 5 (roughly, fifth grade). After observing their setup, we headed out to a “nearby” village (1 hour’s walk away) with another team member who was following up on mosquito net distribution project.

Scenic view along the way to Sahn Malen

Scenic view along the way to Sahn Malen

On our walk, however, Chelsea kept getting flashed on her cell phone by two of our DCI colleagues. (BTW, the term “flashing” refers to when people call your cell phone quickly, so you know they called, but not so you have enough time to actually pick up the phone. Because most people pay for their cell phones by the minute, calling people, especially when they have a different provider, can be expensive.) They kept calling but, of course, we had no signal because we’re in the middle of nowhere – literally. We were between two extremely isolated villages. We finally found a place where there were two bars but we had no units. So, we flashed them back. See the pictures below for a visual representation of how the call went.

Jamie, receiving the fateful call

Jamie, receiving the fateful call

Taking a picture of what might be a photo-worthy call

Taking a picture of what might be a photo-worthy call

Do we have laptops? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

Do we have laptops? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

Looks like a thumbs up... :)

Looks like a thumbs up... 🙂

Yay!! We got our laptops!!

Yay!! We got our laptops!!

Luckily our DCI friends called back to tell us our laptops had been freed from customs! Unfortunately, DHL was saying they couldn’t bring them to Kenema. (This was after we were assured by two reps in Freetown and 3 reps from the international office that they would be brought to Kenema.) After frantically returning to Sahn Malen, buying units and finding the best spot to make calls (stradling a gutter, interestingly enough), we called the OLPC rep in Boston and Emily, our amazing team member in Buffalo. We left a voice message for the OLPC rep (I think, a barely coherent message) and talked to Emily, who kept calling us back on Skype when we lost signal. I sat in a crouching position for about 15 minutes and in the middle of a puddle while we spoke. Then we called the DHL Freetown rep, who told us he would call back once he figured out the additional fee to transport the laptops toKenema (because they hadn’t figured that out before… ?). We thought they were trying to get more money out of us, but it turns out not to be so. Or at least, the charges were somewhat legit.

”]Katie, Katie, Jamie and Carlos [making a coconut whistle]
Captured Bush Baby

Captured Bush Baby

Back to Sahn Malen – we spent the rest of the evening eating pineapple and coconut, hanging out with Carlos and Faaez, meeting their team, setting up internet, and seeing what we later determined was a bush baby (thank you Wikipedia).

We stayed the night in Sahn Malen and departed early in the morning to head back to Kenema and get our laptops. We spent less than 24 hours in Sahn Malen, and it was the first day we had all been out of Kenema since we arrived. Too bad we didn’t leave earlier – we may have received our laptops earlier!



This is Sierra Leone
July 20, 2009, 10:30 am
Filed under: Rants and Raves, Team Info

This is Sierra Leone…

This is Sierra Leone.

It’s remarkable how much one sentence can say. It’s even more amazing how the emphasis of words can change the meaning of a sentence. Four small words convey an important message.

More often than not, it’s the first sentence we hear. “This is Sierra Leone…” followed by a shoulder shrug and averted eyes. We’ve heard it most notably twice. The first was during our customs exchange. In brief, it was implied to mean that in order to get our shipment through customs, bribery was necessary. This is Sierra Leone… if you want to get things done quickly, you need to pay someone. Corruption is a way of life, especially in a country where government jobs are highly prized but it takes months or years to get a paycheck. “This is Sierra Leone…” followed by a shoulder shrug and averted eyes. The second time we heard the phrase was when we were talking to DCI about volunteers to teach the class. We were told that people would not volunteer their time without some financial incentive. We should pay travel expenses; give them food; something to get them to help ease the burden of volunteering. Now, it would not cost our program much to pay travel expenses: a Honda (motorbike) costs Le 1000 (approximately thirty American cents). If we paid each volunteer to come each day for the duration of the program (about four weeks), we would spend about 60USD. Less than what most people in the US make in a day… but that’s not the point. We are looking for people to volunteer their time and talents to benefit their children. We’re bringing so many other resources and providing a program that will help their children (and we’re already supplementing the salary for some), that it is a little frustrating that people can’t pay for transportation. That they can’t invest in a project for a few hours each day to help kids learn to use the computers. Luckily, the last example was reversed when we said we were planning to give the volunteers we trained certificates presented at a big ceremony.

That mindset seems prevalent in many parts of Africa. I’ve heard many a seasoned traveler use its parent: This is Africa, TIA. It’s the same mentality. Africa is some heart of darkness, only to be penetrated by the brave of heart and the tough of stomach. It’s not some place regular people want to go. It’s exotic, a place of mystery; it’s scary, a place to be fearful of. It’s a place where the do-gooders or the do-badders go to fulfill their mission. It’s a place to be developed; it’s a place to be exploited. It’s extreme. It’s not some place regular people want to go.

But it’s not that simple, that dichotomous. No country… no CONTINENT should be brushed off so easily. Africa, and speaking from my experience in Sierra Leone, is a complex place of unique traditions, cultures, histories, and peoples. Imagine how absurd it would sound to say, “This is Asia” or “This is North America.” I’m sure some Canadians would be very offended by the latter statement. So, let’s look at the other statement I began with: This is Sierra Leone.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. A young man reads about genetics from an old biology textbook for fun. Little kids use their free time to learn to use a computer. Young adults spending their nights reading all they can on chemistry, literature, and physics on Wikipedia. Teachers at a workshop proudly display their books. Small girls confidently sing “Education is good for the girl child, for the family and also for the nation” in front of beaming parents. Sierra Leoneans value education, thirsting for information and knowledge; they do not take it for granted.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. People give us the special food, reserved only for select occasions, possibly leaving themselves hungry. Bikers, many of whom are ex-combatants, explain the new helmet law to me and point out where I can buy one. A stranger greets us in the street, laughing when we reply in Mende, and then teaching us new words, becoming a friend. Sierra Leoneans are incredibly friendly and hospitable.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. Fruit and bread vendors pick the perfect pieces to sell to us. They usually tell us the correct price, despite our lack of knowledge. Most people don’t try to take advantage of us. They search for foods we are looking for. Sierra Leoneans are honest and fair.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. LUCOWODA, the Lumbebu women’s organization, supports local women and runs a school focusing on vulnerable children and girl children (see the link for a video clip). Action Plus, an NGO, supports victims of domestic violence, advocates for better laws and justice, and sensitizes communities against domestic violence. Defence for Children International advocates and supports children, and diligently supports our program. Sierra Leoneans, who may have had other options, decide to serve their people.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. The fruit and vegetables are amazing, fresh and delicious. The countryside is beautiful. The rain bursts make the air smell clean and new. The torrential rain at night on the corrugated metal roof is a better way to go to sleep than any sleep machine I’ve ever heard. Sierra Leone, and its productions, is beautiful.

This is Sierra Leone. Looking straight into your eyes, shoulders proud, small smile. Children of both of the major religions, Christian and Muslim, play and live together. Children of various tribes know and respect each others’ languages. Sierra Leoneans respect many differences that have divided other countries.

There are problems in Sierra Leone. But the problems should not eclipse the virtues the country and her people possess. At a conference we attended this week, I was inspired by a returned Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, and Salone advocate. He was running the workshop where teachers created their own teaching materials, books. “Some people say Sierra Leone is poor and they cite the statistics. But if you look at your books, Sierra Leone is NOT poor. There is so much knowledge and beauty and so much worthwhile. How are you going to share this? What’s next?”



Do they have a fourth of July in Sierra Leone?
July 9, 2009, 9:34 am
Filed under: Team Info

Yes, and they celebrate it.

Did you ever take that quiz with trick questions, like “Do the British have a fourth of July?”? I remember taking the test to big family gatherings and laughing at my unwitting cousins and relatives when I was able to trick them with the quiz. While the answer to the fourth of July question is yes for any country (of course a country has a fourth of July, they might not celebrate it as a holiday), in Kenema, Sierra Leone, the fourth of July was celebrated in a fun, if not traditional, method.

Last year, the Tulane students and many friends celebrated in a somewhat traditional way – we gathered together, played games, ate a lot of food, and lit things on fire (although our items included lighters and turning on our cell phone flashlights). So, the stage was set for a grander operation this year, as several Sierra Leoneans were already aware of our strange traditions.

The day started out rather mundanely – we woke at 8am, got breakfast, and planned to rest before working on OLPC projects. But shortly into our rest, we were interrupted when the kids came to remind us of a promise made earlier in the week. Masa, one of the kids who lives near the Pastoral Centre, said she would teach us how to make butterscotchy, a treat we enjoyed last year. So, we hiked down to their house (just outside the Pastoral Centre grounds) and spent a very enjoyable morning making butterscotchy.

Making Butterscotchy

Making Butterscotchy

As happens often, our presence created some attention and before the morning was over, we had accrued quite a crowd of neighborhood children. After distributing the butterscotchy appropriately (and sneaking several pieces to small children), we headed back to our rooms to work on the XS, the server OLPC gave us, but not before promising to return to join them for lunch after we were finished work. We continued diligently to figure out the server, solving many problems and probably creating more, and returned to Masa’s house (and Alhaji’s, Pabai’s, and Mama’s) for a lunch of groundnut soup, or ‘niki soup-wi’ (Mende). After lunch, we played games with the kids – football, Miss Mary Mack, the hand slap game, and sat around. The kids, remembering it was American Independence Day, started singing songs they would sing during their independence day. Somehow, the games morphed into a full blown celebration including music, dancing, singing and other performances. All the kids got in on the fun and we were the willing audience. The festivities only ended when we had to go to a meeting with DCI.

Now, if you’re keeping track, it’s a Saturday evening. Needless to say, we weren’t particularly thrilled to attend a meeting at 6pm on a Saturday. But, like the rest of the day, it turned out to be a pleasant and productive event. DCI was having a country-wide planning meeting with their country director and each headquarters’ program managers were present. We met with them, discussed our project in greater detail, and let them explore the XOs a little. They were very encouraging and hope to attend some of the events we are planning over the summer. Overall, a productive meeting.

After our meeting, we headed back to the Pastoral Centre, to celebrate. Our celebration included sitting at the bar with Fumba, Augustine and the night guard, making guacamole (yum!), drinking Star beer (not so yum), and enjoying the cooling rain.

While we missed out on fireworks, weren’t able to eat gumbo or hot dogs, and definitely were not surrounded by red, white and blue, the day turned out to be one of the best celebrations I’ve had. Katie R has said (usually after eating a particularly delicious meal) that she would be perfectly happy to die at that moment. I would describe that feeling more as perfect contentment and happiness, wanting nothing more from the world at that moment. That’s how I felt last night, sitting in the bar at the Pastoral Centre, eating guacamole, listening to the rain, in Sierra Leone. Perfectly happy!

Katie M



Hit the Ground Running
June 26, 2009, 4:55 am
Filed under: Teaching

First Days in Kenema 049Chelsea, Katie R and I arrived in Sierra Leone less than a week ago (as I’m writing, we arrived almost 5 days ago). Already, we have met several times with our partner organization, Defence for Children International (DCI); been introduced to various partners and stakeholders (including the Kenema reps for the ministries of Education and Social Welfare and the local police); participated in a partner organizations meeting; set the tentative schedule for training of trainers and the children’s classes; and plan to start our TOT sessions tomorrow morning. Whew!

All of this was possible because of DCI. While OLPCorps has been criticized for sending naïve college students out into the African development wilderness, it’s important to remember that a qualifying factor for deployment selection was partnership with and support from a local non-governmental organization. And, we were very lucky to have found and partnered with such a collaborative, welcoming, competent, and DEDICATED group. The project coordinators, social workers and interns work together with a shared mission of protecting and bettering the lives of children. The staff also recognizes the value of computer and IT skills, and they have worked to incorporate them into their programs. One of the reasons we thought of DCI when applying to OLPCorps was because they had set up a computer lab and initiated training for youth. The program was so popular that they added additional classes and still had to turn students away.

DCI is very invested in the project. They welcomed us graciously into their organization, pulling out all stops to make this program work. Before we arrived, they contacted various child protection agencies with which to collaborate and decided that, since this project was just a pilot, they wanted it to affect as many communities as possible (since the number of children affected is limited). In collaboration with their partners and community leaders, they developed a list of vulnerable children who should benefit from the program. The list includes children from their projects (helping children that are in the justice system, including both victims and perpetrators) in addition to children from their partner organizations: the Blind School (the children are not blind; they lead blind family members around to beg for money), Ben Hirsh (an organization that caters to street children and orphans), and other local community groups.

Thus far, we have not met the children who will benefit from the project. However, we plan to “interview” each child at the start of the program, asking them about their computer experience, what they want to be when they grow up, if they like school, what is their favorite subject, what is their favorite game, etc. This will serve as a method to get to know each child and as a way to evaluate the program quantitatively, as we hope to have post-deployment interviews as well.

Our teachers are two DCI employees, both of whom have technical experience. Paul is the IT instructor for DCI’s computer lab, and Barrie is a social worker with computer experience. Both show an avid interest to learn more about the XO. In addition to our two main teachers, DCI has enlisted each partner organization or community to send a representative to learn how to use the XO and volunteer during the classes. This person will act as an advocate and a local resource for the children they represent. Because many of the people we’re training already have some technological experience, we hope they will be more willing and excited to participate in learning this new system. From a brief introduction to the laptop, that seems a good assumption.

Most people that we’ve talked to are excited about the possibility of extending the program, so they are invested in ensuring its success. We’ve already had several adults ask us to buy more laptops so their children can benefit. They see the immense value and opportunity presented by the laptops. DCI and others we have met want to make this program work, so that more children can receive laptops. They are already imagining a time when there is one laptop per child in Sierra Leone. It’s very clear that they genuinely care about improving the lives of children.



In Salone (Sierra Leone) safe and sound
June 21, 2009, 11:59 am
Filed under: Team Info

Hi All,

Quick update that the Katies (Robinette and McCarthy) and Chelsea made it to Kenema, Sierra Leone, safely and with very few hassles. If you would like to contact us, email is always possible, but feel free to call at the numbers below. There is a 4 hour time difference from the East Coast to Sierra Leone, 5 between CST and here, and 7 between PST and here.

Katie McCarthy/3 – 232 (0) 33 126 157
Katie Robinette/1 – 232 (0) 30 942 929
Chelsea Williams – 232 (0) 30 942 906

When calling from the US, you don’t need to include the zero in parenthesis above.

Happy Sunday!