There are a whole lot of heart-warming, tear-jerking ways I could start this article, but let’s just begin like this: it’s really fun to do a photo shoot with an Edge USB Wireless Modem. (Gorgeous results pictured, left.)
And now let’s move on to business.
In Sogakope, just two hours from Ghana’s capital city of Accra, there are no telephone lines. This means that high-speed, low cost DSL internet is impossible.
So what are we left with, then? Portable USB modems that cost hundreds of dollars and that you stick into one computer at a time for internet roughly the speed of a certain former U.S. President’s brain.
To load one single page takes up to ten minutes, if the page loads at all. Refresh! Error. Refresh! Error. Refresh! Loading (slowly). My refresh-button thumb is getting awfully sore!
“That’s not heart-warming at all,” you’re likely scoffing, “that’s just annoying.”
Oh, but trust me: your heart is about to get nice and toasty.
Our little Youth Creating Change crew visited four schools around Sogakope this week, which has been utterly fascinating for me as an American teacher. Our reasons for visiting these schools were three-fold (or, as the Ghanaians pronounce, “tray-fold”):
1) To congratulate each school on its wonderful participation in the twenty-round Grand Quiz reading project.
2) To check on the progress of each school’s YCC-sponsored reading club, and to arrange for YCC volunteers (like me!) to join the students’ club, weekly.
3) To set up an expansion of the wonderful cross-cultural penpal exchange we have launched between YCC kids and my former Boston school: this time involving all four Ghanaian schools instead of just the YCC club, as well as pulling in eager teachers who have contacted me from Canada, Connecticut, and California. (Note: if you’re a teacher interested in participating, write to me! Your location need not begin with the letter “C”.)
This sweet school, pictured in all the photos with coral pink uniforms, is in a town called Dabala, which is the furthest from YCC headquarters of all four schools. To reach Dabala from Sogakope, a person needs to take a shared taxi for thirty minutes, at a total cost of about two Ghana Cedis (or $1.50).
Upon our arrival at Sanity International, YCC Administrator, Oliver, explained the penpal exchange program to the eager young students.
“Who here already has an email address?” he asked.
Thirty-two small hands stayed in thirty-two small laps.
“No,” said the headmaster.
“Does the town of Dabala have any internet access at all that the children can use?”
“No,” said everyone in the room.
“When we have the money, we take the shared taxi to Sogakope to use the computer at YCC,” said one small girl.
“All right,” said Oliver, remaining upbeat, “print your full name and password request on this paper and I will create all of your email addresses for you this week.”
Oliver paused, then continued: “This penpal exchange will require a lot of effort on your part because of the transportation and limited internet. Are you still interested?”
“YES!” said every child in the room.
And so it was that Oliver spent four hours last night creating… just the first four new email addresses. Yahoo was particularly finicky yesterday, as was our one guesthouse USB modem. Clearly, the Sanity International wing of the penpal exchange will inch along step by step, but as we speak, the diligent Dabala students are hard at work hand-writing their introductory penpal letters.
Today I taught a ninety-minute Computer (and penpal) class at YCC. For the first thirty minutes, someone at the guesthouse was using our only USB modem (we have to share it and thus shuttle it between the guesthouse and the YCC classroom across town), and so we had no way to check if students had new letters.
Luckily, Oliver had already printed out some letters for students (remember, we have a list all of their emails and passwords!), and so we had a vibrant discussion about how to respond to a certain letter, and all ended up drafting a juicy paragraph each about the daily practice in Ghana of teachers beating their disobedient students with canes.
Thirty minutes in, YCC staff member, Gladys, screeched up on a bike clutching the modem. At last, we were able to connect one internet port, and so all fifteen of us gathered around that single computer to finally read aloud the article I wrote about the YCC triumph at the Grand Quiz that students had been itching to see for days!
For the final thirty minutes of class (and then for thirty minutes after class had ended), the students patiently took turns checking their email, one by one at the single computer, waiting the minutes for a page to load, while everyone else worked on homework or letter drafts.
If a student did receive a letter from their penpal, we didn’t have time for them to type a reply, so we pasted it onto a Word document to put on a memory stick to print later. (The only printer is back at the guesthouse.)
Only three of the seven YCC computers worked today, and so on the other two computers, students began typing new letters to their penpals, also to be saved on a memory stick and sent later.
I tell you these details not in order to complain, but rather to bow down to the perseverance and positive attitudes of these wonderful students. It may seem like all of this is a lot of trouble to go to for one little project, but I saw it today: it is a fantastic and worthwhile project for several reasons.
First, having a mysterious yet friendly peer across the ocean gives a major incentive to learn computer and internet literacy, whatever the obstacles. In the future, the Sanity international students with an Oliver-created email address WILL have a leg up on their less connected classmates. In the future, the students who have made the effort to get their hands on keyboards and their eyes on the web will be better prepared for our digital world.
Second, English teacher says: the more you read and write, the better you become at reading and writing, and thus the better shape your brain will be in to succeed in life!
Third, a major section of the all-important National Test for students in Ghana is: write a letter to a penpal!
I had a truly lovely time in class today, despite all of the difficulties that could have frustrated us. Fundraising campaigns are currently underway to buy one more portable USB modem (do click the “Donation” button on the right sidebar if you want to chip in!), but regardless if there is one modem or three, the underlying truth shines through: these students really deserve our admiration.