Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves on Tablet Computers

Completely illiterate Ethiopian children.

See Der Spiegel, "The Miracle of Wenchi: Ethiopian Kids Using Tablets to Teach Themselves":
The path to Wenchi leads along the rim of an extinct volcano. It winds through banana plantations and brier patches, with wild marjoram growing rampant along the edge. There is a crater lake below, and beyond it lies the Great Rift Valley, also known as the cradle of humanity.

The ancestors of Homo sapiens lived in the valley a million years ago. Gazing across the plateau, with its green, gently rolling hills, it looks as if everything is as it has always been, before the modern age came to the village.

It takes an hour to hike to the village of Wenchi on Wenchi Lake, 3,400 meters (11,152 feet) above sea level. Eight families live there in mud huts with steeply pitched roofs covered with straw. Wenchi looks a little like the Smurfs Village. There is no electricity and no running water, the next well is an hour away and it's 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to the nearest school.

The first time American Matt Keller stood on the crater rim, between the lake and the valley, looking down at Wenchi, he could hardly believe his eyes. He was searching for a place that was sufficiently far away from the rest of the world. He was already on the verge of turning around, because he didn't think anyone still lived here.

But Keller has felt a little closer to the people of Wenchi since the end of October, when floodwaters inundated Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives. Hurricane Sandy was raging, his house was underwater, and nothing worked anymore. There was no heat, no hot water and no electricity. Keller spent two days in his car, charging his mobile phone with the cigarette lighter and answering calls from around the world. Scientists, journalists and sponsors wanted to know about his computer project, and about the children from Wenchi and their prospects for the future.

It's a December morning, and Keller is making his way down to the village for his fifth visit to Wenchi. He wants to know how much progress the children have made since the last time he was there. A few girls and boys run out to greet him, reach for his hand and lead them to a new hut with solar panels on the roof.

The children are barefoot. Eight-year-old Kelbessa, with his tousled hair and dreamy eyes, is wearing a men's jacket covered with dirt and carrying a brown leather case under his arm that looks like a briefcase. Abebech is 10 and is wearing matchsticks as jewelry in her pierced earlobes. She is carrying her youngest brother in a piece of material slung over her back.

Abebech is holding the same brown leather case in her hand, containing a portable tablet PC with a touchscreen, which local residents refer to as a Computera. When Abebech switches it on, three letters appear on the screen: the letter A is wearing a baseball cap, B is warbling into a microphone and C is rapping. The letters sing the ABC song with high-pitched digital voices. They sound like Teletubbies. It isn't a sound that adults can stand listening to for long.

But with Abebech it's a different story. She loves the song and can sing along for hours. Using her fingers, she paints the letters onto the screen, concentrating on the task at hand. She wipes the snot from her nose with the back of her hand, and then she wipes her finger across the screen, quickly opening applications, typing and writing ecstatically.

After a few minutes Kelbessa, the boy, shows Keller his latest work. He has circumvented the security system that's intended to prevent children from accessing photo and video programs, because they eat up too much electricity and space on the memory cards. Kelbessa has shot a two-minute video. It shows his grandfather with the cattle, a shaky image of the hut and his sisters. Kelbessa is beaming.

Keller squats in the dust next to the children, watching quietly, thinking to himself that he is witnessing a miracle, the miracle of Wenchi. He is the first person from the Western world to come to Wenchi to explore this miracle.

Keller, 48, is a thoughtful American in safari pants. The villagers refer to him as the "ferenji," or white man. Everything has changed in Wenchi since he began making his occasional visits to the village.
An amazing story.

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