Computers and Superman

In America computers are everywhere.  They are a part of life there.  In America we use computers at home and at work, even when we are at the coffee shop.  Yet, if I asked a few average Americans if they knew a lot about computers, they would probably reply in the negative.  This, despite the fact that they use a computer to check their email, post their status on Facebook, research things on the internet, shop online, write papers for work or school on their laptop, etc, etc.  The average American is computer literate.  Also in America, the quality and affordability of the computers is excellent, and the availability of the internet is everywhere and affordable.

Here in Botswana very few people have computers in their homes or schools.  Most businesses don’t have them.  Even many government offices do not have them.  The District Aids Coordinator’s office, where I work, just got their computers recently, and they still do not have the internet.  In Botswana, when computers arrive at the workplace or schools, Batswana don’t know how to use them.  The average Motswana doesn’t know how to type, and barely knows how to create a letter using Word.  The average Motswana is not computer literate.

I am sure most people have read a Superman comic book (pardon me, a Graphic Novel), or have seen the Superman movies or TV shows and know the story of how he got his superpowers.  In case someone doesn’t remember, here is the story:  Back on Krypton, his home planet, Kal-El (Superman’s real name) would be just a regular guy; nothing super about him at all.  He wouldn’t be able to fly, use x-ray vision, have super strength or any of those other cool things.  He probably wouldn’t be wearing that outfit either.  Back on Krypton, his solar system had a red sun.  Once on Earth and exposed to our yellow sun he suddenly had super powers.  So in a nutshell, on Earth he is Superman, back home he is disappointingly average.

So where computer literacy is concerned, in America you may be just average; but here in Botswana, under the African sun, you are a computer Superman.  The simple things you know how to do has to be taught and learned here.  Clicking versus double clicking the mouse button, which button to click, what is the internet anyway, how do I start Word?

Things are changing slowly.  The Government of Botswana (GOB) has made Information and Communication Technology (ICT) a major focus of the country’s economic agenda and significant investment has recently been made in upgrading Botswana’s
communications networks to facilitate new technologies. Just a few years ago Botswana established a government ministry dedicated to ICT, the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology.  Computer literacy is needed for the economic future of the country, and to help individuals  compete in the workforce.  Also, access to computers and knowledge of how to use them will help enrich the lives of Batswana.

Thanks to the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the Rockefellers, there are now some computers in schools and libraries.  The Mochudi Public Library is one such place.  There are seven computers there, connected to the internet.  Library patrons can come in and use them.  Often that is their first exposure to computers, and they are completely lost, and need help.  It is easy to feel needed and appreciated here as everyone wants to know how to use these new laptops they have in their government offices, or the computers that have become available in schools or libraries.  An average user of Word, or Excel has much to offer here.

In the Peace Corps we are here at the invitation of the Government of Botswana (GOB), and it is to do specific things.  Mostly it is to help with the HIV/AIDS crisis — helping those infected and affected, which is a large part of the population.  One of the things specifically mentioned by the GOB that they wanted volunteers to do was to help with teaching technology.  My career has been as a software engineer for mid-range computers.  As far as Personal Computers go, I have always been a computer hobbyist, and a “power user” (not quite an expert).  I love computers and so building capacity by teaching IT skills is a natural for me.  It is a win-win-win situation.  I am doing what people want me to do, what the GOB has asked Peace Corps to do, and what I enjoy doing.

Tuesday and Thursdays are my busiest days.  The day begins at the Mochudi Public Library.  I arrive (on foot) at 8 am.  I walk right in like I work there (which I sort of do).  Everyone looks up from shelving books and other tasks and greet me, “Hi Rapula”.  The library is not officially open until 9 am.  Between 8 am and 9 am I teach the staff.   Recently I have been teaching people on the staff various topics from Word and Excel to web browsing and email.  At 9 am the patrons of the library roll in and I teach individuals whatever they want to learn.  Often they are literally a blank slate and I have to start by explaining that the keyboard and mouse are input devices, the monitor is the output of the computer, etc etc.  Very basic computer skills.  I find it amusing that no matter how computer illiterate they are, many want to learn how to set up a Facebook account.

Around 10:30 or 11 am I walk to Stepping Stones International (SSI) where I am doing individual capacity building by training Tinny, the Operations Manager.  She also needs instruction at a basic level.  In the near future I will be teaching other staff and the youth in their new Leadership Center.

I know a lot about computers, but am not a trained teacher.  I had to do some catch-up, researching how to teach basic computer skills, and looking for tutorials online.  There is a ton of information out there.  Sometimes, I just direct a student to a good tutorial web site I know about and turn them loose with that, and move to the next student.

After I leave SSI, I walk to the house and eat lunch.  Then I leave for my 2 pm appointment at BOFWA (Botswana Family Welfare Association).  It is almost three miles away, so I walk up to the “tarred”road and take a combi.  The director, Kealaboga, is one of the nicest Motswana I have met, and I enjoy spending time with him.  I have taught him about Excel and Word and also worked to clean his computer of viruses, and update his operating system.  During the last two visits, we have started working on an Access database to run his NGO.  We are doing this together, with him doing most of the work.  When we are finished, he will have an application that will help his NGO run smoothly, and he will have acquired some skills that could help him in the future.

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3 Responses to Computers and Superman

  1. Ken Krueger says:

    I’m curious how you managed to get Internet service at your home? I gather that is very unusual for your location. Do you have a wi-fi router, a cell system, hot-spot or do you plug in by cable?

    I would also like to know if the computers you run into have Microsoft Office or do you use the free Open Office.org products? I would think the free programs would work well for them. (Especially if there are bootlegged copies of Microsoft products floating around.)

    We’re still waiting for my wife, Anne to clear the medical eval process. The waiting and having to delay making any firm plans is a pain. March isn’t that far off. At least we don’t have to worry about getting rid of the house. We plan on just closing it up for the time we’re gone.

    Thanks for the updates –

    Ken

  2. Marion says:

    Ken… I think internet is available to us because we live in a large village only 30 K from the capital. Though available, most people do not have it because they cannot afford it, and also because they don’t have computers anyway.

    The internet comes in on an a DSL line. I plug this into a wireless router which they provide. The speed is very slow. I pay about 500 pula per month for 512 Kbps.

    Most computers I have run into, at the DAC office, the library and at several NGO’s have Microsoft Office 2007. I do not think they are bootleg copies, I think they came with the computers. I agree the free OpenOffice type software would certainly be an option to save some money.

    Good luck with everything. Are you going to have a blog? I would like to check it out.

  3. Ken Krueger says:

    As soon as we get the invitation, I’ll start the process for our blog. I am planning on using WordPress and I think use GoDaddy for the domain registration and hosting.

    I just got a Kindle Fire for me and a Kindle Touch for my wife Anne. The Fire uses WiFi or a direct computer USB link for downloads, and the Touch can do 3G as well. Looks like on the coverage map, lots of the places in Eastern Europe actually have 3G coverage. I would think a cell hotspot might work if we can’t get DSL into where we live.

    We are also looking at getting another small, lightweight laptop for Anne to use. That way we’d have a spare in case of damage or theft. One of the newer Ultrabooks or a MAC Air perhaps.

    Sounds like you are getting settled in and finally have time to enjoy some travel.

    Take care –

    Ken

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