When applying to DukeEngage, I was particularly drawn to the Togo program after reading that students had come and installed a cyber cafe right here in the village of Farende the previous year. I knew I wanted to work with students in the cyber cafe in some capacity but was far from being set on one idea. Upon our arrival here in the village, I was shocked at how uncrowded the cyber cafe was for most of the day. In fact, I came to learn that there are really only 2-3 people who regularly use the internet here, none of which are students. This beautiful cyber cafe that Duke students had built a year prior has essentially become just a cell phone charging station for the village. For my project I’ve set out to try to change that, and hopefully draw young people to all the incredible things that one can do with computers.
At first, it seemed odd to me that no young people took advantage of the cyber cafe right down the street from them. The usage fee wasn’t huge by local standards, and the questions I was asked regarding the cyber indicated that students were certainly curious about computers. As I spoke more with the youth in my homestead, I learned that the main reason most people stayed away was simply because they had no idea how to use a computer. It seemed strange at first that in a full year, no one had gone in and at least tried to figure it out by playing around with the internet or something basic. The more I thought about it though, the more it began to make sense: computer literacy is instilled in Americans from such a young age that we seem to take it for granted. But for Togolese students with no prior experience whatsoever, using a computer is as foreign for them as it was for me to come and eat fufu for the first time. Sometimes it’s just better to have someone who knows what they’re doing show you the right way to do things the first time around.
At our initial meeting with all of the village youth where we introduced our projects to gauge interest, I was satisfied when I was handed a list of about ten students who were curious enough to give my project a try. We set up meetings on Sundays and Thursdays for about an hour. Going into my first meeting I expected maybe half of the initial ten to show. I write up a rough agenda to follow with what I thought could be covered in an hour: introduce the different parts of the computer, show them the internet and how they can find anything that interests them using Google and other sites, and maybe give a brief introduction to email if time allowed it. When I arrived at the cyber, I was surprised when there were already 3 kids waiting outside, 30 minutes before the class was supposed to begin. By the time the class actually started, there were close to 10 people who were there to learn. I was thrilled, and began my first class. Almost immediately after we began I realized that I had grossly overestimated the amount of material I could cover in this first meeting. Simple things that I hadn’t thought to talk about (which fingers you use to hold the mouse, the difference between a right and left click, and knowing that you have to click on the blue, underlined words to open a link, just to name a few) came up in questions and confusion and I struggled to revise my itinerary on the fly. I ended up covering just two major websites, Google and Wikipedia, and showed them a music video on YouTube at the end. Though I covered far less material than I anticipated, I left feeling very optimistic about the class, because of the great enthusiasm of the students. When I showed them a music video of a popular song at the end, their faces lit up and their eyes were glued to the screen. I could tell that the desire to continue to learn was certainly present amongst the students.
My next meeting coincided with an impromptu political really here in Farende so turnout was much lower which disappointed me. I thought that the kids might have decided my class wasn’t so interesting after all and stopped coming already. But nonetheless, at my next meeting attendance was back to what it was at the first and we continued with the lessons. At this meeting, after reviewing much of the material from the first time, I gave the kids a little internet scavenger hunt. I would read questions aloud and 3 teams, divided between the computers, would race to find the answers. We started with simple questions such as, When was the president of Togo born? and Who won the World Cup in 2002? The kids struggled at first but by the third or fourth question they had gotten a hang of how to get to Google, type in a search phrase, and read the results. At the end of the class, I noticed that the students had begun searching for other things that interested them – one student searched for Socrates and others looked up pictures of African leaders. It thrilled me to see the kids searching for things that they wanted to read about; that they were already doing this just a couple lessons into the course amazed me. I almost felt guilty having to tell them to log off the computers at the end because they had just really gotten into their searches. But again, I left with great optimism, due to the excitement of the students.
As the next couple lessons continued, attendance continued to steadily increase each class. This was a good thing, I thought, and I didn’t want to turn anyone away, but it had reached the point that there were too many kids to cram around just 3 computers. I met with the owner of the cyber to discuss dividing the class into groups and meeting more days of the week. We decided to divide the class into 3 levels, based on age, and each level would meet one hour a week on Sunday, Monday and Thursday. The plan sounded good to me. The kids had expressed their frustration with searching, due to the fact that it took a long time to find and type all the letters, so we were beginning to move on to typing. Being in smaller groups for the start of this would be perfect so that everyone would be able to get lots of practice time with the typing program.
When the first day of the new groups started I instantly noticed that things were easier to handle. Each class was now 6 students rather than 20 and the kids were able to focus more on the computers in front of them. The younger kids in particular were really into the program, RapidTyping. I only wish I had decided to divide the class up a few classes earlier.
For the past 3 classes now the kids have been able to work on their typing and their results have been much improved. Heading into this last week, I hope to work with each group to introduce Microsoft Word and then create guides for each of the programs we’ve worked with, so that after leaving the kids can continue to practice while looking to the guides to answer any questions. In addition, McKenzie has been working with Alice, the woman who works at the front desk of the cyber, and Elie, the man who built and owns the place, to train them in many of the same programs. The hope is that by the end they will be well enough trained to be able to continue the classes with the students. This will both help the students continue to learn more about computers, while also encouraging them to continue to come to the cyber, so that the next year doesn’t end up like the last with just a couple regular customers.
In addition, we’ve reached an agreement with the village’s cyber committee to begin allowing free internet on Saturday mornings for young people. Between 9-12 all students are allowed and encouraged to come for a free 30 minute session where they can do what they choose on the computers, rather than just always coming to be taught and watched by someone else. Again, the goal of this arrangement is to encourage the continued use of the cyber by youth in the village.
Going into these final days, there’s a lot that remains for me to do, but given all of the positive signs I’ve seen from the students throughout the last few weeks, I am really excited to spend these last couple classes with them and to do as much as I can to set up the class to be able to continue after my departure.