Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some Challenges

Before we left Freetown, Faaez had picked up a few phrases in Krio-the lingua franca of Sierra Leone-and he was quite sure he could understand almost anything someone says after spending six days in the crowded city. With Faaez convinced that he had the language under control, we decided it was time to head off to the village with our 100 XOs and our 8 other team members. The road was rough, and the journey was long. We knew ahead of time that we will face some challenges. However, we never anticipated the magnitude.

We had decided our project will be executed in Sahn Malen, a small village of about 1,500 inhabitants all fluent in Mende-the most popular parlance in the southern province of Sierra Leone. The locals in Sahn are at ease with 24 hours of no electricity-a phenomenon that will cause chaos in advanced countries. Before deciding to bring the XO project to Sahn, we knew that our site was off-grid. As a result, we decided on getting solar panels to power the XOs and thus make the project environmentally friendly.

With our panels in transit in Sao Tome, we decided to organize daily peer-tutor sessions to get our peer tutors some hands-on experience with all this new technology. Having the generator from the December distribution on full blast, we scooped up some fuel and got our session going. About a week into the program, our generator suffered from a host of complications including severe automatic shut-down syndrome (SASS) triggered by a nearly fatal spark-plug and carburetor retrovirus of the S1C1 strain (thanks to the expertise of our 21st century locally bred “technovirologist” for his near noble-prize-winning discovery). After several visits by the technical doctor (Alfred), we agreed on getting a brand new baby to get the program back on its legs. I together with Faaez left for Bo to check-out a decent Honda Stephill 2.7kVA generator. With the new generator in place for back-up, the arrival of our solar panels allowed us to initiate the registration process to get the learning underway.

Prior to our first arrival in Sahn, we knew that only a tiny percentage of the population was fluent in Krio or English. We had picked up what we considered the most important vocabulary for survival in any community i.e. general greetings, good bye and thank you (thanks to David S.). During the XO registration process, we had a series of questions we asked every child. They included, their name, resident village, parent/guardian name, whether or not somebody in their household had an XO, and lastly, which of the two primary schools they attend. Needless to say these questions were asked in Krio and English, however, most of the children managed to provide answers only after a Mende interpreter regurgitated the questions in the finest words of their dialect.

On the second day, I decided it was high time I stopped using an interpreter. The XOs are designed in English, and it will be great to continue the registration process in English or at the very least, Krio. After all, the whole program is about learning and getting the children to speak English will be great. As usual, a queue of excited children at my desk, a spreadsheet on my screen, Faaez with a digital camera at the other end and a stack of XOs beside me, I started soliciting answers to the questions in front of me. After an interpreter’s help with the first four children, the ever-extending file seemed ready for my questions in English. The next three children seemed to be at ease with the questions. I decided to change the sequence of the questions with the next kid, and I asked “what village are you coming from? Hawa Sheriff” he replied. This kid had just given me his mother’s name instead of his resident village. However, after a few tries, he was able to come up with the right answer. This shows that the children in Sahn Malen are ready to learn even after an initial attempt at answering my question failed. The learning continues.

Every training session is all chaos and anxiety. It seems as if every child in Sahn wants to own an XO. We only have 100 and an extra 30 from the previous distribution, all of which have been allocated. We decided that children in the 5th grade will be the sole beneficiaries of this summer’s project because the population matched the quantity of XOs we had, the age range and also the required reading skills. Even after a community meeting with parents, children and the elders in the village, a bunch of children who do not fit the grade criterion still show up on a daily basis for registration. Despite our efforts in communicating to these children that they will not be receiving XOs, their relentless zeal keeps them coming to our daily sessions. We now face a situation of inadequacy. It would be great to get more XOs to the all the kids who are willing to learn. We hope this project will be a success and that it can attract more support in the future. We pause for time’s decision.

Best of times,

Carlos Meheux

1 comment:

  1. Hi! My name is Jennifer and I'm currently consulting for the OLPC learning team. I'm putting together a document on peer tutoring as part of OLPC deployments and would love to hear more about your experiences in this area. My email address is

    Thank you!