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Intel Education Service Corp: Days 2&3 - Cultural Immersion and Meeting the Students

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Note from the Blog Manager: Follow Donna, one of the Co-Program Managers for the Rotation Engineers Program, as she serves as part of the IESC in Uganda. The Intel Education Service Corp, a program that allows Intel employees to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries all over the world. Catch up with her first post before you hear about her first few days below.

Our team got off to a rough start when one member’s flight was delayed until 2 am on Sunday morning. Then there were the lost bags…only one of which has found its way to Uganda. Perhaps this was a test of our ‘tolerance of ambiguity!’ But by midday we were all in country, had some sleep and were ready to make some plans for Monday, our first day of training. After some discussion we decided that the best plan was simply to go to the community centre and then see how things flowed! That left us free to enjoy the evening at a local cultural dance center. Off we went—to get both our first taste of Kampala traffic and Ugandan food.

For anyone who has spent time in a developing country the street scene would be very familiar; lots and lots of people milling around. Tiny shops made of scavenged corrugated metal selling who knows what and hundreds of motorcycle ‘taxis’ (known as boda-boda here) all hoping for a fare. The air visible thanks to all those two-stroke motorcycles and the diesel trucks. Women carrying impossibly heavy bundles on their heads.

The cultural center was an open air amphitheater set up with tables and chairs. We filled our plates with matoke (smashed cooking bananas), fried plantains, barbeque chicken and goat, Irish (the local term used for white potatoes), various curries and rice. Then we had a choice of either Tusker (a Kenyan lager) or Nile (a Ugandan pilsner). There was a large orchestra playing traditional musical instruments as well as singers and dancers. Two tiny girls stole the show when children in the audience were encouraged to come down to the stage to learn some dances. There was a tiny (maybe three years old) Chinese girl who joined in—mimicking the movements and actions of the older children. And then, without warning she wandered over to one side where she took the hand of a tiny Ugandan girl who had been too shy to go out on the dancing area. It was such a joy to see them encouraging each other and so clearly forming a spontaneous bond. This seemed the perfect prelude to our first day of teaching.

We had a rather relaxed start to our first day of teaching (I’m learning a bit about ‘Ugandan time’). The first step was to work the puzzle of how to get all the tables, benches, stools, electrical cords, classmate PCs, power strips, huge (and very heavy) battery used to convert and store the energy collected by the solar panels on the roof of the vehicle, as well as one driver and one passenger. Having accomplished that, we faced the next challenge—getting all of us and this equipment over the incredibly rough dirt road on which the foundation is located. (It has been heavy rainy seasons so all unsurfaced roads have been severely eroded.)

With some difficulty we found the community centre and started setting up the tents, stools and tables, stretching the electrical cords, plugging in the solar panels, connecting a mouse and a power cord to each classmate—much to the amusement and wonder of a growing crowd of students and goats. The community centre is run by a very organized and efficient woman with a team of paid staff as well as a number of volunteers. It consists of a reading room, a small lending library (largely stocked by donations from a Dutch family whose photos are proudly displayed at the entrance), a room for younger children (think Head Start) and a volleyball court (that’s where we placed the mobile classroom). There had been some posters and announcements for ‘free computer training’ and this resulted in our eager participants.

After a few problems we had 20 machines up and displaying that familiar blue Microsoft desktop. And we had 20 eager young adults eager to get their first look and fingers on their first computer. We had a short introduction—both of us and the classmates and they were off and running. The Maendeleo Foundation software teaches people to become familiar with a mouse and the keyboard by playing little games and it was amazing how quickly the students mastered the basics. In what seemed like a remarkably short time we had several ready to open Word and start playing with the various formatting options. And then it was time for our first class of students to power down and be replaced by the next 20.

But the highlight of my day was Walter. He was a young boy—perhaps eight—who showed up very early. When I asked about him I was told that his family was too poor to be able to afford the fees required to send him to the local public school so he often spends all day and much of the evening at the centre. So while he wasn’t officially a student, Walter was all eyes and ears and I soon found him instructing the older official students in how to solve puzzles, which keys to press, how to move the cursor properly with the mouse, etc! By the end of the day, Walter was one of us—unplugging and coiling wires and cords, collapsing the stools and carrying them to the storage area. It was a sobering reminder of how poverty robs a country of some of its best talent. For just $25 we could pay his school fees and buy him the white shirt and blue shorts of the school uniform.

Tomorrow we will have the same 40 students and will have to be on our toes to challenge them with new and different exercises. On Wednesday we’ll take a real plunge and head for the internet!