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12/28/2012 02:49 PM

The Miracle of Wenchi

Ethiopian Kids Using Tablets to Teach Themselves

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A US aid organization has handed children in the remote Ethiopian village of Wenchi tablet computers in an experiment aimed at enabling them to teach themselves. They are now speaking their first words of English -- without ever having encountered a teacher.

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.

Self-Teaching Experiment

Keller works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. His goal is to prove that children can learn independently and without instruction. The children in Wenchi have no opportunity to attend school, because the nearest school is too far away or their parents prefer to send them out to fetch water or into the fields, where they watch the cows in the morning and the goats in the afternoon.

But what if these children, who, like their parents, can neither read nor write, were provided with a computer? And if the computer were loaded with learning programs, films about animals and faraway countries, arithmetic games, in both English and Amharic, Ethiopia's official language? And if the children were simply allowed to do as they please, in the hope that they would teach themselves and learn from each other?

Could this approach enable developing countries to make the leap into the information age? Or would the tablets end up in the dust just as quickly as children's toys end up in the garbage in the West when they cease to be new and exciting? If the experiment were a success, could the same approach be used to help 100 million children worldwide, children who don't go to school because they live in rural areas or their families are too poor?

Keller strongly believes in his hypothesis. He believes that all you have to do is give children a computer, and that everything else will fall into place. "Children are autodidacts," says Keller. "They don't have to be taught to walk and speak, either."

If his project succeeds, it will be a veritable revolution, one that could put an end to the plight of uneducated children and help bridge the gap between rich and poor.

The idea came from Nicholas Negroponte, 69, the world-famous American computer scientist, technology enthusiast and visionary. His bestseller "Total Digital," which he wrote on a notebook computer in a hut on a Greek island, was the manifesto of the Internet age.

In the book, which Negroponte wrote back in 1995, he predicted that we would live in a networked and digitized world one day. Negroponte is Keller's boss, and he's usually right. Their joint project, called "One Laptop per Child" (OLPC), has been underway in Ethiopia since February 2012. In Wenchi and another village, Wolondhete, they gave each of 20 children between the ages of four and 11 a Motorola Xoom tablet. It's a test project, and they plan to collect data for one to two years. Their plan is to find governments to finance the tablets, so that they can be distributed worldwide.

'It Works'

A few months ago, Negroponte himself was sitting in a hut in Wenchi. The children didn't know who he was, and they had only had their computers for 10 weeks. On that day, Kelbessa wrote the word "lion" in the dust in front of his hut for the first time, and Abebech reached the letter W in the alphabet. Negroponte jumped up and was close to tears, says Keller, but he quickly sat down again so as not to disturb the children.

In late October, Negroponte was at a conference in Cambridge, 10,000 kilometers away, reporting on his successes in Wenchi. He described how they had handed out the computers in their packaging, expecting that the children wouldn't know what to do with them.

"Instead," said Negroponte, with great enthusiasm, "they ripped open the packaging and, after only four minutes, found the power button." After five days, he reported, children who had never seen letters before were using 47 apps. They were singing the ABC song after two weeks, and after five months they had circumvented the Android security settings. "Now they can read and write," Negroponte said. "It works."

This meant, in other words, that children all over the world have the same capacity to learn and are equally gifted. It meant that they don't need teachers, that tablets can simply be thrown out of airplanes like CARE packages, and that this could reduce the gap in knowledge between affluent and primitive societies -- a theory that Negroponte also found thrilling.

Negroponte loves bold theories. "If a child can learn to read, reading will enable him or her to learn everything else," he says. He also believes that it's better for a child to sit in front of a computer for six hours a day than to sit in a school, with 80 other children, memorizing and mechanically reciting information. He could be right, at least when it comes to places like rural Ethiopia, Kabul or Burma.

The news of the miracle of Wenchi -- and the possibility of saving the world with tablet computers -- spread rapidly on the Internet. Suddenly Keller found himself inundated with phone calls, as he sat in his car in the middle of the storm.

But Negroponte's project was not without critics. Many were taken aback by the Western arrogance with which the project was launched. Why should African children be less gifted than Western children, someone asked in an Internet chat room. After all, they're not little monkeys.

In fact, Negroponte's words at the Cambridge conference are reminiscent of the film "Out of Africa," especially the scene in which Robert Redford puts a record player in front of baboons. The animals were hearing music for the first time, and Mozart, at that. What were they going to do, run away? It took less than two minutes before the baboons had scratched the record.

"One Laptop per Child" (OLPC) may make the world a slightly fairer place, and computer makers could make millions in the process, but the project isn't new, and it wasn't always successful.

Previous Projects Encountered Problems

Seven years ago, members of Negroponte's team handed out the first green laptops, better known as "hundred-dollar laptops." School projects in Peru, Uruguay and Rwanda attracted a lot of attention at the time. One of the problems, however, was that the students were soon surfing the Internet faster than their teachers. Besides, the teachers were locking up the computers because, as they said, the students would only play around with them and end up on pornography websites.

Another problem was that the XO-1 computers, which used the independent Linux operating system, were more expensive than promised: $188 (€142). The goal of putting 10 million of the laptops into circulation was not met. Instead, it was only three million, albeit in 25 languages and in 40 countries.

At the time, Keller was working for the United Nations World Food Program in Rome, where he felt that his talents weren't being fully utilized. He became part of the OLPC after a trip through Afghanistan, where he was trying to convince the US military to pay for a few million laptops. He met with General David Petraeus, the then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, who gave him only 10 minutes and hardly listened to anything Keller said. His predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was very enthusiastic by comparison, says Keller. But McChrystal resigned the day before the two men had intended to reach a deal. Keller gave up.

But this time, with the tablets, the project has to succeed. It's a new beginning. The technology has progressed since then, and this time the project doesn't involve schoolchildren but illiterate children. They aren't surfing the web, either, not yet, at least. A tablet still costs about $400, but now that Google has brought the "Nexus" onto the market, at $199, prices will continue to fall.

'Anthropological Disneyland '

Until that happens, Keller will continue to dream about the future. He sees tablets as a tool for peace and international understanding. "Just imagine," he says, "immigrant children from the Bronx expanding their education with tablets, and Palestinian kids communicating via email with kids from Tel Aviv."

Keller is surrounded by the village elders and by grandmothers who are whipping butter in clay pots and picking lice out of their grandchildren's hair. He is troubled by the thought that even more foreigners will soon come to Wenchi, including sponsors and the press, and he fears that the village could turn into an "anthropological Disneyland."

But isn't it that already? Teletubbies in the untouched highlands of Ethiopia, children who see white children of the same age in the films they watch on their tablets, and who long for things that they'll never be able to afford?

Keller's assistant Mike is sitting next to him in the hut. He comes to Wenchi from the capital Addis Ababa once a week to replace the memory cards so that he can send the data to Cambridge, where learning experts and linguists evaluate them and can see which child is using which apps, and for how many hours the children are on the computers. The average is six, and they're usually used at night.

Mike isn't a Ferenji, a white man. He is a 29-year-old Ethiopian with an Afro and cool jeans, who studied computer science in Helsinki and works for a German aid organization in Addis Ababa. If anyone can judge whether the miracle of Wenchi is real or just a good business idea, he can.

Mike says that he's proud of his work for the first time in his life. He says that he's sick and tired of the word aid. He wasn't even born yet when Austrian actor Karlheinz Böhm established his foundation for Ethiopia. Mike was only a year old when singer and activist Bob Geldof sang "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in Wembley Stadium and raised millions for the victims of famine with his "Live Aid" concert.

Self-Help Rather Than Aid

"Ethiopia was helped to death," says Mike. You can see this in Addis Ababa, he adds, the stronghold of East African aid workers, who drive around in SUVs with tinted windows and have barbecues at the Western Five-Star hotels. "You whites fed us fish," says Mike, "but you didn't show us how to fish."

But the tablet project is truly changing Ethiopia, he says, because no one is receiving handouts. "The Wenchi children work hard for six hours a day," says Mike, "merely because they like to and are proud of the fact that they can do something. We have nothing against schools, but schools just aren't being built here in the highlands."

Mike believes that Ethiopia has moved past its image as a country of starvation. In fact, it is one of the fastest-growing countries on earth. It will develop into the leading economic power in East Africa within a few years, and officials there hope to see the country grow into a site for textile plants and even develop technology. This is the reason why the project means so much to the government in Addis Ababa. Apparently the education minister can hardly wait until the test phase is over and more tablets are brought to his country -- with the help of foreign sponsors, of course.

The evening fog is beginning to settle over the roofs of Wenchi. Keller is back at his five-star hotel. The solar hut in Wenchi is locked, and no one is allowed to charge his mobile phone or siphon off electricity. Those are the rules.

Eight-year-old Kelbessa is tending his father's oxen. He says that when he grows up he wants to live in the city and work with computers. He knows that it's the answer whites like to hear. Abebech says she wants to be a truck driver, and to drive from Wenchi to the market in Ambo, "with my father's potatoes." He stands next to her, looking skeptical but proud. "In the past, girls were married off," says the father. "We paid their dowries, and they were worth nothing to the family."

But how far can Abebech go when she's an adult? Two-thirds of the 85 million Ethiopians are under 25. Ambo, the next town, is filled with young, dissatisfied people who loiter in the streets. They are well educated, but they can't find jobs because there simply are no jobs to be had.

The black emptiness of night descends on Wenchi. Half the village is sitting around a fire in the hut owned by Abebech's father. It feels like it did in the past, before the modern age came to Wenchi, like a stable in Bethlehem, with an ox and two donkeys standing near the fire. The women are breastfeeding their babies and the men are telling stories about Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia. The fire provides warmth and fills the hut with light, and then it slowly subsides.

Suddenly the children arrive, like a swarm of fireflies. The tablet computers serve as flashlights, as the blue glow of the future lights their way.

And then it seems as if everything made sense, after all. Abebech walks into the hut, and as the Teletubbie voices sing the ABC song on her computer, the men gather around the child. She explains the foreign letters to them and shows them how they're written. The men marvel at this 10-year-old child, a girl, at that, and they listen to her. It's a scene that would have been unthinkable before the whites came to Wenchi with their strange devices.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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