I had the opportunity to visit Jitegemee with Farah, a friend since childhood. It was my first trip to Africa, let alone Kenya or Machakos, and I had very little idea what to expect. Farah promised me the people would be friendly and that as long as I avoided drinking water from taps I’d remain healthy. She was right on both counts. S ince I work primarily on the Web, Farah tapped me to help connect Jitegemee’s classroom to the Internet—something I was happy to help with.
But I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to connect Jitegemee to the Web. We arrived in Machakos and were greeted by students and teachers who were enthusiastic about computers and the Internet, but had little formal training. Jitegemee’s center was packed with donated computers, but only about four or five worked well enough to run basic programs that the kids could use. Some kids had taken years of computer classes in high schools that had no Internet access. Although a few Internet cafes can be found amid the faded storefronts in Machakos, they are a luxury for wealthier people. Few, if any, Jitegemee students had ever been online.
To get connected to the Internet, we set off for Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, to the office of Safaricom— Kenya’s main cell phone company. Safaricom had a modem that we could take to Machakos that would bring the Internet to Jitegemee’s computers through the cell phone signal.
We brought the modem to Machakos and I had to make several adjustments to get the modem to work. Safaricom had made the installation so easy that most chimps could handle it. It turns out, though, that Safaricom at least expects those chimps to be using newish computers with up-to-date software. By contrast, most computers at Jitegemee were donated hand-me-downs that run Windows 2000.
But finally, the moment of truth came. We brought up the browser, entered a pass code, and an old computer on the outskirts of Machakos connected Farah, myself, and two eager students to the Web. There it was. We typed in the name of a member of parliament from Machakos—Kyalo Kilonzo. The kids had been arguing the night before about whether he had a law degree. Seconds later, we had his whole biography in front of us. “I was right. He is a lawyer!” shouted the winner of the bet.
I spent much of the rest of the afternoon with Charles Wambua Kieti, an orphan and former street child who just graduated high school with a passion for computers. He had taken many classes but his school barely had electricity, let alone an Internet connection. Although it took a little time for him to get used to it, he took to the Web with enthusiasm.
As he waits for admission to a college, Charles makes decent money in Machakos by formatting resumes and business cards in MSWord—a business I would never have thought of because computer literacy is so high where I’m from that most people can handle that task themselves. But more than anything, he aspires to be a computer programmer and to learn to write code, a skill that would earn him a secure and extremely well-paying job.
The afternoon that we set up the Internet, I sat with Charles at the computer. He soaked up the HTML I taught him like a sponge. Who knows? With a little training Charles might find himself teaching his peers and juniors all about computers while he picks up more scripting skills. In my experience with computers, it hasn’t been people who go to school for computer science who necessarily do the best. Rather, it’s enthusiastic tinkerers. Now, with the Internet at Jitegemee, Charles has the opportunity to tinker. He also might be given real responsibility as Jitegemee’s network administrator, since I taught him how to restart the modem should it ever get turned off.
But all this opportunity has a good chance of going fallow without the right context. Connection to the Internet by itself isn’t all that magical. To make the most of it, you need a basic comfort with computers, an understanding of how the Web works, up-todate software, and probably a little handholding. Many of Jitegemee’s kids are not yet familiar enough with computers to get the most value out of the Internet.
Anticipating this, Farah took us to talk with Roseirene Wangui at Nairobits, an organization in Nairobi that has been teaching children from Nairobi’s slums about computers since 2000. Their most advanced courses teach students to design, code and maintain dynamic Web sites, and a very high percentage then get good jobs with firms in the city. Nairobits could help Jitegemee with the next step: building a curriculum, getting enough computers, and purchasing necessary software. Nairobits has expressed an interest in consulting on these steps, and if the price is right, I think they’ll make a good resource.
By Daniel Harrison