/ 28 March 2010

Rwanda’s laptop revolution

Two small boys are standing hunched outside the window of the Groupe Scholaire Kagugu school in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, a cluster of low, shed-like buildings set around a central yard. A sudden tropical downpour is rattling the frame. Heavy droplets stick to the pane, distorting the faces pressed against the glass.

The taller of the boys pulls a tan jacket over his head. But the drenching does not discourage them. Their eyes don’t shift. What they want to see, so desperately, is inside the classroom.

It’s an object 10 inches square, green, white and rubberised, inscribed with the logo of an X and a filled-in O. There are rows of them: scaled-down laptops in front of every pupil, commanding the silent, rapt attention of the sitting children who have been given them from a cardboard box.

Many of these children have never touched a computer of any kind before; most, indeed, have never seen one. But when these introductory classes are finished, the children will be allowed to take these laptops to their homes, many of which have no television or phone connections. Or even electricity.

The class concludes. Freed from the requirement to sit , the children are all suddenly on their feet handling the computers in the way that seems most natural to them; standing and propping them on chests or stomachs. Prodding with a single hand. Not wanting to give them up.

They laugh and film each other with the laptop cameras or gather in small groups in the dusty yard outside to watch each other playing games. Others crowd around the largely American instructors to bombard them with questions.

‘I love using it’
I see the same scene in several schools. When I talk to them, the Rwandan children are as shy as children anywhere when addressed by a strange adult. When they do answer it is with a kind of quiet wonder. “I love using it,” says Oliver Niyomwungeri, aged 12. “I never saw one of these before. I’m so excited to take it home when we’re allowed. I want to do my homework on it. And I want to teach my younger sister how to use it.”

These laptops, the first of 100 000 that the government intends should be given to every Rwandan child between the ages of nine and 12, represent a kind of revolution. One that envisages not only the transformation of an impoverished agrarian society into one of the most advanced in Africa, but also sees technology as a tool that will help exorcise the country’s lingering ghosts. The genocide that took place in this country in 1994 deprived many of these children of uncles, aunts, grandparents. During 100 days of killing, 800 000 minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in service of so-called “Hutu Power”.

I examine the computer closely the next day. It is being turned over in the large hands of David Cavallo in a coffee shop in a modern mall in Kigali. Cavallo is project director and “learning architect” for One Laptop Per Child; the organisation that developed and supplies the computers. He is an enthusiastic and youthful 58, with a tangled mop of salt-and-pepper hair, a boxer’s nose and grizzled beard.

Rwanda is not the first country to have been supplied with the XO machines by One Laptop Per Child (1,4-million have been delivered to children in 35 countries including Haiti, Afghanistan, Brazil and Uruguay), but it does present one of the most challenging projects that the organisation has yet undertaken. For Cavallo, it is also one of the most exciting.

The organisation’s mission statement — to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children via a “rugged low-cost, low-power laptop” — might have had Rwanda specifically in mind. Its shortages of electricity and lower internet connectivity are driving One Laptop Per Child to develop ever cheaper and tougher machines with ever lower power consumption. The next generation of computers will be usable even where there is no mains power at all. And at the heart of their programme is the idea of “joyful, playful and innovatory” learning.

Vaccinating a society
Over the past 10 years technology has helped other very poor societies — via the wind-up light or through the widespread adoption in Africa, in particular, of cellphones, even in the remotest communities — but this project is of a different order. One specific aim is to encourage social cohesion. The Rwandan government particularly wants to encourage rapid economic development by educating these children to be computer-literate — but there is also a notion that these laptops might help to vaccinate a society still in painful recovery from its genocidal past by opening up the rest of the world to a new generation.

Cavallo talks about Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist and philosopher who believed education to be “capable of saving our societies from possible [violent] collapse”. He also talks of the American philosopher John Dewey, one of his heroes, who believed that only science could reliably further human good. It is an ex-student of Piaget’s, Seymour Papert (a brilliant mathematician and education and technology theorist) who is the inspiration for the XO. A political refugee from apartheid South Africa, Papert fled to England, France and finally America where he became one of the founders of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston (MIT).

Later Cavallo emails me a photograph. It is a black and white image from 1967. A long-haired and bearded Papert is bending over a mechanical clear plastic “turtle” controlled by a computer language written for children of his own devising.This “turtle,” which children could command to draw — on paper at first and later on a video screen — was the first of Papert’s Children’s Machines that four decades later would morph into the XO.

What Papert has long argued is that children, in all societies, can master computing, not just their simple operation but also the writing of computer code as well. That learning process, he believed, equipped children not only for understanding computers but could transform entirely how individuals learn throughout their lives, inside and outside the classroom and, therefore, alter societies. He is a longstanding enemy of what he sees as the tyranny of formal education systems which he believes equip children only to master set syllabuses. Put simply, Papert believes that computers can enable children to learn how to learn for themselves through playful problem-solving and that this will lead to their becoming better-rounded human beings.

One of those inspired by what Papert had to say was Nicholas Negroponte — brother of John, George Bush’s controversial director of national intelligence — a student and later colleague of Papert at MIT, who would become the founder and driving force behind One Laptop Per Child.

Although he is a wealthy pioneer in the field of computer-aided design, an investor in technological start-ups and sometime predictor of the future through his writings on the benefits of technology to humankind, it has, however, been One Laptop Per Child that has become Negroponte’s most ambitious project. He is taking Papert’s ideas and making them reality, applying himself to his dream of what has been referred to as “techno-utopianism” — the belief that science and technology can bring about profound beneficial social change.

Indeed in a lecture by Negroponte from 2006, describing his vision for One Laptop Per Child, he declared that education, delivered in the context of the XO, is potentially the “solution to [the problems of] poverty, peace and the environment”.

David Cavallo, a former student of Papert and a colleague of Negroponte, has taken a leave of absence from MIT to crisscross the globe with the XO, introducing it to the world’s most impoverished children. The son of an Italian anarchist who fled his home in World War II, his own journey to Rwanda from Ohio, where he grew up, has been guided by a similar radicalism to his father’s, one that saw him drawn as a student to the University of California’s Berkeley campus, attracted by its history of protest. But anger, says Cavallo, was not enough. What he wanted were practical solutions that changed the world, not rhetoric that simply described how bad it was. It was a need that would lead him eventually to be part of One Laptop and to settle with his family in Kigali.

He hands me one of the computers. A little larger than a box of chocolates, it is one of the first 100 000 XOs destined for distribution around the country by a government that has bought them at a cost of $181 each. The next generation will be a plastic-coated tablet. Indestructible, it is hoped. Costing less than $100.

The keyboard is small for my fingers but it was never intended for an adult. The desktop appears as an unfamiliar cartwheel of programmes represented by child-friendly icons. Cavallo flips it over, converting it at once into a games console.

Symbol of ambition
In a landlocked and resource-poor country, you can appreciate why the laptop represents one of the most potent symbols of Rwanda’s ambition to turn itself into a knowledge-based economy. The government hopes to train 50 000 computer programmers within the next decade, a scheme that is being developed in parallel with other large technology projects whose aim is not to catch up with neighbours such as Kenya, but to leapfrog them within a generation. A wireless broadband system is planned for Kigali — a city-wide umbrella that would convert the capital into a huge hot spot. The rest of the mountainous country is being crisscrossed by a fibre-optic cable network for broadband access, which will first establish connection to regional hubs and then spread out to the smaller towns and villages.

Kigali these days is a place of fresh-minted neighbourhoods and tidy streets, polished ministries and regulated traffic. Municipal workers clean gullies and hack away at intrusive vegetation. Plastic bags are banned. The wearing of seatbelts is strictly and expensively enforced. But the optimistic billboards placed by the government, the glowing write-ups delivered by visiting reporters and politicians keen to polish the country’s success, still struggle to disguise its problems. Genocide survivors continue to be murdered in dozens every year — one Rwandan explains to me that the killers seek to eradicate the human reminder of what happened and the their own guilt by killing again.

The authoritarian president, Paul Kagame — once embraced by president Bill Clinton as an exemplar of Africa’s new leadership — stands accused by human rights organisations of suppressing opposition politics and parties, most commonly by accusing them of harbouring ideological sympathies with the genocidaires. In recent weeks, too, a series of unexplained grenade attacks have rocked the capital .

Most Rwandans, when they do talk of the past and what it means today, say that while they can live and work together for the sake of peace, they cannot forget.

Mass murder
I take a drive out of Kigali one day with Samuel Dusengiyumva, a 28-year-old consultant with One Laptop Per Child. He has offered to drive me to the genocide memorial in Nyamata, a church where 10 000 Rwandans were blasted with grenades then hacked to death in April 1994. He talks about what schooling was like before the genocide and after; how lack of education contributed to mass murder.

A father of one with a laid-back manner and an acute intelligence, Sam talks about the sense of loss that carries on into a new generation. “I have a friend. His son asks why he does not have any uncles like some of the other children at the school …” His white Corolla takes us out of Kigali into a landscape of small, neat farms growing bananas, maize, sorgham and cassava. Later we cross the floodplain of the looping Nyabarango river, where the drenched fields of sugar cane are punctuated by eucalyptus and brightly flowering trees.

A Tutsi, orphaned during the mass slaughter, the first part of Sam’s schooling in the time before the genocide was in the hugely discriminatory ethnic quota system that made only 15% of secondary school places available for Tutsis regardless of merit. After the genocide he continued his studies in a school system broken by the inheritance of mass murder.

He tells me the story of how his father, a Baptist pastor, was killed. “He was caught at a road block. They asked for his ID. When he said no, they said, it doesn’t matter now. We know. Before they killed him he asked them to let him to pray. He prayed in French at first but at the end he prayed in Kinyarwanda. He said: ‘God, you have been with me in difficult times and now you are permitting me to die. But I ask you this: when in the years to come these men who will kill me ask for forgiveness, forgive them.’ Then he was killed.”

‘I can’t delete what happened’
This account of what happened was given by the killers during their trial. Later he says: “I can’t delete what happened. I am not like a computer. I can’t change the fact that I have no parents and that my son has no grandparents. It cannot be wiped out.”

Now a law graduate, Sam worked with the tribal reconciliation courts hearing allegations of genocidal acts. He worked too with the ministry of education before joining One Laptop Per Child. Like David Cavallo, he is a firm believer in what the XO can do, in particular its promise for opening up a society that was once lethally closed. Sam pauses for a moment and continues passionately: “You know the problem with having a poor education is that you are not given the faculties to cross-check information, not given access to information. Our society, before the genocide, was not open. Now I can go on the internet. I can check what I am being told. I can make my own analysis.

“I remember a text that I learned at school. It said you go to school to learn how to learn. If you can enable people in society … with computers … you release the human potential. You can go beyond.”

We pull up outside the church turned memorial and enter among pews heaped with the clothing of the long-ago slaughtered. The building’s roof is a starscape of punctured holes left 15 years ago by grenade fragments that still let in the light. A carpet of clothes recovered from bodies thrown in the latrines lies like a frozen flow of lava.

‘Teaching aid’
Leaving the nave, with its still bloodstained altar cloth, we descend into a cool cellar where skulls and long leg bones are arranged neatly on shelves, the former like cantaloupes on a grocer’s shelf. Except that on the pale cranial plates there are slashes made by machetes.

“Some of these were children. They wanted to be footballers. To go into space. Their dreams were ended here. They are now … just like a kind of teaching aid.” Sam says the last words bitterly.

Arriving with Cavallo back at the Groupe Scholaire Kagugu, I find the children working on their projects. A teacher calls a handful to the front to show what they have done. They display presentations on protecting the environment, the forest ecosystem, health. Afterwards a few sit down and let me see what they have been working on. There are projects about the space shuttle with downloaded pictures of a launch, simple animations and slide shows. Impressive graphics too, given how little experience they have had using the machines.

Cavallo tells me of a child he encountered in Uruguay where One Laptop Per Child supplied XOs to every schoolchild in its biggest scheme to date. “This kid took one home. When they came back they’d filmed one of their cows giving birth and turned it into their project. That is what is so incredible. They work out for themselves what they want to do with the computer.”

Cavallo and One Laptop Per Child are cautious about how they present themselves. One day he describes to me an advertising campaign that they rejected. It is one that the Rwandan government might have liked, but it jarred with Papert’s ideals. “It was this Hollywood idea. The hero comes in. Does everything. That’s what we rejected. It showed a Nobel prizewinner then wound back 20 years to the XO. But it is not what we’re about. We are about teachers and nurses.”

A cohesive society
In his office on the top floor of his ministry Charles Murigande, Rwanda’s education minister is talking about the economic potential offered by his country’s embracing of technology. After a while he changes tack from the politician’s hard selling of Kagame’s Vision 2020 programme that would see Rwanda reimagined as an offshore technology hub to compete with Asia. Instead, he talks about connecting Rwanda with the world; how it will change Rwanda’s people; perhaps even protect them.

“I believe that this will help us build a more cohesive society,” he explains carefully. “We cannot disguise that terrible things happened here. But it has allowed us to reflect on who we are and who we want to be. To ensure these things never occur again.

“If the country is a closed society — as it once was — thinking about its Hutu-ness and Tutsi-ness, its smallness, it would not take long to recreate conditions for a new genocide. Being a connected part of the world helps build ramparts against that risk.”

This idea, of Rwanda looking outwards rather than inward, is not simply a hoped-for by-product of the project but is as specific to it as teaching children to write simple computer code. Modules on health education and environmental protection are integral to the programme as is the introduction of children to the idea that they have human rights, that it is their right to have a proper education.

Chris Plutte works for Search for Common Ground, an organisation specialising in conflict resolution and reconciliation. He tells me about a proposal he has in for funding to support the development of a game written specially for the XO. “We see in One Laptop Per Child the potential for peace-building through gaming in primary schools,” he says. It will be part of a genre of “serious gaming” programs that encourage players to solve conflict problems; where the gamers’ acts have consequences for the outcome.

“Rwanda is a very reserved society. The thing about gaming is that it is very personal. You can play it by yourself — make choices that show benefits or consequences. Play it out multiple times to see the different outcomes. It is an idea I came to David [Cavallo] with six months ago. If we get the go ahead from our backers we would hope to get the game ready in 12 to 18 months.”

Not everyone, though, is so enthusiastic about the potential for One Laptop Per Child in Rwanda; two of the larger government-to-government donors, I am told, have informed the Rwandans that money would be better spent on training teachers rather than personal computers.

Others — both in Rwanda and outside — have criticised the machine itself, complaining that the operating system is too slow and that it is more expensive than intended. There are those who have argued that rather than developing their own programs, the project would have benefited from using a commercially available one such as Windows. (After long negotiations with Microsoft, Windows will be available on future models).

Cavallo dismisses some of the complaints but openly admits to having concerns himself. The current model, he concedes, uses more power than they ideally would like, not least because in rural areas the XOs will need to be charged by solar power. And in a country where electricity hook-up is around 6%, and email connectivity equally challenging, the speed of the introduction of the laptops is likely to outpace the government’s promised infrastructure improvements.

The criticism, however, is counter-balanced by the childrens’ reactions as the first laptops are introduced into Rwanda’s schools. I hear stories of children from the Institute Scholaire Kagugu walking for four hours in the heat of summer to take part in activities at a club run by Cavallo and his colleagues.

I am reminded too of something that education minister Charles Murigande told me: his belief that perhaps the laptops could inoculate against the past. “But you know, the thing about vaccines, you don’t know that they have really worked for a long time. Until you have passed your life without getting the disease.”

Most of all I remain struck by the words of 12-year-old Oliver Niyomwungeri. “This is what I’ve done ,” he had said proudly showing me his work on the computer. “It’s about forest protection. I wrote: ‘The Forest Environment’ in blue letters. Then it says: ‘The forest is helpful to human beings. We shouldn’t cut them down.'” I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up. “A doctor,” he replies seriously.

This, David Cavallo would say, is what One Laptop Per Child is all about.