Generation i

Back in 1999 the only thing giving me jitters was the thought of going to high school the following year.

But much of the rest of the world seemed obsessed with one thing—the millennium bug, Y2K, or whatever it was, would cause computers to lose their minds and become incapable of counting the date after 1999. This, it was widely felt, would cause the world as we knew it to crash.

I didn’t believe it, but being a 13-year-old from Njube, a suburb of Bulawayo, who had never touched but only read about a computer, I was rubbished. In the end the only thing that crashed in the stroke of midnight was one of those spectacular balls in New York’s Time Square.

As it turned out, I wasn’t exactly blabbering and life went on after all. High school beckoned. Starting at Mpopoma High in 2000, I couldn’t have been more excited to discover that, in all the ghettos in the surrounding high-density suburbs, my school had a computer centre.

Learning was optional (interested students had to pay extramural fees) and the centre hired out its resources and equipment to other paying customers. These included other high schools, primary schools and even a crèche, which had its toddlers fiddling about with the mouses, which the computer teacher saw as a good thing because adults seemed to be afraid of being, erm ... bitten.

Without wasting another millennium moment, I soon became the IT kid, being the only one in the junior forms ‘doing computers”. I became a show-off. My vocabulary grew to include words such as ‘graphic user interface”. Appreciative ‘oohs” and ‘aahs” would follow.

The computer room had big windows through which you could see inside. The single delicious blue Apple Mac was visual candy among all the learners. The Mac belonged to the teacher—the rest of us were still in the Pentium age.

It was all thanks to my mom, who supported me in doing the introduction course when the rest of my family thought I was wasting resources. My mother and I reached a deadlock when I wanted to go further and do the Windows course.

‘So let me get this straight,” she said. ‘You will be making ... windows?” She gave in, but as the course drew closer and I referred to how much I was looking forward to learning DOS, Microsoft’s pitchblack command line system, now extinct, she challenged me again: ‘Hold on—now you want to make doors?”

Nowadays mom sees computers as nothing more mysterious than DIY, but occasionally she will ask what ‘” means on her bank slips. Mpopoma High even had internet. That clinkering sound of the dial-up modem was fascinating and full of promise.

The net was cheaper than it is today because we could connect several machines for hours and play around with no-longer-relevant sites such as Excite and Alta Vista. Sergey Brin and Larry Page were still cooking up the Google powerhouse and jamming the Stanford bandwidth at the same time.

Yahoo was king and I’m still waiting for an email with a gift card for loyalty for maintaining my email account with them to this day. Hey, that guy who was iTunes’s 10-billionth download got a $10 000 voucher! But back then, when I asked mom for more money—this time so I could go surfing—she smartly said she wouldn’t be sending me to an exotic coastal location anytime soon.

Recently I went back to my old high school and even though they had new flat-screen PCs there was no internet and little activity in the computer centre. There wasn’t even a dedicated teacher any more—because there was no money to pay for one.

The best IT tutors get snapped up by private colleges. Although most schools in the area now have computer centres of their own, the scarcity of specialised teachers has led to most of them being white elephants.

Jermain Ndhlovu is a communication science student and the founder and leader of a youth-led development organisation

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