Thursday 29 September 2016

From Dublin to Mombasa: Irish charity gives old computers a whole new lease of life

Children are giving unwanted computers a whole new purpose in a country where many older people have never seen one. Denise Calnan reports from Mombasa, Kenya as part of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

Published 14/06/2015 | 12:59

From an office desk in Dublin to the primary schools of Mombasa, Kenya, second-hand computers in Ireland are being given a whole new lease of life in developing countries worldwide.

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Irish charity Camara are collecting unwanted computers, stripping them of their software, loading them with educational programmes and giving them a new purpose thousands of miles away.

Most computers are being used as the primary tool in classrooms where some children had never seen one before.

The Ganyoni Primary School in Mombasa town centre was one of the first schools in Kenya to receive computers from Camara.

Madam Chiku and her class at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Madam Chiku and her class at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)

The teacher, Madam Chiku, stands at the top of the classroom in a bright blue, tribal-styled Kenyan dress. A class of 20 six and seven-year-olds run in, start up their computers and race to open their spelling programmes.

Bright shapes bounce around the screen and mice fly around on desks as the children show off their technology skills, completely absorbed in the screen in front of them.

Madam Chiku walks around the classroom, pausing to prompt each student if they ponder over a question.

She describes it as a ‘privilege’ for the students at the school to have access to computers.

“We now have three-year-olds able to efficiently use a computer in a country that some 50 and 60-year-olds have never even seen one,” she says.

A short tuk-tuk ride away is the Tom Mboya Primary School, which is home to hundreds of boys and another 20 Camara computers.

Friends Trizah and Jessica pictured at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Friends Trizah and Jessica pictured at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)

An absence of a class in the lab when the charity arrives to check on the computers means a random group of boys are selected to leave class to test some of the programmes.

To say they were enthusiastic would be an understatement.

Now a decade old, Camara has expanded to five other ‘hubs’ worldwide and evolved to adapt to a social enterprise model that works.

Camara Education CEO John Fitzsimons says he believes that’s what is the charity’s strength.

Staff at Camara organise computers before they are distributed to schools (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Staff at Camara organise computers before they are distributed to schools (Photo: Denise Calnan)

“To bring computers to schools that need them is fantastic, but we soon realised that just the computer itself doesn’t work and that’s why there is a lot of failed initiatives,” he says.

“We realised that some of the teachers do need training themselves, that’s when we started the teacher training programme. For a few years, we sent volunteers from Ireland to the schools in Africa for the summer, but it didn’t take long for us to realise this needs to be happening for all twelve months of the year.

“That’s where the concept of the ‘Hubs’ came from and Kenya was the first one to be set up.

“It means that there is a distribution ‘Hub’ in the country and staff and volunteers there that can operate the training programmes and support the schools with any technical needs they may have.

“So we have changed, it’s the one of the things Camara has been good at, we’ve been fairly adaptive and we do learn,” he adds.

Students Mohammed Abdallah and Mbarak Abdul pictured at the Tom Mboya Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Students Mohammed Abdallah and Mbarak Abdul pictured at the Tom Mboya Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Principal Suleiman Babu of the Tom Mboya Primary School, Mombasa with Denise Calnan and Zuhura Salim of Camara (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Students at the Tom Mboya Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Students at the Tom Mboya Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Students at the Holy Ghost Mission school in Malindi, Kenya (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Madam Chiku and her class at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Students concentrating at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Students concentrating at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Friends Trizah and Jessica pictured at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Students pictured at the Ganjoni Primary School, Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Ganjoni Primary School was one of the first schools in Kenya to receive computers from Camara (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Staff at Camara organise computers before they are distributed to schools (Photo: Denise Calnan)
Camara Kenya Technical Manager Casper Amisi pictured with the Camara 'spider's web' symbol, historically used by the Asante tribe in Ghana (Photo: Denise Calnan)
The Camara team pictured with Camara Kenya CEO Masoud Ali (third from left) at the 'Hub' in Mombasa (Photo: Denise Calnan)
The Camara team in Mombasa, Kenya give the thumbs-up (Photo: Denise Calnan)
The Camara team pictured at the 'Hub' in Mombasa, Kenya (Photo: Denise Calnan)
The Camara 'Hub' in Mombasa, Kenya (Photo: Denise Calnan)

A shipment of computers leaves the Dublin warehouse every month, when the large floor-space is cleared once again for the next batch to be prepared.

With the majority of the charity’s worldwide hubs based on the east coast of Africa, the deliveries take approximately ten weeks to arrive to their destination.

And, when they do, the excitement is impalpable.

In Mombasa, Kenya, scores of volunteers arrive to the ‘Hub’, a collection of small buildings down a track behind one of the town’s bus stations, to prepare the computers to be delivered to schools.

The majority of staff and volunteers at the centre are locals – some train teachers to use the machines in the ‘Hub’s classroom while technicians fix any computers that may need to be repaired.

Camara Education Kenya CEO Masoud Ali says the emphasis is on how to integrate the computer into the school’s daily classes.

“It’s not about how to just train the kids on the machines, but how to integrate the computers into the everyday of the school,” he explains.

“Many of these teachers are touching a computer for the first time.

“Each school pays a subsidised fee to receive computers from Camara and, when they do, we provide the computers, the teacher-training, the maintenance and an end-of-life service that takes away the old computers and replaces them with a newer model.

“All we ask for is that a lab is set up for the computers – this means grills on the window and a metal door for security, a watchman at night and a whiteboard so the dust from the blackboard does not affect the computers,” he continues.

“We also encourage the schools to speak to the community about what will be happening in the school, whoever will be using them will be coming from that community so it’s important they know these computers will be of benefit to their kids.”

Masoud smiles as he talks about the staff and volunteers at the ‘Hub’ and says ‘most of the volunteers’ get employed by the schools they have worked alongside.

“I would say eight out of 10 staff here are then employed by the schools,” he says proudly.

“We know the project is a success because the schools that get computers from us generally come back to get more.”

But the system can of course present some difficulties.

A culture difference and sometimes an unfamiliarity with technology means some schools have to be coached on creating a good environment for the computers, especially in the dusty African heat.

The charity regularly visit the schools to 'hoover' dust and sand out of the machines.

There is also the issue of bills – many schools have to restrict the use of the computers and ask parents for donations for the electricity bills.

One teacher at St Andrews Primary School in Malindi, north of Mombasa, put it into context as she said: “It’s not about having a school with money, it’s about having parents with money”.

But there are few negatives in the mission to bring technology into the classrooms of a developing countries.

The team recently celebrated their one millionth digitally literate child in the world, kicked off their Project iMlango which aims to improve the education of marginalised young girls in Kenya and there’s more to come.

Camara, now ten years old, are looking to double that number in the next few years, as well as setting up more hubs worldwide.

(Video edited by Jason Kennedy)

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