/ 16. August 2007 06:55
I work in a fortress, in South Africa. When I arrived here last January, builders were putting the finishing touches on the stand-alone room which, although plain looking, was specially designed to repel burglars. The walls and ceiling are thick cement slabs, reinforced with steel rods at unusually tight intervals. The door is designed for a bank vault and requires two 6-inch long skeleton keys to unlock it. The idea for this architectural behemoth was hatched last year when my volunteer predecessors set up a handful of donated computers in the library of St. Leo Primary School, located in a semi-rural Zulu community. Just four days later it was discovered that nearly all of the computers had been stolen. But Fr. Eddie Hattrick, O.S.A.,who until recently was overseeing the Augustinian Friars’ “mission” at St. Leo School and Church, was not deterred in his belief that computer skills can make a huge impact on the life of a black South African child from the townships. So he raised the money to build a computer room that could be secure in the midst of nation that is anything but secure. Despite all kinds of delays–including a vault door that refused entry even to us–we were able to finalize the furnishing of the room just in time for Fr. Eddie’s farewell celebration. After 48 years as a missionary in Japan and South Africa, he has gone home. We miss him dearly.I can’t deny that such a facility, now furnished with a dozen computers, is something of an anachronism at a school where some children still have no shoes. I wish sometimes that the money invested in the computer room would have been used instead to better feed the kids whose only meal each day is the rice and beans the is served at school. Although the absurdity is maddening, my reservations about the rightness of a computer training program in the midst of such elemental need have all but melted away. After a few months of operation, I have seen not only the joy and pride that computer class offers the kids but also the great potential. Whereas these students’ parents and grandparents are most employable if they speak English, this new generation might have a leg up if they can navigate around a computer screen. And since very few South African blacks are computer literate, even the most basic knowledge will, hypothetically, make my students–about 120 in total–the technological leaders of their communities. That’s an exhilarating prospect.
This has all got me to thinking about my own computer-related history, how my personal privilege has come not only in the form of decent shoes and three meals daily but also in the form of an education that has generally kept pace with technological advancements of the first world. As “smart boards” and WiFi hot zones are becoming the rage back in the US, many South African schools - particularly those that cater to blacks - aren’t even wired for electricity. It’s frankly scary to think that as our world becomes increasingly computerized information and ideas will become proportionately inaccessible to those without computer literacy. And since information is the cornerstone of socioeconomic success, computer illiteracy has suddenly become a cause of poverty and not just a symptom of it. The gap between rich and poor is widening. Fast. And one day soon it may become altogether impossible to leap from one side to the other. That’s why teaching computers to kids at St. Leo Primary unexpectedly seems like such an important thing to do, especially before the rift between “us” (those who have access to this web post of mine) and “them” (those who do not) becomes irreconcilable.
When the kids at St. Leo are confounded by the computers before them, I’m amused to recall that not so long ago I too was mashing keys, fumbling with the mouse, and smearing the screen with my dirty fingers. I suppose that I’ve come a long way since then. My students are learning so fast and so avidly that I’m beginning to believe that maybe they can go a long way too. Perhaps even farther.
South Africa 2007