This week, I took brief leave from the office to visit two of Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach (BOSCO)'s Internet sites. The first one I visited was the Pagak Peace and Information Center. Located on the Pagak Primary 7 campus, this is one of BOSCO's most successful Internet sites.
BOSCO began providing this site with wireless connectivity in 2006. It started as a one-computer outfit on the campus church. A later partnership with War Child Holland helped the center expand to a private building equipped with eight laptops.
Students studying at the Pagak Peace and Information Center
Chris Okeny and Simon Peter Okello have been working at the centre since its foundation. Both have a passion for information and communication technology (ICT) and are eager to share their skills.
Okeny, who is currently the site manager, was one of the first community members trained in BOSCO’s unique Web 2.0 ICT teaching approach. Originally educated as a counsellor, he had learned basic computer skills in school. However, he comments, “I did not see the benefit of ICT until now.” Training through Web 2.0 has shown him how to create and share information, collaborate on proposals, and meet new people around the world.
Okello, an ICT trainer, agrees. Web 2.0 training, he tells me, allows a user to immediately participate in the creative process behind the Internet. Students learn how to post stories and attach photos, which, Okello comments, “tell us a lot about their personal feelings ... [it] makes the expression of problems very easy.”
Meeting Okello and Okeny was a necessary experience: I now have a better idea of the value of Web 2.0 training in these communities. While it is still very hard to get people to generate content (and have people around the world respond), Web 2.0 training at least teaches the skills of contributing to the Internet while also learning how a computer works. Hopefully, as Internet access becomes more widespread in rural Uganda, we will see a community-wide online dialogue.
I also visited the Coope Internet site. Coope is a former internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. The internet site is nothing like Pagak. It is just one computer in a dusty building located just off the main road cutting through the former camp. Yet, while a modest arrangement, it is having an important impact.
Latifa Okello, 24, is the current Coope site manager. She believes even one computer offering internet access is making a big difference in her community. “You post an article on the Wikispace about your life and the process of being a returnee and you can receive feedback and feel less alone,” she explains.
Latifa teaches Web 2.0 tools such as Wikispace, Facebook, the Google Suite and Flickr, among others, as well as an introduction to computers course. When she was elected site manager in 2008, she suggested training people for free.
“It is a way of helping my community. People have interests here, but they have no money.” Over the past two years, she has trained over 50 people, including students, student drop-outs and professionals like teachers and nurses.
As I discovered during some research on telecenter sustainability in Uganda, running these sites is no walk in the park. Money is short, income-generating activities limited by available equipment despite demand (schools near Coope come to the site for printing, yet the site does not have a printer), and community feelings delicate. Despite these regular hiccups, the groups running the Internet sites are eager: ICT skills and access to the Internet are in high demand.