Archives For computers

vintage+Chevy+BelAirEven though he returned almost three weeks ago, I’m still parsing the experience of Mtuseni’s visit. There is a lot to digest and try to understand — along with continuing fallout that currently has us at loggerheads like never before. I do believe my 20-year-old is finally turning 15, emotionally if not chronologically. Am I ready for the battles and pushback ahead? I don’t know. I’m not looking forward to it, that’s for sure. But if this is the necessary psycho-dynamic that must play out for him to become a man — and which he missed having no father around for most of his teenage years — then I guess I’ll strap on my whitewater gear and ride these churning rapids. As I’ve said before, I hate carnival rides!

In the meantime, the New York Times posted an interesting Room for Debate feature this weekend offering different perspectives on the future of South Africa and its economy. I found it surprising that none of the primary contributors addressed the issues of poor education and lack of Internet access — two issues I have described frequently here myself. I added my comments to the discussion. Check out the feature for some perspective on the challenges facing the country.

Source: New York Times

Click to access discussion. — Source: New York Times

I saw this CNN Heroes story recently about a retired school guidance counselor who is using her retirement savings to run a mobile computer learning lab in Florida. She understands the long-term risks kids face from being on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, so she outfitted Estella’s Brilliant Bus with computers connected via satellite to the Internet.

On the bus, kids of all ages get instruction in core academics, SAT and GED prep and Internet skills. Even adults benefit from software training and job search preparation. Running this program… at age 76? Estella truly is a hero.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

One thing that struck me was her comment that the kids she serves don’t have access to computers at home, which leads them to fall behind more affluent peers in terms of computer experience. Her program builds upon the limited computer time these kids receive at school.

By comparison, Mtuseni’s little brother and sister have no access to computers at home or at school. The St. Ansgars K-12 public school they attend — which Mtuseni calls a farm school — has no computers, no library, and no heat. Mtuseni graduated from St. A’s, and his lack of computer savvy or familiarity with software and the Web has shocked me. He’s gotten better over the last few years, but an American fourth grader can probably run circles around him on a computer.

I hope that mobile computer lab programs like this exist in South Africa. I will have to look into it more… and am considering helping to bridge the digital divide in South Africa as a potential new career path for myself — once Mtuseni is finished with college and settled into a job.

I’ve been known to rail against the saturation of technology in the US these days — with TV commercials showing family members in separate rooms blissfully staring into their devices and having no direct interaction. Society will pay over time for this growing personal disconnect, if it isn’t already. But on the flip side, Musa and Bongeka and all the kids in Mtuseni’s settlement — and so many others — are missing out on knowledge and skills that can help them to rise out of poverty. As always, the key is balance — and access to digital technology across the world is way out of whack.

I think of how Rosa Parks and a bus opened doors for African Americans decades ago. Now Estella and her Brilliant Bus are helping new generations forge pathways to opportunity. I only hope that I can make a similar impact for South African kids someday.


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Time Out

November 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

South-Africa-teen-RayBan-sunglassesI’ve taken a little break from posting here the last few weeks — haven’t had the time or the brain-space. The freelance writing world has always been a feast-or-famine dynamic… and after almost a year of scary, Sudan-like famine, I’m suddenly buried under a Bacchanalian bounty of work coming at me from everywhere. No complaints from me — the bill for Mtuseni’s last year of tuition just showed up this morning — but any break I can take from all these projects requires me to walk away from the keyboard… and the blog.

But that doesn’t mean there’s been a break in the story. The past month has been a particularly dizzying roller coaster ride of ups and downs, as is usually the case with my little buddy. The high point was an audio-file message Mtuseni sent, where he sang Happy Birthday, thanked me for being a father to him and said he loved me. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I mean, what 20-year-old sings “Happy Birthday to you” without a touch of irony? And both verses! The kid is so sweet and good sometimes that I am often in awe of him.

And then, in typical fashion, the carnival ride plunged into the depths when Mtuseni sat on his laptop and broAsus-laptop-netbook-brokenke the screen — less than three months after I bought it! Our MXit chat line was full of some savory language that day, and we still haven’t come up with a solution. For now, he’s working on two-thirds of a screen — and I need to figure out if the cost of shipping and repairing it is the same as just buying a new one. (But, really, do I need to buy this kid a new laptop every three months? When he’s already lost two cell phones? The first pocket angel I sent him? And the Ray-Bans I bought him in Capetown — the same day he crushed the laptop?)

And the final straw has been our ongoing push-pull over allowance. Having never had a real job, he seems unclear on the value of money and earning it. I set him up with simple tasks — like sending me photos of his day or writing a new LinkedIn profile — to earn his $75 a month. Yet each month he resists more and more. (Passive-aggression makes me crazy!) I generally have little leverage on the issue; he needs the money to get to school and pay for lunches, so I always end up caving in. But last month, after I kept moving the deadline and simplifying the tasks and he still did nothing, he actually got zero allowance from me. Because school was off for study week and he only had to go there a few days for final exams this month, the money wasn’t so critical — though I’m sure it took a bite.

And yet this month, the same issue! He cannot, will not, or refuses to follow simple directions for his allowance. I’ve heard from his school administrator that he’s a star on the student committee, organizing major soccer tournaments. But for me, suddenly he’s incapable of a few lightweight tasks each month. Some people say he’s testing me, but I can’t figure out why. My theory, ironically, is that as our relationship has shifted from mentor-mentee to more father-son, he feels comfortable and secure enough to be resistant and disrespectful — as most kids his age are toward their parents. Do I really need that black fly in my Chardonnay?

So last week I took a rare time-out from Mtuseni. I was super-stressed trying to figure out how to work on three big projects simultaneously, and he was stressed about his final exams. Neither of us had the mental space to be battling. I told him I was logging off MXit for a while and wished him good luck on his exams. He took his last one yesterday, and his three-month school break starts today. (And he better be out looking for a Christmas/summer job as I write this!)

This is the last free stretch of time before he finishes school next year. I’ve got to get the train back on track. He needs to lose some of his immaturity (even if it is loveable). He needs to start prepping for internship and job interviews. He needs to decide on a major. And he needs to stop squandering mentoring opportunities by fighting me at every turn. So that’s my mission starting this weekend. I have a feeling it’s gonna be a long, hot summer ahead for my little buddy!

And although I dialed down the stress a bit by taking a time-out from him this past week, I miss the knucklehead. A lot. So give me another E-ticket, carny, and fire up the ride!


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Bridging the Digital Divide

September 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

Chelsea Clinton wrote a piece today in The Daily Beast articulating the negative impacts resulting from US children’s lack of access to computers and the Internet. Indeed, the country must work continuously to close the digital divide and support broader learning opportunities for every child — and adult — in America.

Yet our problems of technological equity pale in comparison to South Africa. I am continually stunned by the systemic lack of access to computers in my experiences with Mtuseni. Six weeks after buying him a laptop, we still cannot locate free public-access WiFi in the wealthy suburb where he attends school. The library provides only two public computers and no WiFi. The luxe mega-mall nearby seems to offer only limited access at cafes, with a purchase — difficult for someone counting every penny. And ironically it appears that even his college doesn’t provide WiFi. Mtuseni’s been trying to learn the login key, but “nobody knows it.” If the college offered WiFi, wouldn’t the access protocol be up on posters throughout the school?

Despite having limited financial resources, many of Mtuseni’s fellow students have laptops. They recognize the necessity of having a computer in college. Yet without easy and affordable access to the Internet, they have nothing more than an updated typewriter. In many US cities, you can sit on a park bench and access free WiFi — often provided through public-private partnerships. It’s frustrating to me that South African communities, lawmakers and businesses do not pursue strategies that can open the gates to Internet knowledge for all.

Mtuseni also tells me that his former public K-12 school has no computers. He himself had only very limited exposure to computers through the nonprofit that first matched us, and his lack of familiarity with the operations of a computer is already causing hurdles with his owning a laptop.

Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka attends fourth grade in the same school now. My niece is also in fourth grade. Like most US kids, she is intuitively comfortable with computers. She also writes complex stories, and this summer read half of the Harry Potter books. (Admittedly, that’s a bit over-the-top for a nine-year-old.) By comparison, Bongeka has never used a computer, and Mtuseni tells me she can barely read. (This is likely a bit of an overstatement, but she’s certainly not reading about the gang at Hogwarts.)

There are many reasons for Bongeka’s low academic performance relative to my niece. However, access to computers — Internet-enabled or not — would clearly advance her learning capabilities and those of the hundreds of children attending the school. Mtuseni so desperately wants his sister and brother to rise out of poverty, and recently told me about the distressing obstacles and risks faced by girls in the settlements. Computer technology alone won’t solve the problem, but it can keep children engaged and provide a more educated workforce that will benefit the entire country.

For now, my mental energies are focused on navigating the (surprisingly) choppy waters of Mtuseni’s journey though college and getting him to a safe harbor of professional employment. But with Bongeka and so many children and adults in South Africa hungry for knowledge and a better life, I hope to work in the future on bridging the nation’s technology-access gap.


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