Providing Lesotho's Children with Keys to the World

This is the story of our efforts to end the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, inadequate education, and early death
in a remote rural community in Lesotho, Africa, by providing quality education and life skills
to the young children there. Join us on our journey ...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Poem to Honor Donor Ellen Garber

I wrote the following poem, adapted from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, to thank my friend, Ellen Garber, for making a very substantial donation yesterday to Laptops to Lesotho.  Ellen made the donation in memory of my parents, Ruth and Robert Balcomb:
"Their lives were works of art that inspired us all.


'Twas the night before Sunday, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Dirty laundry hung carelessly over a chair,
In hopes someone else would remove it from there.

The cats were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of catnip danced in their heads.
With Carl in his pj’s, and I in my cap,
We’d just settled down for a long winter’s nap.

When from my computer there arose such a clatter,
I sprang to my keyboard to see what was the matter.
Away to my inbox I flew in great haste,
And clicked on the email listed there in boldface.

Bright light on the screen glared like new fallen snow,
Making me squint and read words a tad slow.
Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a gigantic donation the size of a steer.

While the enormous number made my knees shake,
I knew in a moment it must be a mistake.
“Holy S**t, Ellen! That can’t be right!”
Your fingers a-slipping, you must have mis-typed.

The shock had me reeling, my mind was a-drift,
How do I say thank you for such a great gift?
A bundle of computers, solar panels too,
Will bring education to children Bantu.

I can hear all the laughter, their joy, and their glee,
When they see the technology arriving with me.
And so it was that I exclaimed with delight,
“Lesotho’s children will sleep better this very good night.”

- Janissa

Monday, December 9, 2013

Next L2L Trip to Lesotho - March & April 2014

Normally, this time of year, I am either in Lesotho or preparing to go to Lesotho.  Prior to 2012, L2L conducted deployment and training in November and December, at the end of the Lesotho school year.  After the 2011 training, the local staff decided they would rather have training before the start of the school year.  So, our last trip took place from December 2012 into February 2013. 

Unfortunately, we ran into some serious scheduling problems because the Ministry of Education and Training made very last-minute changes to the school system schedule, delaying the starting date by two weeks and conducting teacher training that overlapped with our planned training. 

To avoid a similar problem, our next training trip will be during the school term, in March and April 2014.  This will coincide with Spring Break for L2L volunteers who are teachers in the U.S., making it easier for them to take time off work for the trip. 

[Note:  We don't travel to Lesotho during the U.S. summer months because of weather considerations.  June through August is winter in Lesotho, which can mean heavy snowfalls that make travel impossible, and subzero temperatures, which makes training difficult as there is no heat in the classrooms or homes where volunteers stay.]

Three L2L volunteers from the U.S. are planning to make the trip in March and April 2014 - myself, Kathy Plath, and Sarah Gardner.  Kathy is a teacher in Colorado who helped on the last trip.  Sarah is a teacher in Indiana and is on the L2L Board of Directors, serving as Secretary.  Sarah has been actively involved in L2L from the very start.  This will be her first trip to Lesotho.

The trip will be shorter than previous trips, probably a total of 3½ weeks.  We will not be doing any new deployment, but will focus on student and teacher training.  Because Nohana Primary School has declined our offer for additional training in 2014, we expect to be working almost exclusively at our second site, Kokobe Primary School.

We are waiting to hear from Alice Ranthimo, the principal at Kokobe, and the School Committee to confirm the exact dates of training.

In the coming months, Sarah, Kathy, and I will be working on lesson plans in preparation for the trip.

- Janissa


Friday, October 18, 2013

Rotary Club Funding Received

Laptops to Lesotho has received a grant from the Unadilla Rotary Club, Maseru Rotary Club, and Rotary International for $7,500.

The money will help support a Mosotho in-country volunteer, provide additional technical support to the schools in Ketane, expand our audio-visual capacity for creating and translating country-specific educational materials, replace malfunctioning touchpads and weak speakers, and purchase more XO laptops and solar chargers.

A huge Thank You to these Rotary Clubs  for their support helping us improve education in rural Lesotho!  A special thank-you to Rotarian Donald Tuttle who facilitated this grant.

Grant Specifics
  1. Volunteer Living Expenses    $2,400
    For housing and food for the project volunteer while staying in Ketane
  2. Volunteer Travel Expenses    $360
    For work-related trips between Ketane and Maseru by the project volunteer
  3. Communications    $300
    For work-related phone and internet services for the project volunteer
  4. Technical Support    $1,000
    For hiring I.T. specialist(s) to install and maintain project equipment at the schools
  5. Audio Recording Equipment    $300
    For purchase of voice recording and editing equipment for creation and translation of educational audio materials
  6. Computer Peripherals    $600
    For purchase of 150 computer mice to use in place of malfunctioning touchpads and 150 headphones in place of weak speakers (problems inherent on the XO-1 laptop model)
  7. New XO Laptops    $2300
    For purchase of 20 new XO laptops, charging station, router, and spare batteries.
  8. Miscellaneous Expenses    $240

Unadilla Rotary Club, New York
District 7170
Maseru Rotary Club, Lesotho
District 9370
Rotary International
- Janissa

I'm Ba-aaack!

After a long, very difficult period in my life, I am back from my family leave and re-immersing myself in my Laptops to Lesotho work.  Although I'm still not 100%, and will not be back to full speed for a while, I hope to start our project moving forward again.
I would like to thank our L2L Directors, Sherrie Howey and Sarah Gardner, for covering for me in my absence.  Thanks too to all the L2L volunteers and funders for giving me their unconditional support.  You really helped me, more than you can know.
- Janissa

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

OLPC XO Batteries Out of Stock

*ilovemyxo* posted:

"We have officially depleted our stock of replacement batteries for the XO laptop.
 Unfortunately we are unable to order more from OLPC." 

This is not good news. The XO batteries wear out and need to be replaced periodically. Unless we can find an alternative source, this could cause us serious problems in the future.   

- Janissa   


Thursday, May 2, 2013

L2L President Taking Family Leave

Hi All,  Sorry I haven't posted any news of late, but I have taken family leave from L2L work to take care of my terminally ill parents.  If you need any information or assistance, please contact one of our Board Members, Sherrie Howey or Sarah Gardner.  Janissa

Monday, April 1, 2013

OLPC Hits $100 Price with Ad-Supported XO-4s

Soon coming to an XO-4 near you (photo by Robert Nelson)

In what can only be described as an unexpected development OLPC Association announced that it has managed to hit the originally envisioned $100 price the XO laptop is still so widely known for. This was achieved by borrowing a page from Amazon's playbook and introducing ad-supported versions of the brand-new XO-4.

Depending on the specific hardware configuration (non-touch display vs. touch display, 1GHz CPU vs 1.2GHz CPU, 1GB RAM vs. 2GB RAM, 4GB Flash vs. 8GB Flash) the ad-supported models will cost between $100 and $138. At this point it is unclear how much cheaper that is than the non-ad-supported XO-4 models as their prices haven't been announced yet.

One very interesting aspect of the ad system which Poisson D'Avril (OLPC Association's Director of Educational Marketing) mentioned is that it can be managed by deployments:

„All of the content in the ad system is curated and selected for appropriateness by OLPC Association and leading independent reviewers of age appropriate digital advertising in North and South America. Beyond that we will also provide best-practice guides and tools to our implementation partners in the public and private sectors. This will enable them to customize the ads seen by their pupils and teachers and therefore maximize their impact."

One thing that D'Avril didn't want to comment on is if deployments will also receive a cut of the advertising revenue or whether their main benefit will be the reduced purchase price.

Asked about the risk of ads distracting pupils and teachers when using the machines she responded:

„Naturally we did not want to risk negatively impacting the learning experience enabled by using the XOs. So all throughout the ad system's development we ran comprehensive tests in pilot rollouts in several of our ongoing projects in North and South America. As a result and after discussions with some of our leading partners it was decided that ads will only be shown when the XO is starting up, shutting down, and on the newly added screensaver when it is in power-saving mode."

Beyond that D'Avril also mentioned that for some countries special agreements with local advertisers had been signed:

„In some South American countries advertisers have been given the option to replace the famous XO startup sound with their client's jingles. In other cases advertisers will include product samples such as soft drinks, sweets, comics, but also school books and pencils with every XO-4 that is shipped."

At this point it's unclear whether a similar approach will also be used with the XO Tablet which should have become available at select Walmart stores in March. Similarly there's no word on whether the software components of that ad system will make an appearance in an update for the older XO-1 / XO-1.5 / XO-1.75 models.

Now overall of course the question is whether this development should be considered a good or bad move by OLPC Association. On the one hand it will likely enable more children in developing nations to get XOs thanks to the lower price. On the other hand I can't help but feel that exposing children to more advertising isn't something I can truly support. Especially since I still vividly remember how annoyed I was when we found that after a renovation my secondary school's gym had been turned into one big advertising space for a certain soft drink manufacturer...

So what do you think?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sending Money to Lesotho: skip Western Union, go Moneygram

There is no such thing as PayPal in Lesotho, so sometimes it is difficult and very expensive to send money there.

I've been trying to send ~$220 (M2000) to our Volunteer Mamatsepe Sejanamane to cover her transportation to Kokobe Primary School and her first month of living expenses.

International bank transfers, at least from my bank, are outrageously expensive - $75 per transaction (USBank). 

Western Union recently opened an office in Maseru.  They're open 24/7 so you can receive money at anytime.  They charge about 12% + a fee, which seems like highway robbery.  But none of that matters, because their computers have been down for some time, and transfers aren't going through at all.

Another volunteer, Fortunate Gunzo, suggested trying Muruku or MoneyGram. I checked Muruku, but they don't service Lesotho.

I hit the jackpot at MoneyGram.  They have agents at Standard Banks all over Lesotho, including one in Mohale's Hoek.  Their fees are much less than Western Union, $18 for an instant transfer and $10 for a 3-day transfer.  That I can handle.  One slight disadvantage of MoneyGram is that the receiver can only get the money during regular banking hours.

It was fairly easy to send the money.  I was able to make the MoneyGram transfer online using an L2L Visa card.  If you don't have a credit card, you can use a bank account for the online 3-day transfers. 

The verification process was a bit involved.  They asked some questions that amazed me they would know the answers to.  Then they asked me to call to confirm that I knew the person I was sending money to.  There are lots of scams coming from Africa, getting people they don't know to send them money for fraudulent schemes.  Once I convinced MoneyGram I'd met and worked with Mamatsepe in person, they okayed the transfer.  From now on, any transfers to her will be automatically approved.

They gave me a reference number to send to Mamatsepe.  I was a little concerned sending that number via a nonsecured email.  Hopefully, it won't get intercepted and the cash stolen before she gets to the bank. 

She informed me she's gotten the number.  The money will be available as soon as the banks opens.  I(It's Friday night there now.) With luck, she'll be in Kokobe before the end of next week.  YEA!

For future payments, I'm going to try to get a pre-paid reloadable cash-card for her.  I can send the card over to her with Tony in a few weeks.  That way I can go online and load money onto the card once a month, she can withdraw it from an ATM anytime it's convenient for her, and she doesn't have to carry large amounts of cash around.

- Janissa


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Technology News: cell phone as microscope

Scientists converted a cell phone into a cheap microscope and used it to find intestinal parasites.

"You need [a] ball lens* to help with the magnification - but any mobile phone with a decent camera and a zoom function will be sufficient.

"When the results were double-checked with a laboratory light microscope, the device had managed to pick up 70% of the samples with infections present - and 90% of the heavier infections.

"Intestinal worms are estimated to affect up to two billion people around the world, mainly in poor areas. These parasitic infections cause malnutrition, stunted growth, and stunted mental development.

"It's a big deal, a big problem."


Remote villages in Lesotho could benefit from this technology. The question is, how hard is it to train someone to collect the samples, prepare the slides, and read the results?

* cost of ball lens ~$12



Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review of L2L "Survivor: Lesotho"

Here’s another great review of Laptops to Lesotho's work. 
This review came from someone who has a lot of experience with computer education projects in southern Africa and has seen a lot of Lesotho. 
When they decide to do a Survivor: Lesotho reality show my money would be on Janissa and the Laptops To Lesotho team to come out waaaay on top. Although I had met many of the L2L team before and am very familiar with Lesotho this was my first visit to Ketane region and Nohana Primary School. The area is very beautiful and the people even more so but the terrain is rugged, the living conditions challenging and the "roads" are some of the toughest in the region. There's a song by the late lamented Syd Kitchen of Durban called Africa Is Not For Sissies which could have been the theme tune for this journey.

In my three day visit in late January 2013 I met with the Nohana principal & teachers and enjoyed time in classes with some of the children and their XOs. It was a chance to see L2L in action and also to meet some of the volunteers. I had wanted to see how things actually work, what kind of involvement there was from the school staff and assess how well suited the XOs are to this kind of context. I also wanted to see how well the children - who had had little or no other exposure to this kind of initiative - responded.

On all counts I was truly impressed. Although everyone was a bit rusty after the long summer holiday it was clear that teachers and children alike relish this opportunity. The younger children in particular seemed to `get it' very quickly and I am sure this project has already had an extraordinary impact.

Of course there's always `more' which could happen but the strength of L2L is that it proceeds at the pace at which local stakeholders can handle. They are, after all, the ones who will take L2L from being a great idea to being a practical, replicable model which makes sense in the Lesotho mountain school context. Or not.

The volunteer corps - Tony, Mamatsepe, Mary - were all inspirational, indefatigable and versatile.

Above all Janissa's calm, hands-on and sleeves-rolled up approach sets the tone - an approach which I saw perfectly mirrored by 2 Grade 7 girls as they set about replacing a screen on an XO. No mess, no fuss. Just get the job done. It made my heart sing.

I am a South African educator, linked to a small donor organisation which has been working in rural Southern Africa for over 30 years. We have funded L2L since 2011 and look forward to learning more invaluable lessons as the initiative develops.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Trip Report #2: Lost Luggage and Stolen Equipment

Murphy's Law:  "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong."
Idiom: "The third time's the charm."

I guess I've just been lucky on my first two trips to Lesotho.  This time around, not so lucky. 

Everyone who flies to Maseru from outside of Lesotho has to go through the Johannesburg airport.  The airport, like the city, is famous for its rampant theft problems.  I'd never seen any evidence of it before this trip.

This time, I had a comparatively short layover in the Jo'burg airport, just 1½. hours to de-plane, get through passport control, go through the transit lounge and security, and get to the gate for my flight to Maseru, which is always at the far end of the terminal.

I made it with 5 minutes to spare, but apparently one of my pieces of luggage didn't.  When I got to Maseru, one checked bag was there, but the other was missing.  I had seen it being loaded in New York onto the JFK-to-Johannesburg flight, so I knew it made it that far. 

Sure enough, it arrived in Maseru on the very next flight, which was 24 hours later.  Unfortunately, during the bag's layover, it had been broken into and a small digital projector and VGA cable that works with the XO laptop had been stolen.  Interestingly enough, the XO laptops in the bag held no interest to the thieves and were left untouched.

We had planned to use the projector as an integral part of our training this year, so its loss came as a huge blow. 

The airline wouldn't pay to replace it because their baggage policy clearly states not to put valuables in your checked baggage and they won't be held liable if you do.  Not that it would have mattered because affordable projectors just aren't available in Lesotho.

I had had no alternative but to put the projector in my checked bag.  My carry-on's were full of two servers, routers, my personal laptop, and a Dell laptop belonging to the project.  The projector was an awkward shape, didn't fit well in my carry-on anyway, and so was the obvious choice to go into a checked bag. 

By the way, I've tried shipping things to Lesotho, and, not only can it take 3+ months to arrive, even when sent first class, only about half the packages make it to their destination.  They do, after all, have to go through the South African postal system.

Several weeks later, Sherrie and Jennifer also came through the Jo'burg airport and had someone break into their checked baggage during their 12-hour layover.  They lost some personal items.

We managed to conduct our training without the projector, though I lost track of the number of times someone said, "Oh, this would have been so much easier with the projector." 

One consolation I take heart from is that the projector has no external buttons, so it doesn't work unless you have the remote control for it.  The remote, which got packed in my other bag and is not readily available in South Africa, is now sitting on my desk as a bitter-sweet reminder.  I may have lost a projector, but the thief didn't gain one, at least not one s/he can use.

- Janissa

Up Next:  2013 Trip Report #3: Maseru


Saturday, February 23, 2013

2013 Trip Report #1: Volunteer "Mules"

This post is the start of what will hopefully be a whole series of posts to take you through our trip to Lesotho from late December 2012 to mid-February 2013.  Hopefully, some of it will be entertaining and some informative, but my main purpose is to "get it on paper" before I forget, so we have a permanent record of what happened, what worked, and what didn't.  I've tried to keep a journal on these trips, but that usually only lasts a few days before I just don't have the time to bother with it anymore.

As I noted in an earlier post, we had nine outside volunteers, including myself, participate in this trip.  The five of us who came directly from the U.S. to Lesotho got to act as "mules," carrying laptops and other project supplies with us. 

I think I still hold the L2L record for taking the heaviest load without paying any baggage fees, set last trip in late 2011 when I hauled 170 lbs (77 kg) of equipment and very few personal belongings from Idaho to Maseru.  This year, I carried a mere 150 lbs (68 kg) because I had other volunteers helping to carry some pretty heavy loads as well.

Among my many tips to maximize the amount of equipment I can take for free:  Fly on an airline that lets you take two 50 lb. bags free on international flights, maximize your carry-on with a "laptop" bag almost as big as a regular carry-on, wear a multi-pocket vest loaded down with 10 lbs of gear, carry rain gear and heavy clothing in your hand  (I've been snowed on in Lesotho during their summer, so warm clothes are a must any time of year), and buy toiletries and undergarments once in-country.  And be in good shape, because, even after you've checked those 100 lbs through to your destination, you still have 50-70 lbs of stuff to lug with you through multiple airports, on planes, and to ground transport.

Unfortunately, coming back this year, I carried almost as much weight as I took.  That was because I brought back a couple XO laptops, for repairs I couldn't do in Lesotho, a dozen defunct batteries, and a full set of Lesotho textbooks for grades 1-7.  I'm planning to pass those out to volunteers who will help us compile and/or create appropriate lessons for the XOs that will closely follow the curriculum.
Sherrie and Jen had a great idea for protecting sensitive equipment in their luggage.  They brought an inflatable foam camping pad to sleep on.  With it compressed flat and lining their bag, they packed equipment inside.  Then, they inflated the pad - instant firm padding around everything.  It was ingenious.
- Janissa
Up next - Trip Report #2: Lost Luggage and Stolen Equipment

A Glowing Review

Here's a review of Laptops to Lesotho written and posted by a supporter in Lesotho who recently visited Kokobe Primary to see our work in action.

"I have been familiar with this organization for just over a year and I recently visited one of the schools where Laptops to Lesotho has just introduced the laptops to the students and staff. What strikes me most about the people involved in this work is their dedication and commitment, especially in view of the difficult area of Lesotho which they have targeted as well as the limited resources they have. The people involved are extremely enthusiastic and excited about their work and the people they are serving are also excited about the opportunties they are provided with in having these laptops at their schools. The work relies on volunteeers, both local and from abroad. Training is given to put the power of the project into the hands of the local teachers who will be working with their students. The fact that the Basotho are so involved in managing the project is very inspiring and indicative of the true partnership that has developed. Certainly a project worthy of mention and support!"  Mark



Friday, February 22, 2013

We're on The Map!

Today, our blog topped the 20,000 mark for all-time page views.  I think that's impressive for a small outfit like L2L. 

People from all over the world are checking us out. 

Besides people from the U.S. and Lesotho, which we'd expect, we also get a lot of viewers from South Africa, Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Ukraine, India, Pakistan, and Australia, among others.

Viewers, thank you for your interest.  Please keep your comments coming, and please consider making a donation to keep our good work going.

- Janissa


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Thank You, L2L Volunteers

Our 7-week training and deployment in Lesotho is now over, and everyone is back home, hopefully happy with what we accomplished. 

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the wonderful group of volunteers who not only made this trip a success for the project but also a pleasure for me.  I especially want to thank those of you who flew to Lesotho, for shouldering the burden of paying for your own plane tickets.  At $2000+ a pop this trip, that's a very generous donation to the cause.


Tony Anderson

Tony worked tirelessly throughout the entire trip, doing programming, setting up servers, customizing the learning system, and doing lesson preparations, not to mention teaching a few classes.  He could be seen sitting day and night in the shade at his stone table or in the school office, rarely ever without an XO laptop in his hands. There was usually a glass of warm Coke nearby.

Tony is a retired programmer and has worked with OLPC projects in Nepal and Rwanda.


Craig Balcomb

Craig is my younger brother.  He served as my go-to guy and sounding board during this trip.  Anything I needed, he took care of it.  Among other things, he taught computer lessons, handled most of the laptop charging, took tons of photos to document our work, and kept my water bottle full.  Called "Crazy Craig" by the teachers, he loved to ham it up and entertained folks with his antics at the project celebrations.
Craig lives near Cincinnati, Ohio.  This was his second trip to Lesotho to help L2L, and hopefully there will be many more.

Kathy Plath
Kathy always had a positive attitude and graciously took on some of the less pleasant, but necessary, project tasks, including menu planning and grocery shopping for the entire group.  She was a great help, and her professionalism and teaching experience was invaluable to all of us during teacher training.  The start of school was delayed until after her departure, so she didn't get to spend as much time working with students as she would have liked, but fortunately she still managed to engage children in the village.
Kathy is an I.T. teacher in Pueblo, Colorado.


Mama Lolo Mabitsela

Mama Lolo came to Lesotho to learn about our project so she could start a similar project in her home town in South Africa. Besides attending XO laptop training with the teachers, she participated in discussions and planning and helped out wherever she could.  She made a significant contribution to the project by translating during interviews in the village.

Mama Lolo is a retired teacher.  She runs a B&B in Soweto.      

Mary Ladabouche

Mary came to us as a wonderful, unexpected surprise.  She had just recently moved to the village of Ketane and had read about our work on the internet.  She hiked from Ketane to Nohana Primary School and back almost every day, in all kinds of weather, just to help us with training.  She was great in the classroom, assisting students, prepping laptops, and helping with story time.  She even climbed up on the roof to help me install solar panels.  It was always a pleasure to see her warm smile.

Mary is a retired primary school teacher now serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ketane.


Sherrie Howey

Sherrie didn't have a lot of time to spend in Lesotho, but she definitely left her mark.  She visited leaders, families, and students' homes in the village and was able to collect all kinds of information during interviews conducted as part of the project evaluation.  While at Nohana, she awarded nine scholarships from FIPE (The Foundations for International Professional Exchange) to local 7th and 8th grade students so they can continue their education.

Sherrie is on the L2L Board and lives in Colorado. 

Jennifer Selden

Jennifer claims she's not a "computer person" or teacher, so when she came to Lesotho, she wasn't sure how she could help the project.  She needn't have worried.  She helped in the library and at story time, and did just fine helping with computer classes.  Her most memorable impact was at play time singing "A-tooti-ta" with all the children, who absolutely adored her.

Jennifer is Sherrie's daughter.  She lives in North Carolina, where she has been helping 5th graders from the U.S. and Lesotho exchange pen pal letters for several years.


Mamatsepe Sejanamane

Mamatsepe is a talented young Mosotho woman, very computer savvy, fluent in English, and a natural teacher who has a great way with children. (Don't let it go to your head, kid.)  We were very fortunate to have her assistance.  She provided simultaneous translations during interviews and lessons, as well as teaching XO laptop lessons on her own.  When teachers were absent, she stepped into their classrooms as a substitute teacher.

Mamatsepe currently lives in Maseru, but  she plans to move to Kokobe soon to do volunteer service full time for L2L.

Volunteers, thanks so much for all your hard work.  I can't tell you how much I appreciate your dedication, professionalism, and friendship.  I couldn't have asked for a better team.  And, I hope you will continue to help L2L here in the U.S.and in Lesotho.

- Janissa 

Janissa Balcomb with Nohana Primary School
teacher Teboho Mphasi, one of her star pupils

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Successful Trip to Lesotho

I'm home after my recent 7-week trip to Lesotho.  Now that I'm back in the land of regular internet access, I'll try to catch everyone up on all that happened during the trip.  There's lots of news, so stay tuned for a series of posts that will be coming soon.

- Janissa