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 ...

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