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 ...

Talk given at Friends of Lesotho Annual Meeting, 2011-03-12

First, a little background … Laptops to Lesotho is a small nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, myself and Andrew Dernovsek, along with two Basotho who are primary school principals. We are a registered 501(c)(3) tax-exempt corporation, based in the U.S., with an unpaid board of directors and a handful of volunteers.

We are currently working at Nohana Primary School in the village of Mafikeng, near Ketane. It’s a small, remote, mountain community in the Mohales Hoek District, south of Semonkong and north of Mt. Moorosi.

My brother and I were in Lesotho a few months ago and we completed our first laptop deployment in December.

When people first hear about our program, they are often skeptical … at least initially. Why laptops, they ask. Computers are expensive. Why not use ALL that money for something that will benefit A LOT more students? Why not spend it on basics that some schools still need, things like pens and paper, books, or a new roof?

First, let me say that our goal is not to turn out a bunch of little computer geeks. We see laptops as a tool, a means to an end. We want to create students who have fallen in love with learning and who have the skills to continue to learn, either at the next level of schooling or on their own. We want students to have critical thinking skills and are prepared to pursue more advanced education or get a skilled job.

Okay, Yes, I have to admit a laptop is more expensive than pens and paper, but maybe not as much as you might think. With the special laptops we use, we can provide a laptop to a student, and the power to run it, for less than $50 a year.

And that laptop offers so much more … It provides something no amount of paper, pencils, or teachers in a classroom with just a blackboard and chalk can.

A typical classroom in Lesotho treats a student like an empty vessel to be filled with information. It’s mostly a passive process that can be extremely boring, especially for young inquisitive minds. And let’s face it, it is NOT working.

The typical Mosotho student graduating when I was in Lesotho over 30 years ago is about on par with the typical student graduating today. Not a lot has been gained, despite decades of hard work. 

Students produced then and now are ingrained with a rigid, linear thought process, with little ability to adapt or adjust as needs arise.  Anyone who has worked in Lesotho has dealt with this and knows the frustrations it can cause.  The average Mosotho can function well with a clearly defined set of instructions or rules to follow. But as soon as they are confronted by a situation that doesn’t fit neatly within those rules, or they are asked to make a decision involving unfamiliar alternatives, they are lost.  They become uncomfortable, they hem and haw, they stall and delay. They go looking for someone else to handle the situation. They may get belligerent, or they may just shut down and refuse to deal with the situation altogether.

It is easy to assume that this is some innate Basotho characteristic, but it’s not. It’s a function of a failed education system that hasn’t prepared them to handle this.  They are not taught how to weigh alternatives or to approach problems logically. They are not trained to think independently. They have trouble conceptualizing and thinking abstractly, not because they can’t, but because they’ve never been taught how, and they have few role models who can.  We are inclined to take these abilities for granted because we grow up with them as a normal part of our every day lives. But the Basotho don’t.

As a whole, the education system status quo in Lesotho is a failure. Basotho children need better, and they deserve better. We think it’s time to shake things up a bit and try something new, something that will help them develop these advanced thought processes.

Computers are merely a very good way to do this. The computers we use are specifically designed for children in developing nations. They have software that facilitates not just acquisition of basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic, but they also develop the more advanced skills I’ve been talking about.

But still, you might argue that computer projects in developing nations have a history of failure … the computers break and aren’t repaired, they get stolen, they sit unused because the teachers don’t know how to use them. Each student spends maybe one hour a week in a computer lab, but they don’t learn significantly better than they do without them.

These are all legitimate problems and yes, many computer projects in places like Lesotho have failed. At the start of our project, we did a lot of research into why those projects failed, because we are determined to make this project different. We don’t want to waste our time on something that will ultimately fail.

The main reasons computer projects fail are:
  1. a lack of community involvement and support, which is a common problem with a lot of aid projects,
  2. a lack of training and support for the teachers, and 
  3. a failure to integrate the computers into the regular classroom curriculum.

With our project, we’ve addressed all these major problems, as well as other problems like broken computers and theft.

The first cause of failure is lack of community support and involvement. I learned this the hard way back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1970s.  I taught at a secondary school in Maputsoe, and I created a school library, all on my own. I was very proud of that library, but the Basotho weren’t involved in its creation.  They were happy to have it, but they were invested in it, and less than a year after I left, the room was converted to living quarters, and those wonderful, precious books scattered to the winds, some to be used as fire starter.

So, from the very start of our laptop project, we put two Basotho in charge. We let them know they were responsible for it’s success or failure, and that they would be making most of the decisions regarding the operation of the project. We were there to mentor and guide them, but after the project was well established, we would be leaving. It was up to them to run it.

The next step was community organization. We had the Basotho managers contact various community leaders and groups to talk about the project and get their support.  We took over a year to build this support and to prepare our managers for when the time when computers would arrive.

The school had two computers that Andrew Dernovsek provided and trained our project leaders on. Before we would deliver any laptops, they had to learn how to email us so we could prepare everything in advance.  We gave them tasks, and they had to complete each of those before we moved to the next and the next. We had certain criteria they had to meet before we even thought about delivering the computers.

One task we gave them was a list of 50 questions, questions like “What if this happens?” or “Who is responsible to do this?” or “How will you do this?” The project leaders had to work with all the teachers to answer these questions.  Then, we used their answers as the basis to design the project.

People kept pushing us to hurry.  We had the laptops, why didn’t we send them to Lesotho, they said. The students could be using them right now.   But our slow, steady preparation really paid off. We knew they were ready when they started taking the initiative and doing things that need to be done without our asking them to do it.

When we finally arrived in the village in November of last year to deliver 50 laptops, and a generator to run them, all the teachers and students were eager to be involved. The community was with us, the leaders were with us. They were chomping at the bit.

While we were in the village, we focused on three key things.  First was meeting with all the community and leaders, including not just teachers, but parents, students, chiefs, government officials, religious leaders, business leaders, law enforcement, and health personnel. We listened to their comments and concerns, and we adapted our plans to meet their needs. Let me say that again … we adapted our plans to meet their needs, including changing one major component of our program, child ownership, because this is their project, not ours, and that's what they thought was best for them.

The second thing we focused on was writing contracts. We had long exhaustive meetings to hash out every little detail, trying to anticipate every possible problem, and figuring out how to prevent them or deal with them when they occur. This is where those 50 questions they had spent months working on came into play.

The meetings were initially very grueling because we wouldn’t answer the questions for them. We coaxed and cajoled, we gave them information, we guided them, but we would not make the decisions. By the end, they took charge, and they made every little decision for themselves.

The result was a 9-page document with rules and regulations that delineated responsibilities, benefits, and penalties for failure to comply. Along with this, they developed three sets of contracts, one each for students, teachers, and parents or guardians. Every student, every teacher, every parent or guardian of a student had to sign a contract with us and the school in order to participate in the project.

The third and last thing we focused on while we were in the village was intensive training for ALL the teachers, training in how to use the laptops, how to repair them, and how to integrate the computers into the classroom to augment the existing curriculum.

A major part of our philosophy is that students learn better when they have a chance to use computers in an unstructured environment in addition to classroom use. That is, we think it’s important for the children to be able to take the laptops home. We met a lot of resistance to this, until we let the teachers take a laptop home. The next day, they came back with all kinds of questions. They had spent the previous evening playing with the computers on their own, and they said "I tried this but it didn’t work.  What did I do wrong?" and "I want to do this.  How do I do it?"  After that, the teachers were hooked, and they became the most ardent supporters for the idea of letting the students take the laptops home.

Toward the end of our stay, the teachers decided they wanted to practice with the students. Without telling us, they created their own lessons using the computers. Then, with us and the other teachers observing in their classroom, they practiced what they had learned. And boy did they shine.  After observing and critiquing each other, they got better and better.

Though they doubted that it would ever be possible when they first started, by the end of our stay, they all said they were comfortable with teaching with the computers. That was a wonderful moment. And while they may not be completely proficient with the little computers, they have the skill and the desire to keep learning on their own.

When we left, there was still more work to be done, but the teachers are now responsible for much of that work. And there is a PCV there to offer a helping hand when needed.

As for where we go from here, we have funding for the teachers to receive more training in Lesotho. We plan to go back later this year to bring more laptops and to help the teachers. We will go back every year until the project is able to stand on its own. Then, if all goes well, we’ll help them reach out to neighboring schools and start similar programs there.

I’d like to thank Friends of Lesotho for your financial support. Your early confidence in our work enabled us to acquire financial support from a number of other sources.

I’d like to thank and acknowledge those funders. Some of our funding comes from Lesotho … from Nohana Primary School and the Ketane Community itself, the Maseru Rotary Club, and the Bethel Business and Community Development Centre. We also have non-financial support from Family Literacy Lesotho and the Catholic School Secretariat in Lesotho. Other major funding comes from the Solon Foundation, the Foundation for International Professional Exchange, the Mitchell and Balcomb families, BLOOM Africa, Microsoft via TechSoup, the Grays Lake Relief Society, as well as a number of individual donors.

Thank you. 

presented by Janissa Balcomb, via conference call, at the Annual Meeting of Friends of Lesotho on 12 March 2011