Like a lot of good ideas, my work with Wema started as something else. I had been building my own computers for fun, and to play video games, but I had no idea at the time that it would lead me to Bukembe Village in Western Kenya. Last fall my parents showed me a video about Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT Professor that had started "One Laptop Per Child" to bring low-cost computers to school children in the developing world. I thought there might be a way to improve upon this model, so I created "TechCorps: Geeks-4-Good". Our goal is to teach kids to build, repair, and maintain low-cost computers for their schools and most importantly, for them to teach others to do so, creating a multiplier effect.
I had a plan, but no place to execute it. Then my academic adviser, Jenny Heath, suggested I contact Alex Breinin, an alum at my school, Rye Country Day, about Wema: Nine months later I was on a plane to Kenya with 400lbs. of donated computer parts in my luggage.
I'd like to say that months of planning and preparation made this an easy transition, but in reality, nothing could prepare me for what I found at Wema. In thinking back on it now, I realize that Wema is a place that renews your faith in mankind and in particular, human beings’ boundless capacity for compassion. Wema is the one place I have been where I know that hope has conquered despair. What Teresa, Stephen, and the incredibly dedicated and talented teachers have accomplished there is difficult to overstate. And they have done so in conditions that defy comprehension: three kids to a desk with one tattered textbook, and no light but that of a few candles to overcome the constant power outages. And they are learning...TRULY learning.
A few hours after we arrived, my plan to do a "test run" of the computer building curriculum I had designed quickly got pushed to aside when I saw the situation on the ground. The power would go out for days at a time and there was no real Internet service to speak of, not ideal circumstances in which to build a computer lab! The first thing I did was focus on getting solar panels and a generator up and running. I had never done either before, but necessity is the mother of invention. Working with Stephen and one of the science teachers, Sachadeva, we got the solar panels installed and the generator running. The Wema Children's Centre/Highway Academy finally had a consistent source of power, not only for the computer lab, but the entire school and dormitories! I then did our first computer building class for the 10th and 11th grade science students and finally fell asleep, exhausted, in disbelief that this was only my first day.
I can't say enough about the kids at Wema and the Highway Academy. They are the most dedicated students I have ever met and some of the kindest people. By the second day, we had broken into small groups of three students and a few teachers to begin their hands-on computer building training. They took to the task with dedication and focus. By day’s end, they had five powerful, affordable new "Fursa 1.0" desktop computers up and running ("Fursa" means "Opportunity" in Swahili). There is also much better internet thanks to some troubleshooting with the local cellular providers. Finally, we set up a Rachel Pi server on a local network. This tremendous, low-cost tool will give the students and teachers access to hundreds of text books, Khan Academy videos and other educational content (including Wikipedia), even when the Internet connection is down. Most importantly of all, the students and teachers who now know enough to build the remaining desktops for their computer lab when we return in March.
Everyone we met at Wema constantly thanked us for our work there; they even sang to us, but I am the one who should be thankful. My time at Wema, and the wonderful people I met there gave me far more than I contributed. I have thought about the students and teachers every day since I returned. It was truly the most incredible, exhausting, and fulfilling experience of my life.