The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Week Everything Changed (by Suzanne)

[click here to read post on Xanga]

Blogger is funny sometimes about not letting you upload pictures if the bandwidth is too slow, Xanga, however doesn't seem to mind. Here is the text of the post sans pictures.

The Week Everything Changed
It is funny how you anticipate life is going to go one way, and then it transitions into something entirely different. Welcome to Ghana—our second year.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, the transition started late last spring, when I started a “research group” with some undergraduates at Ashesi, investigating the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, launched out of the MIT Media Lab in 2005. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, it was in the news last week announcing their “Give 1, Get 1” program, in which residents of the U.S. and Canada could buy one laptop for a child in a developing country and get one to keep (otherwise, the laptops are sold only to governments). [Give 1, Get 1]. I won’t go into great detail here, but OLPC’s goal is to provide educational opportunity for children in developing countries by providing internet-connected laptops with educational content, books, games, and tools for developing their intellectual abilities, should they so choose. Current pilot projects in several countries around the world show that children do choose – that children are drawn to the machine, as you might imagine, since in many cases it’s the most exciting thing they have ever seen. [click here for more info] I spent my first 1 ½ weeks back in Ghana in August writing a paper about OLPC for a technology conference in Ghana in December. I sent it to the OLPC representative I had been emailing with, since he was coming to Ghana and I thought especially the Ghana context of the paper might be helpful to him.
[picture of XO, from Wikipedia]
[LHS: Nana]

About the same time, I learned of the illness of Ashesi University’s Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Nana Apt. Nana is a wonderful person, scholar, and leader, and I admire her tremendously. She was the co-founder of A College For Ama (CoFA), an NGO that started this summer with a camp that brought 30 girls from very poor districts in Ghana for two weeks of enrichment, especially in health, mathematics, and English. Due to the Fulbright requirement that I be in the States for 60 days this summer, I had to miss all but the last day of the camp, but what I saw was amazing (most of these girls, drawn from schools that have a 0% passing rate from Junior Secondary School (Junior High) to Senior Secondary School (Senior High), had never even seen a toilet before). Back to Nana: I discovered just as CoFA was ending and Ashesi’s semester was beginning, of her illness that would require to her be out of the country for some months, beginning as soon as she could get things tied up. And, she asked, would I help with the responsibilities she would leave behind. Yes, of course I would, I’d be happy to. A week later it was announced that I was Acting Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashesi University (!). Thankfully, they included me in an “apprentice role” for a few weeks while Nana was still in the country. She left last week, so now I’m it! Of course, I have Ashesi’s President Patrick, Dean of Students Adzo, and Acting Registrar and Dean of Admissions Carol to rely on.
[picture of this year’s CoFA]

As if this wasn’t enough, I think God decided it was really time for me to step up to the plate. Matt from OLPC scheduled a week in Ghana two weeks ago, to begin the process of investigating Ghana’s “expression of interest.” An expression of interest can mean anything from they want to hear more about it, to, we’re ready to sign on. Matt decided to include me in the meetings from the start, and I was able to answer the more technical questions (and help with some Ghana-isms) during the week. It started with a dinner meeting hours after he arrived Monday, and went almost non-stop through Friday. Monday evening we met with representatives from the Ministry of Finance and Education to discuss the laptop itself and plans for the week. Tuesday Matt and I were included with a team from the Ministry of Education to tour public schools outside of Accra. You see, Tuesday was “My First Day of School,” a promotion of the first day of public schools in Ghana, but more importantly, the launch of the new educational reform programme in Ghana. We toured three schools and saw so many bright and eager faces. It was thrilling to be part of. At one of the schools we met with the headmistress and teachers and gave them a demonstration of the OLPC laptop. We were with the team that included the Deputy Director General, and the Director of Early Education (Kindergarten through 2nd grades), of the Ghana Education Service.
[Picture of MATT, at First Day]

After “My First Day of School,” we grabbed a quick lunch (which in Ghana is an hour) and headed to a meeting with the Minister of Education for Ghana. Also included was the Minister of State. We also talked about the laptops, gave them a demonstration, and left them with one of the laptops. The next day, Wednesday, we met with the Minister of Finance, who was enthusiastic and happy that we were there to help bring OLPC to Ghana. We had to go to Osu Castle, the head of government, to meet with him since he was in emergency disaster meetings due to the flooding that has hit Northern Ghana. His special assistant, who by the way was a Fulbright Scholar from Ghana to the States some years ago (earning a masters degree in CS in the process), was the one who ran the whole visit for the week. I am extremely impressed with her. Wednesday evening Matt (OLPC representative) came to dinner at our busy house – we were hosting the sons of another family whose parents were both out of town for a few days. The highlight of the evening for me was Fox describing his last years’ MUN (Model United Nations) experience to Matt, who by the way also works for the UN World Food Programme, and laughing and laughing about Fox’s task to represent China in the Human Rights Committee, and all that that entailed. You had to be there. It was also our light out night, so Matt was treated to a real experience of Ghana, eating out on the screened porch, in the dark.

Thursday, exhausted from the already full week and all of us behind on work, we all took a day to catch up on our other responsibilities. It was just days before I needed to take over as “real” Acting Dean, and there was plenty for me to do at Ashesi.

Friday, however, was the big day. We were on the President’s schedule to meet with him, but it was not clear if it would really happen. So, I went to work and had just about given up hope when I got a call during the faculty meeting. “Can you get here in 20 minutes, we’re on the schedule for 12:30!” Yikes. I ran back to my office for my suit jacket, luckily Ashesi’s driver Peter was about and I told him I needed to get down to the Ministries area, and I was there in 20 minutes (no small feat for a Friday noontime traffic)! Matt and the Ministry of Finance representatives and I went together to Osu Castle where we met up with the Ministers of Education and Finance, in preparation to meet President Kufuor of Ghana!
[Picture of Osu Castle]

There were several levels of waiting rooms. We started in the large one, where there were maybe 20 people waiting. Groups were called out one by one. When it was our turn, we went through the big time security (empty purse, relinquish cell phone, metal wand passed over body) and up to the next waiting room. It was there that we heard the group before us leave the office (equiv of the oval office) and we were ushered in (by the way, the group before us included the new World Bank Country Director for Ghana). Then we entered the office, where His Excellency was standing to greet us. After greetings, we were seated, Matt next to the President and me beside him. The Minister of Finance introduced Matt, who introduced me. Since I was skipping out on the faculty meeting, Patrick told me I had to drop the Ashesi name as much as possible (J) – so when I was introduced as a “Fulbright Scholar” I ever so slightly interrupted and slipped in, “and I’m here at Ashesi University.” Well, His Excellency, knowing of both the Fulbright Program and Ashesi University, raised an eyebrow, turned to me and asked, “So, how long have you been in Ghana?” I replied, “Well, I was here all last year, and my Fulbright was renewed, so I am here again this year.” He continued, “Renewed, eh? You must like it here!” “Yes, I do, very much,” I replied. So, there’s my little interchange with THE PRESIDENT OF GHANA. After that, Matt talked about the laptop and the OLPC program, His Excellency asked some questions which both Matt and the Minister of Finance answered, and then, with full press in the room, His Excellency announced that he planned for every 1st grade student in Ghana to have a laptop. (Wow – did we just hear the President not only endorse the project, but state that he intended to disperse them to every 1st grade student in Ghana?!). After our few minutes of fanfare with the President, we left and the next group was ushered in. In the hall we were pounced on by the press, who wanted more info and took more footage of the laptop. During the commotion the Minister of Education approached me in the hallway of Osu Castle and told me he was once a Fulbright Scholar to the States as well. What an important program! We watched the TV news that night and there was a 30 second or so story about it on the two channels we saw, although apparently I was pictured on the news show I didn’t watch. Several people told me that they saw me on TV in the President’s office. Later that afternoon we went back to offices in the Ministry of Finance to debrief and lay out the next steps. Then Matt flew out, and the rest has been done by email.
[Picture of Kufour]
[Picture of Matt on TV, Suzanne is sitting just off camera]

But, next steps are happening! Ashesi and the Kofi Annan Centre for ICT Excellence here in Accra have received test laptops for us to begin experimenting with and learning. Some of us (I am still looking for funding) will fly to Cambridge, Massachusetts in early November for training on the laptops, and there will be an educational workshop at the Kofi Annan Centre in mid October, with educational specialists from OLPC coming to lead it. Then, the pilot project (50 laptops for a school in Accra) will commence, and by then, hopefully, the country agreement for OLPC in Ghana will be signed, and many thousands (50,000? 100,000?) will be arriving in mid-spring as part of the first phase of the rollout of laptops for Ghana. How exciting, to be a part of this effort!

But, one more thing I need to mention about my visit to the President’s Office. While we were there, the power went out (“the light was out”) several times. So, we were there in the President’s Office maybe 10 minutes, and the light went on and off at least 3 times. If this surprises you, well, of course, this is Ghana, and of course the light goes out all the time. But wait, this was the President’s Office. I was once at one of the fancy hotels in Accra when the light went out, and they had one of those high tech generators that constantly has a flywheel spinning (I think that’s the right terminology) so that when the light goes out, it takes maybe ½ second for the flywheel to engage and the generator to turn on. This is as opposed to the lower tech solution that us “average” rich in Ghana have: 1. Light goes out. 2. Someone notices that the light is out and goes outside to start the generator. 3. Assuming it starts (not always a given), same someone walks over to breaker box and switches it from grid to generator. 4. The light comes on. The low tech solution takes a minute, minimum. And, I’m pretty sure that the President’s Office has the lower tech solution. This actually impressed me. Clearly, he’s a busy enough guy and has the power and money to not be bothered by light outs – not even notice them if he didn’t want to. But, he chooses to deal with the light outs just like us “average” rich folk, which is in turn a taste of what the average regular person has to face – no power means no light, no fan, no refrigerator, no computer (if you owned one), etc. That is pretty impressive, if you ask me.
[picture of Pres from net, or on TV]

Steve says that Suzanne’s busyness from the states has caught up with her, but it is also exciting. The thought that keeps running through Steve’s mind is how easily we could have missed all this, if we had returned to Texas and resumed our lives. It is almost like last year was one of preparation, and now that we are back, its all happening. The strange thing is, we didn’t know any of this would happen until it did. Sometimes you just have to trust.

So, my busyness from the States has definitely caught up with me, big time. Acting Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashesi University College, and OLPC advocate and technical expert in Ghana. Oh, and that teaching thing too. Steve says, “see you in June…”

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