how much blood does a computer suck out of your fingers?

Ronan White

“The student who is afraid to ask questions is the one who is ashamed to learn”. This was my opening line to the 10 beaming students looking up at me from behind brand new laptop computers in the very first class held, in November this year, in the Mutauanha Computer School in the Mutauanha slum - the only school of its kind in any of the slums in Northern Mozambique. I had spent quite a while the previous night thinking up that line and was quite pleased with myself as I delivered it. I wasn't quite so pleased a few seconds later when a lad in his late teens put up his hand and asked - “How much blood does the computer suck out of your fingers?” None of the other 10 students in the class laughed or indicated in any way that this seemed like a rather odd question – indeed their smiles had given way to solemn stares as they expectantly awaited my response.
My own sense of excitement on this wonderful opening day took quite a dent with this question. How could I possibly attempt to explain the intricacies of hardware, software, applications and memory if the students were under the impression that blood would be let every time they touched a computer? Indeed I was beginning to worry about how they might react on learning that computers transmit viruses!
After some amount of further questioning, however, we managed to get to the root of the problem. It turned out that many adults in the locality, in an effort to warn their children about the dangers of playing with the electric wires that loosely overhang many of the streets in the slum, teach them that if they “touch electricity” it will suck out their blood. This is what almost all of the students had learned from a very young age and for most of them, who have lived all their lives without electricity in their homes, this was one of their first experiences of touching such a vampirish appliance.
Having overcome this and a number of other unforeseen initial hurdles, as well as the expected hesitations and fears, the students got down to business and began moving forward with impressive speed. Now, only two weeks into the course, they can find and open files, launch programs, confidently debate the advantages and disadvantages of a Linux operating system over a Microsoft system, and are touch typing at such a speed that it might just draw blood.

It was the young people themselves who proposed the idea of establishing a computer school in the slum. The need was identified through a study we carried out last year with a large number of young people living here. The study asked one simple question: “What is the single thing you wish you had access to to help to increase your possibilities of succeeding in life”. Over 80% responded that they wanted access to training in computer skills. Although such courses are available in the city centre, they are priced far beyond the possibilities of anyone living in the slums.
Once this need was presented, the local community responded immediately by offering a large room in their community centre for the project. The room was refurbished while the entire centre was upgraded with security gates and windows. Meanwhile the Blackrock College PPU swung into action by donating 10 brand new, as well as a number of second-hand, laptops. Then earlier this year while home on holidays, I was welcomed into the labs of the NGO “Camara” in the Digital Hub where volunteers patiently spent a week teaching me the ins and outs of the Edubuntu operating system, before offering me a number of discs to load the system onto our computers.
The end result, just over a year since the young people presented us with their dream, is that we have our computer school up and running successfully to the great joy and satisfaction of the local community. This would not have been possible without the assistance and collaboration of a large number of people and groups. I would especially like to thank the headmaster of Blackrock College Alan MacGinty and all in the Blackrock PPU – especially Ronan O’Neill who managed to source the 10 new laptops for us, the staff at Camara, the NGO “Serve” which helped to transport the computers, and a generous private donor. The current course, which has 10 students, will run for two months, 2 hours a day, 5 days a week. We are charging the students just enough to cover the costs of electricity and a night watchman. This price of 50MT/month is attainable for almost anyone living in the slum and can be favourably compared to course prices in the city of 1,600MT. We are using the new laptops for the classes, and have put a typing program onto the second hand computers which are available for anyone who wants to drop into the centre and learn how to touch-type properly outside of class hours. Word has travelled fast and although the starting date of the second course has not yet been announced, we have already been inundated with requests from people who wish to participate.
Although I am teaching the present course, we plan to train and accompany one of better students who will emerge from this course to give subsequent ones. We also plan to expand future courses and extend into a second room in the community centre where hopefully next year we will install the internet and open up an internet café. Such a resource would be hugely invaluable to people here, opening up all sorts of new horizons and undiscovered joys for them – although we are only a two hour drive away from the Indian Ocean here, the majority of people here have never seen the sea.
On reflection, the question posed by the young man on the opening day wasn't quite so strange after all. These computers have sucked a lot of “blood” - energy, work, time, and money – from a large spectrum of people and organisations in the realisation of the young people's dream. Now they are putting their own blood into it - in the hours of computer classes and the daily relentless touch-typing drills. I suppose the response I should have given was that if they want to succeed in their goal, the computers will suck a lot of blood - as the famous American football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once famously said “there’s a lot of blood, sweat and guts between dreams and success”.


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