Last updated: September 14, 2010 9:14 pm
Connecting Peru’s poor
Battling computer illiteracy in rural South America
MONTREAL (CUP) — “The computer is more useful than a library,” said Oscar Galindo, before taking a sip of yerba mate tea. “As I learned, you find everything."
"There is everything: Searching, information for research, music, games and connections. The computer and Internet provide the possibility for strong and open connections between different countries.”
Galindo was hosting us for dinner in his one-room brick house in La Libertad, Peru. I could see the cloudy, wintery sky through the small holes pierced in the corrugated steel roof over our heads. A cool, damp coastal breeze swept through the foot-wide gap in the walls.
Galindo’s wife Gloria walked through the red plastic door with a large pot of chicken soup, potatoes and rice that she had been cooking outside over a naked fire to save gas.
“My first motivation was to learn to be able to teach my kids,” Galindo continued in Spanish. “I want to specialize and enroll in a technology institute to learn more about computing. I want to learn to type formal documents and [catalogue] my family history.”
I was in La Libertad volunteering with Proyecto Conectados (Project Connected), which teaches basic computer skills to local children and adults alike. The project is an undertaking by Lima-based grassroots NGO Wasiymi Wasiki, an organization with self-described “ethical, humanistic, tolerant values” focused on rural communities and children who live in poverty.
Isaac Pucllas Tello, Jorge Merma and Matt Jeppesen founded Wasiymi Wasiki in 2007.
Working on Proyecto Conectados with me in Peru were Jeppesen, a 21-year-old from Wisconsin, and a 19-year-old Peruvian named Joseph Vargas de la Cruz.
Before May 2010, Galindo had never used a computer. The first time he did, he attempted to move the pointer by picking the mouse up off the computer desk and moving it in mid-air. He did not understand what it meant to click on an icon. Now, through his own efforts and classes through Proyecto Conectados, he uses email, writes formal letters and searches Google on his own.
After raising $16,000 in funding for Conectados, Wasiymi Wasiki installed two computer labs in elementary schools in La Libertad and Villa María del Triunfo. As volunteers, Jeppesen, Vargas de la Cruz and I ran classes and workshops for the elementary and secondary school students, teachers and parents. By the end of the project, the children had mastered basic Word and Powerpoint and learned about using Google, email and other tools on the Internet.
La Libertad is a remote community just outside Lima known for its rich farmland and spring-like climate. The weekly average salary is 125 soles — roughly $45 — and is earned by working on the farms or in the haciendas of Lima’s elite. 100 metres down the road and the average price for a hectare of land is $2.5 million. As a result, most migrant families do not have a permanent residence. Living in La Libertad is a temporary solution.
Galindo’s own experience demonstrates this reality. After moving to the coast, he settled in a house on the school grounds in La Libertad. Once there, he traded his job as a farmer and prominent community organizer to work as a gardener on a lavish three-hectare hacienda. My colleagues Jeppesen and Vargas de la Cruz lived with Galindo for the duration of the project.
“It is not easy,” said Galindo. “I can’t offer everything … I was afraid they wouldn’t like the food, my family, my wife, my house because we are from the ‘country.’”
I lived with local residents Marlene and Max, who faced a similar situation as Galindo. When Wasiymi Wasiki-founder Isaac Pucllas Tello asked for residents to host the three volunteers, Marlene said, “Most in the town replied, ‘Me, with my poverty, I can’t offer her any amenities.’”
She and Max had been the only others to volunteer their house.
“My house is small, I don’t have a lot space, but that doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you are here,” she said in Spanish.
Max works on a construction site, building luxury condominiums that were on pre-sale for $1 million. Marlene cannot work because she has suffered severe migraines ever since she was exposed to toxic fumes while working in a factory in Lima without a facemask. At the time she had to support her newborn daughter Estefany. With only one source of income, Marlene and Max face high doctor’s bills, unsteady paycheques, low savings and only one or two meals a day.
Living in the town allowed us to temporarily share the reality of the people we were teaching and working with. It meant a diet of rice and potatoes, little meat and few fruits, vegetables or dairy — the cause of pervasive malnutrition among children in the town.
It meant doing laundry by hand and being at the mercy of the cool, damp weather. It meant limited access to health care, with one health clinic nearby and the nearest hospital two hours away in Lima. It meant two light bulbs in an entire house, one outlet and an ungrounded power supply. It meant no indoor heating or hot water throughout the winter.
In fact, it meant no running water and frequent shortages lasting about three days per week. We learned that around 80 per cent of families in La Libertad get their water from a water truck or get access to rationed water through a hose three times a week.
One day in the town dashed any romantic ideas I may have had about the lives of rural Peruvians. The children in La Libertad face a wave of changes as metropolitan Lima expands at a rapid pace — from 500,000 to 9 million people in the last 60 years.
“The kids in the town are becoming more urban, the jobs in the town are very rural, but their daily life is urban,” said Pucllas Tello.
The majority of this growth has been migrant-driven and has resulted in an urban explosion of pueblos jóvenes, or informal slums, along Lima’s hillsides. Yet Lima’s universities and better-paying jobs appear increasingly more accessible to young people in places like La Libertad. For many of them, moving to the city seems like the only option.
At our second location, this disparity was already clear. Villa Maria del Triunfo is an urban slum on the periphery of Lima. Rapid migration has pushed its population to over 350,000 with the majority under 35 years old. This has lead to problems, as the local government cannot provide basic services such as water, sanitation, basic health care and education, or jobs to support the local economy.
In our first week as volunteers, we held a meeting with approximately 35 parents in La Libertad to offer free classes. Only seven people attended our first class, which is indicative of another reality in Peru. Despite the demand for skills and the desire to acquire them for career advancement or to support one’s children, the challenges of daily life in La Libertad present tremendous obstacles. The average worker in Lima works 12 hours a day, six days a week in agriculture, factories, transportation, construction or the informal service sector.
“For the adults, [computers] offer a large benefit because it helps us and teaches us a lot, but sometimes our work doesn’t let us take advantage of it,” explained Marlene.
“Max comes home tired; I have to cook and take care of Estefany ... There are many other things to do.”
While Conectados seeks to teach computer skills to parents and children in the community, our impact was limited in this respect. Despite parents’ recognition of the importance of these skills for their children, their daily lives impeded their own learning.
Pucllas Tello explained that these pressures prompted the NGO to invest in computers over other learning tools. Beyond the obvious economic benefits and opportunities for breaking poverty cycles, computers require less direct support by teachers and parents, and offer more possibilities for the student.
“Kids find a thousand ways to use a computer,” said Pucllas Tello. He added that the objective of the project was getting teachers and parents to participate in the project inside and outside of the classroom.
As many were starting from scratch, we chose to focus on basic skills.
“We started with: ‘This blue space is the desktop. Move the mouse and push the button on the right to see what happens,’” said Jeppesen.
We also wanted to offer an alternative to the rigid classroom environment that pervades the Peruvian state school system where the curriculum remains static and urban-focused. The typical classroom experience in Peru is one of dictation, repetition and copying; critical thinking remains an afterthought. The approach we proposed borrowed from our own experiences to promote a sense of self-confidence in our students.
We were forced to compromise as well. The resource constraints we faced were clear: Three teachers with an average of 26 kids per class across nine classes and 10 computers. Beyond that, 40 per cent of the students had never used a computer or clicked a mouse. We realized that our initial plan could not work in this context, at least at the start. With few computers and fewer teachers, we encouraged students to work in pairs on their weekly projects. As our classes progressed we saw a change.
“In Peru, the schools are very weak,” Marlene said. “Only recently were most secondary students learning to use a computer.”
Our students were predominantly in their first years of elementary school.
And as we engaged the children we heard their stories — stories often ignored by the system.
During one lesson in Villa María del Triunfo, I met a student named Hugo, who wore tattered clothing and unwashed hair. After a power outage, I helped him rewrite his weekly assignment, a personal profile. His ambition was to be a businessman because he wanted to make something of himself. His one wish was for his parents to come home. His superpower of choice was strength, so he could finish building the roof on his house.
Living in the community and teaching the classes were complementary; without one, the other would have suffered. Dinners with Marlene and Galindo taught to us meet the needs of the communities and the importance of flexibility.
Those dinner conversations were reflected in our weekly lesson plans. Galindo once explained it: “The volunteers don’t say, ‘you can’t’ but rather, ‘what do you want to learn?’ That’s the most viable way to teach.”
Conectados introduced 300 people across the two communities to computers and opened up access to hundreds more. The computer labs had an economic impact by lowering the cost of Internet access per student from $1.50 per hour to $1.75 per month. Next February, on the first day of school at each location, 100 more students will be connected to computers for the first time.