Monthly Archives: September 2008

Ethiopia’s first OLPC deployment

This week, I accompanied the OLPC Ethiopia team on their travels to a rural school in the Oromia region. The 2 hour drive was fascinating. You start off driving through typical Addis city areas, but slowly there are more and more animals on the road. People are jogging behind their donkeys, which are being used to transport wood and other materials. The landscape improves. After more and more animal-dodging, we reach a town with some basic shops, and the road becomes a dirt track. Oh good, we’ve arrived.


The journey continues. Houses turn into shacks and then into mud huts. Fewer and fewer people are around, and the countryside gets richer and richer. Never again am I complaining about bumpy roads in the UK/US. On every step of the journey, I’m thinking “there’s no way we’re sending laptops here!”

30 minutes later, we veer off road and start driving up a grassy bank. We stop at a gap in a fence. Welcome to Mulosayoo school.

The school is made up of a number of disconnected buildings, each one holding one or two classrooms. The playground/assembly area is just some grass. Cows are calmly wandering around (unfortunately we did not budget any laptops for them though). The children are fascinated by my presence, seemingly having never seen a white person before. One of the first things that strikes me about the classrooms is that they do not even have lights!

The teachers are excited but having little experience with computers, they are challenged by the training. Perhaps one of the most encouraging stories from the training days came from a daughter of one of the teachers. The teachers had been in possession of the laptops for a while beforehand, and this young girl had spent some time with it. She eagerly explained how she had learned to write, paint, and take photos, without any introduction or training whatsoever.

There was much excitement as laptops were distributed.

My favourite moment of the experience was driving back on the 3rd day. Shortly after leaving we drove past children walking home with their laptops. We then reached a scene where there was a rural-looking man on horseback, dressed in simple, rag-like clothing. Remember, we’re totally in the middle of nowhere. 3 children were following on foot, holding their high-tech XO laptops. This was easily the biggest mix of generations, lifestyle and technology that I have ever seen in a single scene. No photo, unfortunately, so it will just remain as a memory.

More pics on the OLPC photostream.

Addis Ababa, week 1

I’ve completed my first week in Ethiopia. I’ve spent most of the time working with the ecbp team behind the project. This week, we have been preparing laptops for distribution and have completed the first round of teacher training at a local school.

It is difficult to appreciate just how simple this school is. The classrooms are bare, with nothing more than desks, chairs, a blackboard and sometimes a sink. It will be an interesting contrast to see children using high-tech XO laptops in this environment.

I never know what to comment on when people ask for my opinion on the area. My hotel is in a newer part of town, on a busy road. Blue-and-white taxi buses fly past, breaking every rule of the roads that I’m used to, with someone hanging out of the window shouting out the destination. Many vehicles are old and the petrol fumes are a little unpleasant, and combined with the light air at this altitude it is hard to get used to breathing while on the road-side. Ethiopian children swarm around you, trying to sell chewing gum and clean your shoes. The local food is nice, and extremely cheap, but a bit too much of the same to have all the time.

There is more industry here than you might expect, but I think it is heavily propped up by foreign aid. During a conversation with a local about the country in general, he made the amusing remark that he views Ethiopians as less applied than people in the west because Ethiopians are generally lazy and get nice weather all the time!

Amharic is an interesting language. Thanks to a patient coworker, I’ve picked up some basic phrases, can count to 39, and have acquired some basic understanding of the Ge’ez alphabet. Vowels only exist as suffixes to consonants, so there is a nice mapping from written form to pronounciation. Other interesting differences include the calendar (it’s new year 2001 in Ethiopia, and there are 13 months in a year), and the time system (00:00 is sunrise, not midnight). Sometimes I don’t know whether to believe the people who tell me this!

After spending almost all of my time working this week, I ventured out today and saw some more of the city. It was interesting to see the older districts, more typical of the area. I confronted my fear of the aforementioned taxis (assisted by a friend!) and practiced my minimal Amharic.

On Monday, I will visit a school a little out of town. I’ll be observing the teacher training, then I’ll assist with Wednesday’s deployment of 650 laptops to the students.

All aboard!

I spent some time this weekend at the OLPC Physics Game Jam. I teamed up with the legendary Nirav Patel and we made a bridge building game. The objective is to build a bridge and see if it survives after a train starts travelling across it.

We only have one level so far, but it is quite engaging and not as easy as it might sound. It was interesting to see some youngsters try it and experiment with different bridge structures during the review session. The game also features some top notch sound effects coordinated by Brian Jordan.

We won the gold prize for game development. To learn more and download it, see the Bridge page on the wiki.