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Bridging the Digital Divide

September 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

Chelsea Clinton wrote a piece today in The Daily Beast articulating the negative impacts resulting from US children’s lack of access to computers and the Internet. Indeed, the country must work continuously to close the digital divide and support broader learning opportunities for every child — and adult — in America.

Yet our problems of technological equity pale in comparison to South Africa. I am continually stunned by the systemic lack of access to computers in my experiences with Mtuseni. Six weeks after buying him a laptop, we still cannot locate free public-access WiFi in the wealthy suburb where he attends school. The library provides only two public computers and no WiFi. The luxe mega-mall nearby seems to offer only limited access at cafes, with a purchase — difficult for someone counting every penny. And ironically it appears that even his college doesn’t provide WiFi. Mtuseni’s been trying to learn the login key, but “nobody knows it.” If the college offered WiFi, wouldn’t the access protocol be up on posters throughout the school?

Despite having limited financial resources, many of Mtuseni’s fellow students have laptops. They recognize the necessity of having a computer in college. Yet without easy and affordable access to the Internet, they have nothing more than an updated typewriter. In many US cities, you can sit on a park bench and access free WiFi — often provided through public-private partnerships. It’s frustrating to me that South African communities, lawmakers and businesses do not pursue strategies that can open the gates to Internet knowledge for all.

Mtuseni also tells me that his former public K-12 school has no computers. He himself had only very limited exposure to computers through the nonprofit that first matched us, and his lack of familiarity with the operations of a computer is already causing hurdles with his owning a laptop.

Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka attends fourth grade in the same school now. My niece is also in fourth grade. Like most US kids, she is intuitively comfortable with computers. She also writes complex stories, and this summer read half of the Harry Potter books. (Admittedly, that’s a bit over-the-top for a nine-year-old.) By comparison, Bongeka has never used a computer, and Mtuseni tells me she can barely read. (This is likely a bit of an overstatement, but she’s certainly not reading about the gang at Hogwarts.)

There are many reasons for Bongeka’s low academic performance relative to my niece. However, access to computers — Internet-enabled or not — would clearly advance her learning capabilities and those of the hundreds of children attending the school. Mtuseni so desperately wants his sister and brother to rise out of poverty, and recently told me about the distressing obstacles and risks faced by girls in the settlements. Computer technology alone won’t solve the problem, but it can keep children engaged and provide a more educated workforce that will benefit the entire country.

For now, my mental energies are focused on navigating the (surprisingly) choppy waters of Mtuseni’s journey though college and getting him to a safe harbor of professional employment. But with Bongeka and so many children and adults in South Africa hungry for knowledge and a better life, I hope to work in the future on bridging the nation’s technology-access gap.

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My niece Madison and Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka are the same age. This past January, when I was loading him up with activities for the summer break, I told Mtuseni to bring home some books from the library for Bongeka. Because that’s what kids do on vacation. Mtuseni didn’t even understand how the library worked; he thought it cost money. The kids’ public K-12 school, where Mtuseni attended, doesn’t have a library.

His LOL text reply to my suggestion was, “Buddy, she can’t read.”

I was surprised. I knew she would start third grade in February — and I wasn’t telling him to bring her War and Peace — but I certainly expected Bongeka to be able to read age-appropriate books. “Well, then that’s the point,” I said. “Read to her and to Musa. Bring home new books every week. Having books at home will help them read better.”

He begged off, more interested in getting books for himself — which is okay since he’s my focus at this point. He found a book called The Good Thief. I grabbed a copy from my town library and read it and we discussed it. It was an entertaining story and fun to share something like that together. But the kids have never benefited from Mtuseni’s library card.

Last week I was visiting my sister and my niece had received the entire Harry Potter set for her birthday. She started reading in the middle of May; a month later she is halfway through the fourth book! That’s not only stunning… it’s almost freakish. She just finished third grade. You could pump iron with some of those books. Last summer she read the entire Little House series, started by my gift of the first book. I loved those books as a kid, and still remember the Wilder family’s adventures during The Long Winter.

BongekaWhen I visited Mtuseni’s family in February, Bongeka reminded me of Madison: both pretty and sweet and into jewelry and pink. But my sister was a teacher, and Madison was read to every night since the day she was born. And her school has a library, and the town does as well. Now she’s reading 700-page epics by flashlight under the covers. And she has Charlotte’s Web and another book set on deck.

By contrast, there are no books in Mtuseni’s house; there is no money for “extras” like that. Mtuseni is too busy with college to get books at the downtown library for the kids, and hasn’t seemed to realize how helpful it would be. And mom is illiterate; she can’t read to her children and doesn’t grasp the value — or the joy — of regular exposure to books. When I told Mtuseni to look into a government adult literacy program for his mom, he said “there’s no time.”

I’m not sure how Mtuseni can read — and write — so well. He has an innate intelligence and hunger for knowledge that always impresses me. I hope Bongeka has something similar and can manage to catch up.

But for now, Madison is traveling to different worlds every night and setting a course for long-term success. And Bongeka lives in a small world of poverty, her path and future already limited. For lacks of books.

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