By Denise Calnan, in Mombasa
Driving through the busy streets of Mombasa in the intense humidity, it’s a world away from the village of Chapelizod, Dublin, but these two places have a similar mission at hand. The mission, to improve education in disadvantaged communities around the world, is now ten years in the running and has gone global.
The charity headquarters of Camara, in Dublin, refurbishes second-hand computers with educational technology while the Kenyan ‘Hub’ in Mombasa distributes them to schools across the country.
It’s a simple yet effective system and has since added seven more worldwide ‘Hubs’ to its success story.
I’m in Mombasa with the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to visit Camara, ‘go back to school’ and see how technology is being used in education in Kenya.
The air conditioning in the van is a welcome relief from the heavy East African heat outside the airport and the conversation begins with the weather… perhaps Mombasa is a lot like Dublin after all. “This is hot for you? This is cold for us!” exclaims the taxi driver, William.
A brief Swahili lesson later (I learn you would never start a conversation in Kenya without a sufficient greeting – ‘Jambo!’, ‘Marahaba!’), William volunteers that he knows of Camara as we drive past the ‘Hub’.
William hails from Malindi, about 120km north-east of Mombasa and knows of schools in his area that have benefited from the social enterprise.
Irish man John Fitzsimons, CEO of Camara Education, says the project has evolved over the past decade, but feels that’s what is Camara’s strength.
“To bring computers to schools that need them is fantastic, but we soon realised that just the computer itself doesn’t work and that’s why there is a lot of failed initiatives,” he says.
“We realised that some of the teachers do need training themselves, that’s when we started the teacher training programme. For a few years, we sent volunteers from Ireland to the schools in Africa for the summer, but it didn’t take long for us to realise this needs to be happening for all twelve months of the year.
“That’s where the concept of the ‘Hubs’ came from and Kenya was the first one to be set up. It means that there is a distribution ‘Hub’ in the country and staff and volunteers there that can operate the training programmes and support the schools with any technical needs they may have.
“So we have changed, it’s the one of the things Camara has been good at, we’ve been fairly adaptive and we do learn,” he adds.
John tells me about the team’s most recent project in Kenya, iMlango (the Swahili word for door or portal), which aims to improve the education of 25,675 marginalised girls, across 195 primary schools in Kenya. I remind myself to look up ‘girl-power’ in Swahili later.
On the day I visit the Dublin workshop before I set off for Africa, the sun streams in through the windows as a team of volunteers prepare the computers for an upcoming shipment.
Pallets of boxes line the workshop floor, each labelled and at a different stage of refurbishment.
A shipment leaves Ireland every four weeks for the ‘Hubs’ in Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, Tanzania and Haiti, as well as to disadvantaged schools in Ireland.
“The computers come in from either individuals who are ready to throw them out or from businesses and companies who may have upgraded their own hardware,” Hester Jackman, the Internship Programme Manager tells me.
“They are then wiped a total of seven times using US Department of Defence standard software and loaded with educational programmes.
“When they reach the ‘Hub’ abroad, they are sold to approved schools for a heavily subsidised price.
“As part of the package, the school gets the computer and software packages, teacher training, technical support and, when the computer reaches its end of life, they’re replaced with a comparable machine.”
The team are close to celebrating a significant milestone, the millionth child to become digitally literate as a result of the Camara project… And the plan is to double that figure in the next three years.
Back in Mombasa, it’s an evening to relax (in Kenya, I’m told, everything is ‘pole, pole’, ‘slowly, slowly’) as tomorrow I’m going back to the primary school classroom for the first time in 15 years.
Denise will report from Mombasa in the Irish Independent on Saturday, May 23.