Pitseng project

06/12/13

Bluffton students go above and beyond in Botswana

A group of Bluffton University students found out last month that they’re about as good at fixing old computers as they are at raising money for new ones.

The eight students left May 7 for a three-week cross-cultural experience in Botswana, where they were delivering three new laptop computers and related equipment to provide Internet access to Pitseng, their host village.

As it turned out, not only did they present the technology to village leaders, and start training them how to use it, but they also revived several nonworking computers at Pitseng’s elementary school. They went on to install anti-virus and basic educational software and offer technology-aided math instruction to local children, as well as leaving instructions for future use.

Getting the school computers up and running became part of the pilot Pitseng Internet Project. “We ended up putting them together and, by the end of it, we had seven or eight machines that would work,” notes Kathryn Spike, an assistant professor of English and the leader of the Bluffton group.

Exceeding their goal of $3,000, the students raised $3,670 for the project, which aimed to give villagers access to more information and materials with which to develop English literacy. That’s important, Spike explains, because while most people in Botswana speak some form of Setswana—the “everyday” language—only about 35 percent of the population has any knowledge of English, which is the language of commerce and government and must be used in instruction beginning in about third grade.

If students fail a test in English at the end of elementary school, their formal education is over, says Spike. She has researched how the uneven distribution between the two languages impacts development of literacy and educational attainment.

Home to about 1,000 people in the southern African nation, Pitseng has hosted Bluffton students several times in recent years, and the village’s chief visited Bluffton in February 2011. When Spike was in Pitseng in May 2012 interviewing residents for her language research, the chief and other village leaders asked her for Bluffton’s help in acquiring Internet access—a request supported by the university.

While the students were there, all their host families and the village elders turned out for a ceremony at which three students—Seth Carles, a senior from Rawson, Ohio, and Kiera Fenwick and Sara Yoder, juniors from St. Marys, Ohio, and New Paris, Ind., respectively—presented the computers to members of the village development council. Another student, C.J. Sewell, a junior from Lima, Ohio, walked among the crowd, displaying a computer logged on to the university website.

“They sang and danced for us,” says Daila Moore, a junior from Findlay, Ohio, about the students’ reception from the villagers. “That’s how they show their appreciation.”

The chief said the gift showed a generosity of spirit and thanked the visitors three times—unusual in a culture where “thank you” isn’t often verbalized, according to Spike. The technology was a gift for all, both children and adults, she says, from a wide range of contributors that included Bluffton’s Student Senate, which gave $1,000.

The new computers also have educational software, so villagers can better learn “the skills that can be potentially job-giving” in a country where so many can’t finish their education, she adds. Among the planned uses are in basic keyboarding and other classes to be taught by the local adult educator’s wife.

The gift also included cash that the villagers can use for various purposes, such as repairs, new or replacement equipment or instruction. It will be up to them to make the project sustainable, says Spike, who hopes it can be expanded during the next likely cross-cultural experience in Botswana, in 2015.

But for now at least, the project is under way thanks to the eight students, also including Ryan Johnson-Evers and Amanda Woolley—who provided computer instruction to the chief and the adult educator, respectively—and Natalie Nikitas, who helped teach at the school. Johnson-Evers is a junior from Muskego, Wis.; Woolley, a junior from Tipp City, Ohio; and Nikitas, a senior from Jeffersonville, Ind.

“This group was amazing,” Spike says, noting that the students brought a balance of skills, and commitment, to the effort. “They cared about each other, and they cared about the community.”

They did appreciate their “tight-knit” host community, agrees Moore. “Everybody takes care of everybody. We felt loved.”

The time in Botswana was “definitely the best experience of my life,” she adds. “It opens your mind for sure.”

“I never thought I would go anywhere. Now I want to go everywhere.”

-B-