Interesting Article on OLPC

Posted September 22, 2009 by kdwflips
Categories: Uncategorized

There’s a new BBC technology in Africa blog that I’ve been following in the hopes that it turned up something on OLPC, and alas today they did so! I do like the blog post – it articulates my general feelings on One Laptop Per Child well, I think.


An overused, but nonetheless great, quote.

Posted August 28, 2009 by kdwflips
Categories: Uncategorized

Due to the way MIT’s Urban Planning Department does their 5 year masters admission process, I have recently realized that I have to decide like….now….if I want to stay for a master’s program. So I have subsequently had to think about life and what I want to do and what (if anything) I want to go to grad school is and all of that good stuff. I have yet to reach any conclusions, but this Lord of the Rings poem keeps running through my head, particularly the second line:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

I have yet to really reach any conclusions. I know where I want to end up (I think?), but I’m not entirely sure what the best way to get there is, and if I’m not totally sure, is staying an extra year and paying $30,000 for a master’s degree at MIT really the best choice? Who knows. I can’t believe I already have to look at grad school….

Concluding Thoughts….

Posted August 21, 2009 by kdwflips
Categories: Uncategorized

Well, sadly my summer is coming to a close, and although I’ve loved every minute of my travel around the globe, it’ll be nice to be settled back into one place, with all of my things in one room, and life having a pattern again (I say this now, but when I want to die midway through the semester at MIT I’m sure I’ll be aching to have this summer back…).

So, what’ve I learned? Well for one, I’ve learned that that’s a completely American thing to expect and think. As is somewhat expected, being in a place like Uganda with a culture so different than one I have ever experienced has really given me a lens into my own culture, and I’ve realized many things that I think and do are really quite Western which I would’ve have noticed before – for example, the need to feel like I’ve gotten something out of each thing that I do, instead of just enjoying whatever I’m doing at the time with no expectations for the future. One of the biggest is the need to be independent. In the US, when you’re growing up as a kid, it’s like a race to see who can do the most by themselves first. It’s the little kid who says “I can do it myself!” when you try and help them do anything like open something or put some article of clothing on, and every teenager spends their time fighting for their independence from their parents. Even as adults, we pride ourselves when we can get around in a new area without the help of others, or can learn to do something on our own. In Uganda, there is no sense of a need to be so independent – kids aren’t running from their parents trying to do things by themselves (but they’re still doing much more than kids here are doing at their age – walking around the city on their own, washing their own laundry, fetching water, etc. – really makes you appreciate all those times you complained about setting the table once a week when you were younger). I think this non-need to be independent is sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that there’s a much larger sense of community because people are always helping each other out and giving directions and getting help from their neighbors, and there isn’t any shame in asking for help because everyone is always helping everyone else. On the other hand, it means that there isn’t the push like there is in America to be bigger and better at everything than the person before you that really drives our quick speed of development and is, I think, one of the big reasons that so much new technology and thought is coming out of our country. Along the same vein, in Uganda, when people offer you something, or offer to pay for your meal or something, it’s actually pretty rude there to refuse to take their offer, which took some getting used to, but I think the principle in the US that you should protest comes from the same line of thought. At first, I always felt uncomfortable that everyone kept doing things and paying for things for me, but it quickly grew on me as a custom and at this point, I really enjoy that idea. It seems like it comes from the Ugandan custom of greeting and hosting someone. Sarah told us stories of the village, where you can barely get anywhere because at each house someone invites you in, gives you tea and food and asks after your family before they finally see if they can help you on your journey at all. That was another thing I noticed while I was there – the hospitality of people there, without expecting anything in return. I think here when we offer something to someone, like food or drink when they stop by, or anything really, most of the time it’s tinged with the person’s small hope that you won’t take it so they can keep it for themselves. Either that, or you give someone something with the expectation that they’ll give you something in return later (like birthday presents). I know I’m completely guilty of that sometimes. Ugandans have given me something to work toward for sure – the ability to give without expecting in return, and to take anyone who comes by your door in with open arms, at least for a little while. Ugandans I spoke with who had traveled to the US or Europe were appalled when people answered their door and after seeing what the person wanted, if it didn’t involve them, would just shut the door without asking the person inside for drinks or anything. If I can be half as hospitable as they were to us to people in the US, I’ll definitely be happy.

In terms of my project, it’s given me some food for thought regarding development and aid more than it has given me any sort of conclusions. I certainly learned a lot about how to do international development projects, about overcoming barriers to your work, about working in schools and with NGOs and companies abroad to make things happen, and has shown me that with enough hard work and good luck a lot of things can happen in a good way than you would ever expect. At the beginning of the summer, I wrote that I was incredibly skeptical of the entire OLPC movement for a variety of reasons, including sustainability, whether or not it was the most efficient way to use that money for development, and even if the laptops have positive results. Until we see how everything goes with our school over the next months and years, I don’t really have any answers to the questions I had, but I do have a few thoughts. I look upon the XOs much more favorably than I did at the beginning of the summer, for one thing. While before all I saw was $200 that could be spend to provide more water infrastructure or textbooks or things that are normally labeled as more essential needs, I think in a very different way it is a worthwhile investment. Like it or not, the world is in a computer age, everything is done via email and on computers, and yes, of course people in developing countries still need clean water and food and everything else that other development targets, but giving them access to computers and teaching them computer skills gives them a huge jump into the 21st Century that they otherwise wouldn’t have. If we just keep trying to cover basic needs when we help people, then there will be a constant game of catching up that happens, and the lag in technology and development will only continue to widen. There were very very few people that we met there who were computer literate that were around working age, and if they were they only had very basic knowledge of them. And if that’s the case, how can their businesses ever expect to compete? Everyone we met there wanted to learn to use computers because they saw it as a connection to the world, as a way of moving forward, and as a symbol of progress and modernity. Other development still needs to happen, but by just trying to meet people’s basic needs everywhere with NGOs and aid work, we’re not really helping them develop as much as we could. So no, the answer to all of the problems in developing countries doesn’t lie with the XO laptop, of course, but can it make a dent, improve some people’s lives? Maybe.

Another issue that I spent a lot of the summer thinking about was sustainability, and what I thought about doing things like OLPC did this summer, which is to just give a school laptops. In the past, the projects that I have worked on have been more along the lines of passing on knowledge to a community that they can use to fix some problem or improve their own lives in some way, as opposed to coming in and just dropping something off, like many aid organizations do. So many NGOs and aid organizations just come in, give some money or some things, and then leave just as quickly, and there’s no continuation of the product that people can make. As an example, one of Amy Smith’s big projects, charcoal, usually involves going into a community, showing them how to do a burn to produce the charcoal with agricultural waste, then how to crush and press the charcoal into charcoal briquettes. And each of the steps in that assembly line can be made into a business, which is how it becomes sustainable – someone from the area can create a new business with the knowledge that she brings, and thus the project continues long after she leaves. Since that was the first kind of development that I was exposed to really, I was extremely skeptical of the more common model, like the one OLPC uses. There is no way to make laptops sustainable no matter which way you look at it. But is that really bad? Sure it’s not as ideal a model as Amy’s, but is just giving something a bad thing? Before I would’ve said yes, but I’ve come to realize that there are some things, like 100 laptops, that no matter how much you try and make it into a business, or to somehow get the school to buy into the program, they will in no way be able to do so. If we hadn’t just given the laptops to Kampala Primary School, there is absolutely no way that they could have gotten them, and I think that the XOs were and hopefully will be highly beneficial to the school. So I guess that my view on just giving things has also changed a bit, but I think it is important to be careful with giving things away too often because it could also still screw a lot of things up. But I’ve come to agree with my friend Anne who described NGOs as the thing that can fill in the cracks where the governments in developing countries can’t or doesn’t do their whole job.

Lastly, this summer has taught me a lot about myself as a person, about where my limits are and how far I can push them, and what I value. Being a little hungry and a little thirsty some of the time doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore, and I really know how to penny pinch if I ever need to like that again. I know now that I don’t ever want to be a pop star or anything even close to that, and that I need my own time in my own space every once and awhile to stay sane. I also know that if, at the end of my college career, I still want to do the Peace Corps, that I could do it and I could last that long away from the US without too much of a problem. The longer I stayed in Uganda, the more I felt like I could’ve stayed longer, so I suppose that bodes well.

Uganda’s a really truly great country. I’m not sure I would go back, mostly because I feel like I’ve exhausted a lot of the things to do there and there are so many other places I want to see, but I’ll definitely remember it and its culture fondly. Uganda’s rich in so many ways that America can only ever hope it will be – in generosity, in hospitality, in sincerity, and in hope. The country has the potential to move forward greatly, and I really hope to see it do so soon, to slowly move some of the people out of the poverty that grips much of country. But even if it doesn’t, I know the human side of the country, and know that the people of Uganda are miles ahead of the States in their ability to make someone feel at home, and in how generously and selflessly they will take you in, and give you the best of their food, drink, and shelter without asking for anything in return. In the next few years, I hope to retain some of that and try and spread a little Ugandan cheer in the US. 🙂


Posted August 17, 2009 by kdwflips
Categories: Uncategorized

Aloha from Hawaii! After 48 hrs of crazy traveling between Africa and Boston, a brief day of adventure in Boston and the ‘Bury, and travel between Boston and Hawaii, I am alas going to be in one place for about 2 weeks!

Uganda wrapped up well! We spent our last weekend traveling to Kenya and Nairobi, which was definitely an interesting experience. We stayed with Danielle, Danielle, and all the other M-Lab kids at their campsite in Nairobi. Kenya wasn’t extraordinarily different than Uganda – Nairobi was a much bigger, more developed version of Kampala, with even crazier drivers if that is even possible. I liked it, although I do think I like Kampala better. In my head it was sort of a Boston vs. New York type thing – Kampala’s a smaller, more walkable city with more character and it’s a bit rougher or edgier if that’s a way you can describe it, while Nairobi had the skyscrapers, the better infrastructure, and felt bigger and less personal. We got to go see wildlife finally, a sort of requisite in the best place to go safari-ing in the world, and shopped at a Maasai market and other touristy things. It was indeed weird to be purely tourist there, and I felt sort of fake after working everywhere else we were. But I had a good time!

Our project ended well! We got the server installed, we had our official launch, got all of the kids excited about the laptops, and I think gave the school and NGO enough information that they will be able to continue the project. They are also getting internet there in a month! Which seems exciting even from here, but internet is incredibly expensive and hard to get there, so for a government school with many children who don’t even have power at home to be getting internet is quite incredible! And a partner like one of the biggest telecom companies in Uganda should hopefully server them and our NGO, SAFY, well.

I’m still trying to process everything, figuring out what I’ve learned, what I think about this summer, and all of that wonderful self-reflection that is useful but so time-consuming and hard to think about will come with time. I actually had less culture shock coming back to the States than I was expecting, which was interesting. The only thing I really noticed was how easy everything was – I could just go get water if I wanted, if I wanted to go somewhere I could just drive, there was always food around to eat. I guess I didn’t realize that in a lot of ways I sort of forced myself to live as the people around me lived in the slums, mostly because I was trying to save money, so I ate how they did, got around how they did, and tried hard to take on their lifestyle. I also didn’t realize how stressful or work-intense that actually was until I got back.

That’s all for now – maybe some more reflection to come, or maybe I’ll be at the beach too much to do so for a little while 🙂

I’m lucky?

Posted August 4, 2009 by kdwflips
Categories: Uncategorized

This post inspired by the great LShields, who reminded me of this ridculous incident.

So first of all, I would like to make a shout out to Theta loyalty, as Lauren very generously emailed me an entire page of FMLs today which made me very happy. True dedication right there people.

Which reminded me of a lovely day at the market last week.

I was down at the Owino Market (the big crazy market I keep talkinga bout) near our place looking for a gift for my brother that I had yet to find. FInally I found it, and after finally escaping from the shopkeeper who was trying to get me to tell him my address in the US so he could use it on his visa application, I felt a weird sensation on my pony tail. Thinking it was just some water that had splashed up from the puddle I had stepped in, I kept on moving.

Later on, as Julie, Sarah and I were walking around, Julie asked me what was in my hair. She checked it oout to find that there was a big glob of bird poop in my hair. Since we were on the way to somewhere, I spent the next several hours walking around Kampala with bird shit in my hair. When we finally got back to our hostel, the gospel fest that had started around 7am that morning blaring music so loud we couldn’t sleep was still going on. I went to go wash my hair, only to find that the speakers they were using upstairs were apparently sucking all of the electricity from the water pump so I couldn’t wash my hair for another three hours.

My favorite moment came from Sarah, our Ugandan friend: “Oh, a bird shat on you? In Uganda that means you have good luck!”

Gulu and Project Updates!

Posted August 2, 2009 by kdwflips
Categories: Uncategorized

The last week has totally flown by, and with it our time of departure is getting even closer! It’s pretty crazy that we’ve already been here for two months, and in less than two weeks we’re going to be on our way home again!

This past week at the school we had the teachers teaching the classes instead of us, like we had the week before. It was interesting to see how they used the XOs in the classroom, and also how they integrated it into what they were already working on. Even in the week we’ve had them teaching, I’ve seen a great deal of improvement in their use – when we started out, they were teaching lessons mostly with wikipedia, and the kids just sat there and read the whole class about whatever topic it was, which you could tell was quite boring. By the end of the week, we started seeing more creative lessons, like one the headmaster did incorporating both wikipedia and the calculator activities into a math lesson on interest, and he very successfully used both of those as tools to support his lesson. So things are moving along, and most of all we are slowly handing the project over to SAFY and Kampala Primary School, since we really have very little time left!

Friday was our parent’s meeting at the school that all of the parents were invited to from the school, and we introduced them to our project and explained what it was about and all of that good stuff. It was really interesting to finally meet some of their parents, and I was quite impressed with the turn out. Overall it went well – there were definitely a lot of questions about the logistics and security of the laptops, but they all seemed at least to be supportive of the project and getting them. Most of the younger grades’ parents were concerned they would get broken or lost before their children got to use them, and didn’t want the other kids to take them home, but Edward and Medy, two men from our NGO, did a good job mediating the discussion and helping the parents come to a conclusion for themselves. An unanticipated barrier was that there were some parents who only spoke Luganda, and very few spoke proficient English, so we had to have everything we said translated into Luganda, and then had no idea what all of the parents were arguing about at any given time (which at a few points was quite heated), but it turned out fine. And yesterday afternoon, the kids whose parents were with them took their laptops home for the first time! We’ll see on Monday if that was the right move or not.

Another highlight of last week was my trip up to Gulu, a city in northern Uganda, with Danielle, Julie, and Danielle’s friend Zulfa. After checking with many people about whether not it was safe, we headed up there primarily to check out a wheelchair workshop for Danielle’s project (check out her blog at!). Julie and I tagged along, for me mostly because I had read and written so much about Gulu as it was a big city where the war in the North took place up until very recently, and where there were many children who commuted there at night, which was the subject of a few papers I’ve written (for more info on that, check out the NGO Invisible Children, at I think). Knowing the history of the place, how it had essentially be a supply and weapons depot for the government when fighting against the LRA for so many years, and especially after writing about the intense turmoil that was taking place there as I wrote my paper a few years ago, I guess I was expecting to find a much more ravaged and beat up place than what Gulu is today. It’s definitely a small city, what I think in the US would be considered more of a town (the “city center” reminded me more of suburban Massachusetts’ historic town centers in terms of how busy it was and its build than any sort of city center I can think of). There weren’t many buildings in tatters or obvious signs of distress like one would expect in an area like that, and in general people seemed to be moving about their lives just like all the other Ugandans that I had seen. If I hadn’t known it was an old war zone, I don’t think I would have recognized it as such among the small hotels, small markets full of beautiful Acholi cloth (where I made some purchases…must stop buying things so I can carry everything home!), and mzungu hangout coffee shops. The only mention of the war came at the wheelchair workshop, where there were many young girls working there because they also run a skills center, and we found out that many of them were displaced by the war and hadn’t gone to school, so they were learning skills they could use later for a job. I’m really glad we went – it’s kind of one of those crazy things where you write a paper about something and never in a million years do you think you could end up there, and then all of a sudden you end up there! It’s pretty crazy!

We’ve also been partying it up Uganda style – we found some wine called Romi’s that’s 300 ml for 600=/ – or about twenty five cents. Not the tastiest in the world, but you pay for what you get I suppose. We also discovered a wonderful coffee shop last night with some other MIT kids (who knew i would be meeting so many new Americans in Uganda?! and especially other MIT ’11s!) that was called 1000 Cups – super delicious coffee from around the world with a nice ambiene and aroma – definitely going back there before we head out!

So, we’re heading on to our last week at the school! They have exams at the school next week so it’ll be a fairly calm week, mostly with us doing a few more behind the scenes things like installing the server and teaching the teachers how to fix the laptops, then we’re off to a trip to Nairobi for three days, mad scramble hitting up our favorite spots in Kampala and saying our goodbyes for two days, and then we’re heading back to the States! So surreal!

Culture vs. the Government & Justice

Posted July 28, 2009 by kdwflips
Categories: Uncategorized

Things have been going well here! Julie arrived on Friday, so that’s exciting! We spent the weekend going to the Owino market that is a crazy insane maze of stalls and people and everything you ever need, and then going down to Entebbe to go to the beach yesterday. Overall a very satisfactory weekend!

Yesterday was the first time we had teachers teaching our lessons, and it went really well! We met with them first to go over what exactly they wanted to teach, but then they taught their first lesson with the XO, two science classes and one social studies, using Wikipedia to learn more about what they had just covered. It was a bit less exciting for the kids to just read about soil or cigarettes or whatever, but it was cool to see that the teachers could actually do it and that we are moving toward them taking overthe project.

Sunday morning, we saw/were in an interesting situation. While we were waiting in line for rolexes (chapatti and eggand vegetable all rolled together) down the street from our place, this man who I think was drinking walked up to us and started pointing at us and talking angrily and then trying to grab our arms and pinching us and things. He was speaking completely in Luganda, so none of us had a clue what was going on, but he was clearly upset by us in some way. The part that I found really cool and interesting, though, was the sense of community responsibility or justice that is present in Uganda, and seeing that in action. When he was bothering us, the other people standing in line started helping us out and talking with him and telling him to go away (I think?) and leave us alone, and it was nice to feel like the community around you would take care of you. In Uganda in general, there seems to be that sort of sense. Sarah told us that thieves in Uganda get beaten by everyone around wherever they stole from until/unless the police get there, and that’s their way of delivering justice. This whole episode tied in well to an article I read in the newspaper yesterday and integrating traditional cultural healing, reconciliation, and justice into the peace process in the North, and how they’re trying to supplement the formal justice system with these traditional ways of delivering justice. It was especially interesting to me to think about this in relation to how other countries, like Rwanda and Haiti, have tried to do similar things to help communities move forward from mass violence.

I’m intrigued by whether or not this is actually effective, and also by how, in many of these places, it seems like cultural values overshadow dictated laws or regulations put in place by the government. I’ve noticed that here, it matters wayyy more if you breach some cultural standard than if you break a law, and people are upheld by these cultural “rules” more than it seems like it matters if you break a government rule. It’s just interesting, because in a lot of ways it seems like there isn’t really a government here, but peopleare governed by cultural standards. I could be completely wrong on this, and it’s also very possible that since I am new to all these cultural ideas they just stick out to me more, but there seem to be many more unspoken norms here that people follow than any sort of government involvement.