If a journey of a thousand miles begins
with a single step, as the old saying goes, then the journey to wire the
world to the Internet begins with a single town. In recent months, two
groups of Penn students—connected, to varying degrees, with the School
of Engineering and Applied Science—have taken that first step, building
technology centers in the West African city of Bamako, Mali, and the Indian
city of Pune. To do so, they braved cultural divides, sweltering heat,
intestinal parasites—and, in some cases, malaria.
“It’s something really small, when so much needs to be done,” says Lia Fantuzzo, a senior English major in charge of coordinating the Bamako2000 team’s training curriculum. “But so little has been done that it’s a step.”
Rohan Amin, a junior in SEAS who served as student leader for the Pune project, notes that the idea was to “build a global learning community through technology.” Since Internet technology is, in a sense, bringing the planet’s vast outreaches to Penn’s front door, these projects could be seen as logical outgrowths of Penn’s burgeoning international presence and heightened emphasis on community-service projects.
They also are probably just the first steps. As Amin says: “The idea is too good to stay in one place.”
About once a day, without warning, the electricity in Bamako goes off, and computers and Internet connectivity come to a crashing halt. “I thought I was a patient person,” says Fantuzzo, “but when you’re in the middle of teaching someone to use a mouse and they’re just getting used to it, and then the electricity goes off, it’s very frustrating.” But she quickly notes that Malians deal with that problem on a daily basis, and that some schools don’t have electricity at all. And while power-outages were just one of the sobering obstacles the Penn team had to overcome, “enthusiasm for our program was huge.”
The original idea for the Bamako2000 project was sparked by Neysan Rassekh W’99 G’99, whose parents—members of the Baha’i faith—left their successful business in the United States some 20 years ago in order to “help others out and serve people” in West Africa. For Neysan, the project was a way to give something back to Mali, his adopted country. He came up with the idea of installing the Internet in poor countries while he was majoring in multinational management and transportation at Wharton and simultaneously earning a master’s degree in sociology.
Rassekh conceived the project as a “two-phase thing.” Phase One involved installing the computers, connecting them to the Internet, and training people to use it and do research on it.
“We were targeting teachers and professors, from kindergarten through the university level, so that they could use the Internet to enhance their curriculums,” he explains, noting that textbooks usually take 15 to 20 years to make their way to the school systems in poor countries like Mali, by which time their contents are often dated—and irrelevant to the lives of Malians.
Phase Two was to “provide community enhancement” in areas such as health care, and to help local radio and television stations receive educational content through the Internet.
Rassekh turned to Joseph Sun, director of academic affairs at SEAS and a senior fellow in Community House, who in turn contacted Dr. Sohrab Rabii, professor of electrical engineering, and Rabii’s wife, economist Susan Hunt. All were game, and when Rassekh graduated from Penn in May 1999, his parents, Don and Chahine, met with Rabii and Sun and agreed to have their non-governmental organization, the Victory Foundation, serve as a partner in the project.
During an exploratory visit to Mali in January, Rabii struck up a relationship with the Ecole National d’Ingenieur of Mali, and when the team arrived in May, they set up a five-station lab capable of accommodating 10 students at a time. They also set up a computer lab in the building that housed the Rassekh family’s Jeep-Chrysler dealership and the Victory Foundation’s classroom, with about 20 PCs and five laptops “all networked together.”
“The interesting thing about this computer lab is that every aspect of it was handled by Penn students,” says Rabii. “This includes setting up the hardware, the software, networking, wireless connection to the Internet and training the Malians.” Brian Sullivan, now a graduate student in SEAS, was in charge of coordinating the technology team’s efforts—“our resident technical genius,” in the words of Susan Hunt.
The Bamako2000 project appealed to Sullivan because it seemed an “impossible cultural, logistical and technological challenge,” he writes on the Bamako2000 Web site. “It was an opportunity to have an impact through the technology I had a passion for, working with people from around the world.”
Each week, a different group of teachers would come for training, though as Fantuzzo notes: “One day we would have 30 excited teachers; some days we would have none. We learned flexibility.” Some were fairly computer-savvy; others had never used a mouse before. The Penn students taught them the nuances of Excel, Microsoft Word and other programs.
“Three languages were spoken: technology, logistics and French,” says Fantuzzo, who is fluent in French and logistics. “We didn’t have too many people whose languages overlapped.” In Mali, the digital divide is “exacerbated a million times,” she notes. “Only a select handful” are computer-literate, “and they kind of like that.”
“The first week we spent there, we all learned the hard way about how things work in the fourth poorest country in the world,” recalls Barry John-Chuan, a junior electrical-engineering and computer-science major and a native of the African nation of Mauritius. “The administration at the airport for the release of the computers, the installation of the antenna for the wireless connection, the repairs of the different air conditioners, light bulbs, mosquito nets, doors in our rooms and much more taught us how patience is a virtue.”
The Malian people, he notes, “do not understand the concept of ‘time is money,’ and it was a real culture shock for us students and professors from Penn used to living life in the fast lane to experience.”
They also had to deal with the phenomenon that came to be known as “Malian Time,” in which anything scheduled for a given time would not begin until much later.
For Rabii, the biggest technical challenge was the “lack of infrastructure and expertise, particularly in terms of the Internet providers with whom we had to interact.” While the unreliable electricity was not as much of a problem as the team had expected, he adds, it “will certainly be a problem if one wants to expand the program beyond the major cities.”
In a land where temperatures sometimes reached 120 degrees, and seldom dipped below 100 during the day, “you kind of lose it sometimes,” acknowledges Fantuzzo. “Some students fainted. It was definitely taxing.” In addition, a number of students came down with either malaria or something that mimicked its symptoms, while others were stricken with parasites of one form or another. (All have since recovered.) Next year, she says: “We want nursing students. If nothing else, they’d have the authority to say, ‘Lie down.’”
Most of the students rolled with the punches, though Susan Hunt notes that a “loud minority” complained incessantly about the “inconveniences you would have thought bright Penn students could anticipate in the world’s fourth poorest country.”
In Rabii’s opinion, Bamako2000 will have a “lasting effect, in terms of the hardware we left behind, the training we provided, and the good will we created. For us, to quote Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (also in Africa): ‘This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’ We hope to be back next year.”
There is a certain Internet logic to the fact that the project to build a technology center in the Indian city of Pune was carried out under the banner of Puente, the Spanish word for “bridge.” And, in fact, Puente did get its start and its name last year by installing a computer lab in the Escuela Fiscal Zoila Ugarte de Landivar—a public elementary school in Quito, Ecuador—as well as one at that school’s “sister school” in Philadelphia, the University City New School. (Another school in North Philadelphia was scheduled to be wired by the Puente team this summer.)
Among the students who traveled to Quito last year was Rohan Amin, a native of India. “While I was in Quito, I spoke to a few friends, and we thought we wanted to do this again,” he recalls. “We decided that the easiest country would be India. We’re all Indian; we have family connections; and we knew it would be easy to find a viable location.”
Actually, not all were Indian; Stephanie Kirsch, a senior in chemical engineering who worked on the community-development team, had never set foot in the sub-continent. She notes that while India is “extremely advanced in the computer industry, there is a huge disparity between the rich and poor, and we felt it was the perfect place to try to reach those people who cannot afford computer training.”
After returning to Penn last fall, they did some research and settled on the western Indian city of Pune, which a Puenteletter describes as “one of India’s fastest growing hubs for community development and education.” This incarnation of the project was named Pune-Penn Bandhan—bandhan meaning “tie” or “partnership” in Hindi—and the project will be coordinated with the Penn-In-India program, now held at the University of Pune.
They also found a site for their lab, the Oswal Bandhu Samaj Community Center, and a partner: NIIT, an information training company, which is providing the services of a staff member in Pune for a year.
“The idea was to build a technology center that would serve lower-income residents of Pune, one that would allow them to get high-quality training for almost one-tenth of the cost” of a normal training center, says Amin. “We’re able to offer classes for next to nothing, and we can afford to train people in a lab for cheap.” They’re also offering career counseling and job-placement training. “One of our strongest beliefs is that we’re all able to play the role of teacher and learner,” Amin adds.
Though they did have a team of faculty advisors, the project “was completely student driven,” notes Amin. “All the leadership, drive, the goals and the mission comes from students.”
As in Mali, the cultural divide was often as daunting as the digital one. “We went into Pune with a Western style of working,” acknowledges Amin. “They work very differently. It’s very hard for us to apply Western-style management. We had to adjust to their culture because it’s their place.”
The future of Puente, he says, involves “expanding the model,” which might lead to a partnership with another university.
“This was only one small city in India,” he explains. “The impact is big to the city itself, but I look forward to expanding the program to make a bigger impact. The impact can be [measured in] continents, not just countries.”