Bridging the Digital Divide
Mai Lee lightly wraps her fingers around the computer mouse as if she’s holding an egg that’s about to break. She wiggles the mouse and laughs. The cursor on the screen seems to have a mind of its own. A teacher comes over to help.
It is the 13-year-old’s first try at using a computer and she couldn’t be more thrilled. After waiting over an hour for a turn at one of her school’s 11 computers, she pulled a wooden chair up to a computer station and began working. Cows mooed outside the open windows as Mai put a clip art rabbit into a word processing document.
“I’m just trying to type, to see if I can type,” said Mai, an eighth grader at Phonsavad Secondary School in Phonsavad, a Hmong village located on a small island a few hours north of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. “I feel very glad because I touched the computer today and I really want to learn more.”
For Mai and the hundreds living in this agricultural village, the computer lab is a source of community pride and hope made possible through World Links, a non-profit organization that provides teachers and students with computer hardware, software and training.
“I’m happy the children are learning about modern tools,” said Sangchanh Phomsavath, a shop owner and mother of six, including two who attend Phonsavad. “I went to look at the lab through the door, but I was afraid to go inside – maybe it was dangerous or I didn’t have the authority to go in.”
The trepidation toward technology is understandable given that Phonsavad doesn’t have running water or electricity. This is ironic given electricity is one of Laos’ top exports and a hydroelectric dam is less than 50 miles from the village. Indeed, many of the islands near Phonsavad were created because of the dam.
Nevertheless, the school’s computers run off 12 solar-powered batteries, which take two days to charge if it is sunny and last for two days before recharging is necessary. In the field behind the computer lab, a broken wood fence keeps nearby cows from trampling the solar cell and a Lao Telecom satellite dish.
A community affair
Over 50 people from the community gathered to watch the satellite dish arrive one hot afternoon in January. The small tower traveled from Vientiane for three hours by truck, three hours by boat and then a couple kilometers by truck up a dirt path. The mood was festive as Lao Telecom workers set about hooking up the dish.
“I was very happy and proud. This was the first time I saw a satellite dish,” said Lylae Syyiaxang, Phonsavad Secondary School’s vice principal. “I thought, ‘Wow, we are the first school to have this satellite and this technology. My village will be famous and my school, too.’”
But all was not going as planned. The satellite would not work. After some discussion, Syyiaxang and other villagers pinpointed the problem: the gods in the area were not happy. They had not been asked for permission to install a satellite dish.
So they sent a teacher to buy a gift that would please the gods.
They poured six bottles around the base of the satellite dish and prayed: “This satellite is not just for us, it is for everyone in the community. Please help us.”
Confidence was low as the Lao Telecom workers tried the dish again. And then…cheers from the crowd as the satellite signal came through. The Internet connection is slow by any standard but this does not concern many people.
“We didn’t have technology at all at this school. I wanted students and teachers to have e-mail, especially, for communicating to anywhere in the world,” said Syyiaxang. Once he figures it out, Syyiaxang plans to e-mail his son, a university student in the north studying computer science, as well as a fellow teacher in the province.
–Laura Elizabeth Pohl for World Links