48 Hours to South Sudan

The beginning of a one month stay in the world’s youngest nation

It’s 1:20 am at Dubai International, but you’d never be able to tell from inside. Lights ricochet in all directions, off shiny handrails lining 3 story escalators, 200 foot glass elevators, and the smiles of Emirates employees, greeting prospective customers enthusiastically despite the hour of the night. On all sides, travelers of every nationality imaginable guide bags, spouses, and children through the crowds, pausing here and there to inspect merchandise or check departure times. In the background, disembodied voices echo in robotic Arabic and English: “Em-irates flight two.. twenty-nine to.. Chen-nai.. is boarding now.. at.. Gate A.. thirty-five.”

I’m sitting cross-legged on marble tile in one corner of the massive terminal. My back is sore from being held slumped against the rigid 90 degree wall for the past 3 hours, but this is the price that I and the other young people around me must pay for free power, taking turns using the electrical outlets that are spaced out along the wall opposite rows of hard red leather seats.

I feel calm, but something inside my head is telling me I should definitely be in panic mode. In less than 8 hours, I’ll be on a the last leg of my journey, a 5 hour flight from Dubai to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and then the adventure will truly begin. I can feel my brain coating the buzz of activity surrounding me with the glaze of surreality that seems to accompany experiences that have been long anticipated, but seem so out of reach that your mind can’t quite accept that they are going to happen. Pinching myself is too cliché at this point, so I settle for an eye-rub. Definitely not dreaming — this is happening.

So I guess at this point, the real question is: why the hell am I going to South Sudan?

This all got started a few months back, when the UNICEF Innovation Unit in New York contacted our organization, the Foundation for Learning Equality, to learn more about our project that makes Khan Academy available offline: KA Lite.

On our first call, Chris Fabian, co-director of the Innovation Unit, reminded our team of something we had long known, but in our excitement to build our platform, had sort of forgotten: if you don’t have a deep understanding of your end-user, any solution you design for them will fall flat on its face and have no hope at achieving scale.

Gut check time. KA Lite definitely works. It’s been installed in over 80 countries, and we’ve received countless emails from individuals and organizations thanking us and asking for advice on distributing it to offline communities they work with. But we never intentionally sought out potential offline users during the initial development phase to understand their needs, and we certainly have never had anyone on the ground, actually working with communities we serve.

Not only that, but our mission is to ensure that every single person in the world has the opportunity to receive a basic, quality education. We’re guessing there’s about 4.5 billion people out there without access to the Internet. So frankly, if we want to have a hope in achieving our mission of building a more open and fundamentally human-centered educational model, our solution has to scale more effectively than it does now. UNICEF Innovation Unit saw the same things and wanted to help.

And so slowly, over a trickle of emails and Skype calls, a general plan was formed: a member of our team would travel to South Sudan, one of the least developed countries in the world, to engage in user-centered design processes and soak up the experience of working and living in the extremely challenging conditions that the South Sudanese face on a daily basis, working with the local staff of War Child Holland to incorporate a customized version of KA Lite into the second phase of their project, Connect.Teaching. The end goal? Push the evolution of KA Lite into a truly user-centered platform, that’s both scalable and highly-effective at improving student learning outcomes. The thinking? If it works in South Sudan, it will work anywhere.

It was eventually decided by our team that I would be the one to engage with this opportunity. At the time, I felt fairly confident. I have training in user-centered design, a degree in human-computer interaction, and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a fair amount for someone my age. Now that the trip is upon me, to be honest, I feel both excited and nervous. The opportunity for our organization to push our mission forward via this collaboration is enormous, and I feel both honored and personally responsible for making sure that we take full advantage of it. At the same time, I’ve never been to Africa, much less South Sudan, and the travel warnings on the US State Department website didn’t exactly assuage the butterflies. Nonetheless, I’ll be working with an extremely resilient group of people and I have confidence that the environment will not only be safe, but enjoyable. Besides — where’s the fun in life without a little adventure?

And so here I sit on the floor at the airport, dual wielding laptops, power adapters, and nerves. I’ll be writing frequently, and publishing at least once a week about my experience.


Note: this post was written in pieces, starting in the San Diego International Airport and continued on two planes and the airport terminals of Los Angeles and Dubai, spanning approximately 48 hours. It was posted approximately one week after my arrival to South Sudan.

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