Rwanda is called “the land of 1000 hills”, and in many ways the village of Gitwe is no different than others settled amongst the green Rwandan hills. Patches of hand-made brick houses lie along uneven dirt roads, snaking through lush hills covered alternately by thick crops and trees. Just like in nearby villages, in Gitwe people congregate at the intersection of these dirt roads; the meeting leads to an informal central market where people gather to shop, eat, and socialize. Unlike other villages nestled in these hills, however, if you reach Gitwe you’ll find a hospital, a university, and the man behind both: Gerard Urayenza.
We have been invited to the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique de Gitwe (ISPG) by Gerard and his cousin Vianney Ruhumuliza via Stanford University’s Dr. Andrew Patterson, who met Vianney through Medical Missions for Children. Dr. Patterson led a group from Stanford University to the ISPG last year, and has been supportive of their efforts to create Rwanda’s first private medical school. That medical school opened three months ago; we’re here to understand, assess and help augment their efforts by installing digital learning materials the ISPG is unable to access online due to limited internet bandwidth.
We’d been given four days to pull this off, but we lost a day to weather delays in our travel and a promised server for system installation hasn’t arrived. Nonetheless, we feel confident and prepared to deliver in three days… and we’d better be. The ISPG breaks for holiday on our last day; whatever we can complete in three days is what we’ll leave having delivered.
But first, we have to get there.
Traveling from California to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda and a growing center for technology and innovation, is arduous. Up to 36 hours of travel, often composed of three long flights, is necessary to access Kigali’s airport. The airport’s daily flight schedule is shown on a single flight board, suggesting a quaintness that we never find as we drive through the bustling, overgrown city. Buzzing with people traveling equally on foot, in cars, and by weaving motorcycle taxis, Kigali is a lively city that extends beyond its central valley, into and over the rolling peaks.
Traveling to Gitwe requires navigating the singular paved road that branches from Kigali in this direction. The road winds through miles of farm country, where families practice subsistence farming—growing enough to feed and support their families, and often nothing more. Most houses are made of hand-crafted bricks, usually lacking interior finishing, including electricity. We wind deliberately up, down, and around the winding hills and terraced farmlands where rice, sunflowers, and banana trees are abundant.
Eventually we leave this paved road and take a right turn onto a dirt road. Free of heavy trucks, our speed remains held in check by the deep grooves left by wet season rains. Despite the now-jittering horizon, the views are constantly picturesque, a montage of green hills sparsely covered with houses and farmland. Here, the farmland blends in with nature; it is not uniform nor impeccably tended, but instead small, personal and diverse.
We arrive at the guest house of Gerard through Gitwe’s main intersection, passing the mostly-complete local church on the way. A quick 3 minute drive will bring us back to the center, where the hospital can be seen, and then down the other side of the hill where the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique de Gitwe (ISPG) is found. With a bit less than three days to discuss, develop, and deploy a digital learning system useful for the new medical school at the ISPG, the rest of our time is spent at either of these two sites, or traveling between them.
Upon our arrival
We’re quickly pulled into an impromptu gathering of the entire student body—or, as many as could fit into the school’s newly built auditorium. Our team is welcomed by the school’s director Reverend Jered Rugengande and by Gerard, whose role here, as well as at the hospital and community at large is best described as “grandfather”. It becomes clear that in moments, we’ll be requested to address the students directly, despite not knowing either of the two local languages (French and Kinyarwandan). And soon enough we are on stage, giving impromptu individual speeches. Our strategy: not unlike on an awkward first date, try to foster good will (and with luck, applause) through compliments, thanks, and promises.
We stutter through thanks to all for hosting us, encourage the student body in their goal to gain more for their families through education, and try to describe what we’ve brought and how we think it can contribute to their goals. The bubbling, interruptive applause hints at the excitement the students, faculty, and administrators share with us in every subsequent interaction, with extra excitement reserved for Ami (who is a welcome neighbor, from Ghana) and the words Stanford University, whose brand recognition apparently reaches the rural hills of Rwanda.
As soon as the final applause clears, the pressure is on to deliver, and the three day countdown begins.
Well, except that people are so damn hospitable, and we have so much to learn.
The rest of the day consists of tours, meetings, and food. We tour the school’s classrooms and technical facilities, getting a sense for their current capabilities. We tour the hospital, hearing about their recent implementation of digital medical records, their exciting SMS-based system for first response, outbreak evaluation, and information dissemination. In-between, we have a guest-filled lunch back at Gerard’s guest house. It’s a long day, but two critical elements have begun: relationship development and understanding the status of the ISPG medical school.
The next few days are very different for the different members of our team. Ami and Suchita alternate between students, faculty, and administrators, learning about current curriculum and resources, asking about perceived needs, then relating all these to their training experiences at the Stanford Medical school. Meanwhile, I spend the bulk of my time in the IT boiler room with Evode Tuyisabe, a computer science professor and the main IT guy at the ISPG, pulling together our software system along with the Stanford Medicine videos that Joe has brought and that Ami and Suchi have filtered and organized. Joe shuffles between the three of us, coordinating things and helping out with the technical infrastructure for delivering the software and videos.
Life in a hole
For those who are not familiar, most software development experiences can be summed up as follows: sitting in a small room hour by hour, racing to develop features before whatever timeline is chasing me bites me in the ass from behind and devours me. Holed up in the ISPG’s IT server room, I felt right at home.
At its core, no development work is needed: I am in Gitwe for the sole purpose of deploying KA Lite. I’ve got the system, including all Khan Academy videos and exercises, on a tiny USB stick in my pocket. My work could consist of: plugging the USB stick into the (not-yet-arrived) server, clicking copy-paste, and then starting KA Lite. But that wouldn’t be fun, would it?
Despite being ready to roll out a vanilla version of KA Lite, we identify three last-minute changes that we think would bring a lot of value.
- Rather than distribute videos as raw files, we could use the KA Lite software to serve and track progress and usage of Stanford Medicine videos.
- People have varying levels of English proficiency, but all have high French proficiency; We could deploy Khan Academy’s English and French resources… if i18n (internationalization / translation) support is working in KA Lite.
- There is little documentation on how to administer KA Lite user accounts, and after further review, the system itself is simply confusing. We want to deliver a streamlined admin interface.
Fortunately, with the help of FLE teammates Dylan Barth and Aron Fyodor Asorman, we’ve been working on the first two items extensively before our arrival. Unfortunately, they’re not complete. Each of the above features should take at least a week of development and testing each. But, as a developer on a timeline, I resort to old habits: just start eliminating some of the S’s (here, sleep, sun, and showers; sustenance and sanity maintained!) and plow ahead shamelessly.
And so it goes.
After a day, we’ve got the rudiments of the co-branded system complete… but no server. After two days, we’ve got the bilingual French-English system setup… and a server after dinner. On the morning of the final day, a revamped administrative interface emerges from the dust. Despite taking down the school’s internet connection by destroying their router’s network configuration, we’re able to recover and deliver a co-branded, French-English bilingual system with a revamped administrative interface—all on a brand new, internet-accessible server.
And so we leave, smiles all around. We finish well after the noon departure of most students and faculty for break, but a few hang back to ask for access to the system on their way out—showing the impatience for learning that drew Dr. Patterson to the ISPG and encouraged us to deliver the best system we could, despite the short time-frame. After demonstrating the system to Jared and other administrators, and buoyed by the student response, we’re confident that what we’ve delivered will be useful… and used.