[Part 2] Championing Digital Literacy
Insight from an on-site with Kids Comp Camp
Reference: Part 1
Back when I was an 8-year-old (1999), there were two games that we all especially loved to play: Dangerous Dave and Prince of Persia. I wouldn’t say I was very good at either, but to date I still remember them defining my early experiences of the computer. I never thought about it then, but the wiser lad that I am today wonders if other 8-year-olds were having a similarly hard time getting jetpacks and jumping across booby-trapped corridors; you know, discovering these computer things. But I digress.
At 7am on a rather chilly Wednesday morning on the 9th day of December, I stood underneath a flickering light by the Bata sign we know so well at Hilton Hotel. The city was roaring to life — like the bus engines that ferried its busy-body residents to their workplaces, homes and schools. I was excitedly awaiting other volunteers for the day’s Kids Comp Camp (a.k.a Kompyuta Mashinani) activities in Ruai.
10 minutes in, Caleb Ndaka — arguably the most unassuming man I have ever met — showed up with a characteristic wide smile across his face. He gave me a hearty handshake, a welcome wake-up jolt and indication of his attitude towards the day. We were expecting 7 volunteers at Bata: Topher, Steve, Fred, Vincent, Zablon, Gathoni and Matinde. When the last 2 called in to say they would join us later, we made our way to the hectic Bus Station to board the Obamana Sacco matatus to Ruai. And so began our journey to Msamaria Mwema Primary School.
We dropped off at the St. Michael’s stop, just by Delta petrol station along the Eastern Bypass. A short walk led us to Msamaria Mwema and not too long after arriving, we met our guide for the day Agnes Nyambura Kanyua.
She got us some brave volunteers to tap electricity for the day’s activities as the school did not have its own power supply and ran out of what was supposed to be the front yard of a block of houses. The owners of the houses were away for the day, allowing classes to proceed uninterrupted.
Once we were all set up, Miss Kanyua hushed the children and led us in an opening word of prayer. There was an almost tangible curiosity in the room as she finished. Caleb began breaking the ice with a game of Simon Anasema (a Swahili version of Simon Says). Once everyone was alert, he ended the ice-breaker session with a calculated round of Story Story:
Siku izi naskia watu wametoka analogue wakaenda digital
This created a conversation around what “digital” meant to the kids. They were understandably timid, but eventually Caleb’s charisma won them over and they defined “digital” as mbele (forward), original, maana (meaningful) and special.
There are a lot of things we take for granted in our smartphone-riddled, chat-enabled, Google Drive-powered lives that come to light when you see a child interact with a personal computer for the first time. Things like holding Shift to capitalise letters, hitting Backspace to erase text, moving a clicked mouse over words to highlight them — all these and more were completely foreign to these young ones. And they are not alone! The information age we are proud to live in is unevenly distributed across territories and demographics. Few places could have made that as evident as this makeshift classroom in Ruai.
The same details we often take no notice of had the pupils in a frenzy.
Being able to highlight text with different colours, seeing their names in 22pt font and choosing the thickness of underlining lines was all the rage. Their smiles said a lot and their quickness of mind said even more. They were ready to learn and yearned for practice.
As the clock struck 10.30am, more and more kids streamed in, some eventually gravitating towards groups gathered around laptops. Others ran out — probably at the behest of their guardians, who expected them back home to do chores; possibly because they were intimidated, confused or a combination of both. On one occasion a young boy beckoned an attendee, Mwangi, saying his mother wanted him back home. The look of dismay on his face foretold a sulky afternoon ahead. It reminded me of when my computer teacher would tell us all to hit Alt + F4 on our Dangerous Dave sessions, just as we were achieving some new feat: it sucked!
Within a few short hours the pupils at Msamaria Mwema had learnt a thing or three about computers. They could turn one on, point out its basic parts (keyboard, screen, mouse) and even teach others how to complete an assigned set of activities on MS Word. It was time to move on to the second set of activities.
Computers as devices that take instructions
At the last team-building event you attended, did you play this game where one of you is blindfolded and you have to direct them to a certain point/person while avoiding given obstacles? Do you remember having to shout instructions at the blindfolded, watching them get confused time and again as you said, “Your right! No, no! Your OTHER right!”. That simple game was what helped teach the kids that computers take instructions and *indulge non-AI thinking for a moment* that those instructions come from us. Having grasped the concept, the kids would use Kodu to build and populate a fantasy world with an apple and a character of their choice to “catch” the apple. This world-building, complex as it may sound, is actually a powerful tool Kompyuta Mashinani uses to teach the basics of coding.
Chasing after apples got old quite quickly and pupils began more interesting experiments, like trying to get characters to go over the edge of the fantasy world or spinning them around in a circle. It was a lot like I remembered my own childhood learning — trial, success and (if possible) breakage.
When our 5 hours were finally up, the pupils were asked if they would all their teachers to return someday soon, they responded with a resounding YES! Despite the few hours spent with the volunteers, it was clear what value they attached to this experience with the personal computer. They would probably tell stories about it for weeks on end. But for that moment, they bid us adieu with We Wish You A Merry Christmas and solemnly watched us depart.
As we were leaving I asked Caleb what inspired him to keep organising these trips — it takes a lot of resolve and working with children is not easy. He smiles at me and explains that being able to instil a level of confidence in the kids that makes them increasingly open to doing more with computers is priceless. And the proof really is in the pudding; what started as a room full of timid pupils turns into one of bustling, vibrant activity — powered by excited smiles, curious clicks and supportive sharing of newfound instruction. It’s hard not to want to be a part of that!
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