Dirty Guinea Pigs and Spider's Brains: Teaching Computers in Rural Africa

Ten blank, staring faces answered my question for me, ‘Who has ever used a computer before?’

It took some thought, a bit of trial and error, some creativity, and lots of patience during my first week of trainings in Zambia.

We are installing a data entry system using touch screen computers in rural Zambian clinics. The touch screen is connected to a server that uses the local cell network to communicate with a central server in the capital, relaying messages back and forth between clinics and the cell phones of Community Health Workers (CHWs) – members of the community trained in basic first aid and health care, who walk or bike between villages referring the sick to the clinic and following up with patients sent home from the clinic to find out whether or not they got better. The week encompassed training both the clinic workers on entering paper forms into a touch screen computer, and teaching CHWs how to use their phone to electronically record referrals and follow ups.

Many of those attending the trainings traveled incredible distances – biking up to 25km one way from home – getting up at 4am to be somewhere by 7:30am – hoping to get a meal or some sort of sustenance at the training session. Early morning energy and enthusiasm quickly faded mid afternoon as people started thinking about the journey home and their stomachs began to grumble. This left a short window within which to train. I discovered that a large chunk of the window on the first day needed to be dedicated to introductions, games, ice breakers, or anything that gets people involved, willing to ask questions, or happy to share their thoughts. Used to rote learning, I was not going to teach a class of parrots: “Repeat after me…” Breaking this habit, if for only one or two days, was challenging, to say the least.

I thought it would help speaking the national language – English. My opaquely thick American accent, however, often drew blank looks until my words were translated from American English to Zambian English – or Nyanja – or Bemba – or Tonga depending on the trainees origins. I found that I needed to get creative.

To illustrate the term guinea pig, I created the analogy of an extremely dirty local rodent, and testing a new soap. If the soap cleaned the rodent, it worked. If the rodent remained dirty, the soap was a failure. Seeing those ‘aha’ moments makes it completely worth it – and hopefully I didn’t unintentionally give the impression animal testing isn’t overly abundant back home…

I explained a computer network as a spider’s web, with the spider knowing where each of 10 flies on the web were located and whether they were ready to be eaten or not. This was our central server communicating via the ‘web’ to each of the clinics.

I used the age old ice breaker of spelling your name with your hips.

All in all – I think everyone left the training sessions enriched, myself included. There is now a growing cadre of tech savvy Zambians, at first afraid to touch a touch screen computer. Hopefully they learned something valuable, both in terms of using technology to make their jobs easier, and how to use it to improve health outcomes in rural Zambia.



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