While many Penn students left campus after their exams to being internships or travel on their own, a few departed Philadelphia to participate in service projects across the globe. Among these few, 26 fellow Penn students and I boarded an Air France plane and wound our way to Bamako, Mali, in the heart of sub-saharan West Africa.
A diverse group, we came from three different undergraduate schools and 11 different countries, each bringing our own experience to the project.
We went as part of a new cooperative venture between Penn's School of Engineering, the University of Mali's National Engineering Institute, and the Victory Foundation, a high technology non-governmental organization based in Bamako.
This venture was to create a computer lab for educational use in Bamako and set in place a curriculum to introduce Malian teachers to computers and the
Before leaving Penn, we spent two months developing the curriculum and preparing the computer network to be set in place once we arrived in Bamako. Upon arrival, we were presented with a room filled with empty desks and some chairs.
The first lesson we learned in Mali was patience.
Everything takes a tremendous amount of effort in the country, as we learned when our large computer boxes were detained by the Malian customs officials
Within a few days, after a brief delay due to Customs issues, we turned this empty room into a fully functional, networked computer lab. In addition to installing the lab, we got a taste of local culture. A tour of downtown Bamako, including the marketplace, and a visit to a traditional fishing village on the banks of the 0Niger introduced students to the area.
What struck us most on our first tour of the city was the poverty of the country. Mali is the fourth poorest country in the
world, and it is very easy to see the poverty just by walking down the street.
But after a few days of preparation and cultural adjustment, webegan the instruction with a baptism by fire.
Expecting to be presented with true beginners, we were shocked when many of our trainees had prior computer experience.
It's very hard to execute a lesson plan based on teaching someone how to use a mouse when they are asking you questions about how to set up a table in Access.
After the shock of the first day, were forced to rewrite the book. We took our lesson plans and wrote more, managing to eke out a plan for teaching the rest of the week.
By the end of the week, we had managed to form a bond with our students, and even across the barriers of language, we connected with them.
Following the first day of training, the Victory Foundation held a reception to mark the opening of the lab, its first major initiative.
Once the shock of the first week had worn off, we settled into a rhythm of teaching.
The second group of trainees consisted of teachers without computer experience, more along the lines of what the Penn students had expected. We overcame the language barrier more
easily and were able to use the curriculum manual they had develo in Philadelphia.
In the middle of the trip, in order to get away from the stresses of teaching in a foreign language, we traveled to Djenne,
Mopti, and Dogon country located 500 miles east of Bamako.
Twelve hours each way in a non-air conditioned bus in 115-degree weather gave us true appreciation for clean showers. Our weekend brought sights of the famous mud mosque at Djenne, and world-renowned Dogon dancing.
After spending an entire month in Mali, we felt that we connected with our trainees.
Even though many of us did not speak French, we knew we were laying the foundation for future cooperation between Penn, the Victory Foundation, and the University of Mali.Comments powered by Disqus
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