Rwanda's Laptop Revolution Raises Questions

Rwanda has embarked on an ambitious effort — to distribute laptops to half of its 2.5 million schoolchildren by next June. But the program raises questions about the expense of such technology in a nation with so many other needs.

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Since 2005, the One Laptop per Child program has promised to bring what it calls collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning to children in poor countries. This summer, five countries in East Africa signed up, promising to bring laptops to 40 million more poor children. But the question remains, do poor kids really need laptops?

Nick Wadhams went to Rwanda, where the government just finished a pilot program with the laptops and sent this report.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

NICK WADHAMS: In a dark, dirty classroom, children at the Kagugu Primary School in Kigali take a rudimentary science lesson with the help of pictures on little laptops, bought from the One Laptop per Child program. The cute little laptop with its iridescent green keyboard is an XO, designed by the program.

Rwanda has just finished a pilot OLPC project and plans to buy and distribute another 100,000 computers at $181 each to children by next June. A year after that, it wants to distribute laptops to half of Rwanda's 2.5 million schoolchildren.

(Soundbite of XO startup music)

WADHAMS: That's the startup sound of the XO. The results in Rwanda will help determine OLPC's future. While the program has distributed more than 1.4 million laptops in 35 countries around the world, no nation as poor as Rwanda has embraced founder Nicholas Negroponte's idea so fully.

There is no hard data on whether OLPC works, so it's a risky and costly experiment for Rwanda. Skeptics ask why Rwanda should spend so much money on the laptops when its schools lack electricity and teachers often earn less than a hundred dollars a month.

To understand President Paul Kagame's decision to invest in laptops for Rwanda, you have to understand his vision for the country's future. Kagame, who recently won a second seven-year term in office, wants to triple the size of Rwanda's economy by 2020. No easy task in a tiny, landlocked nation that has no natural resources, and whose history includes the 1994 genocide, which killed an estimated 800,000 people.

Mr. NKUBITO BAKURAMUTSA (Rwandan Coordinator, OLPC): Rwanda wants to place itself as a player, first in East Africa, but also in Africa, but in worldwide.

WADHAMS: That's Nkubito Bakuramutsa, the Rwandan government's OLPC coordinator. He says laptops will teach students the language of technology and give them access to information they lack, but which kids in rich nations take for granted.

It's difficult to overstate what a startling thing these laptops are for kids who are so incredibly poor and few of whom have seen a computer before.

Faina Iradukunda, 13, says she was stunned when she received one.

Ms. FAINA IRADUKUNDA: (Through Translator) It was a surprise for me. When I had the laptop I was very excited. My dreams were coming true. I had always hoped to have one, and my dreams are coming true.

(Soundbite of a video game, "Doom")

WADHAMS: And, of course, they play games. In another corner of the room, a couple of boys are playing the 1993 game "Doom," which they got, thanks to free wireless at the airport. And that raises one big question about the laptops. How do you control kids' use of them? Parents have told teachers that they don't want the laptops at home because of the distractions they cause.

(Soundbite of metal locks)

WADHAMS: The school has found one easy way of dealing with that. At the end of the day, the laptops at the school go here, in a closet protected by a giant steel door. That's not how OLPC wants it. They would like the laptops to go home with the children.

(Soundbite of conversation)

WADHAMS: During my visit at the school, I stepped out into a courtyard and saw the principal in a heated argument with the mother of Valentine Mutoni, who stood looking stricken next to her. Valentine lost her laptop several days before, but the family had only told her teachers now.

This has been another unintended consequence. At $181 each, the laptops are incredibly valuable in a country where the average annual salary is less than $400. Teachers and parents both fear that they will be responsible if the laptops get lost.

It's these sorts of arguments that raise the biggest question of all: How do you meld the aspirations of academics and theorists in Boston with the realities of life on the ground in Rwanda?

Scenes like this show that much work remains to be done.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Wadhams.

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