Teens Bring Laptops to South African Children

Green and white XO laptops i i

hide captionThe children receive these green and white XO laptops during a ceremony in Kliptown.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Green and white XO laptops

The children receive these green and white XO laptops during a ceremony in Kliptown.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Hannah hands a laptop to a child in Kliptown i i

hide captionHannah Weber, one of the two sisters who were inspired to help bring computers to South Africa, hands a laptop to a child in Kliptown.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. NPR
Hannah hands a laptop to a child in Kliptown

Hannah Weber, one of the two sisters who were inspired to help bring computers to South Africa, hands a laptop to a child in Kliptown.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. NPR
Some young girls smile after receiving their laptops. i i

hide captionA few young girls smile with excitement after receiving their laptops.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Some young girls smile after receiving their laptops.

A few young girls smile with excitement after receiving their laptops.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Children listen to the presentation i i

hide captionChildren listen to the presentation ahead of receiving laptops from the Weber sisters.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Children listen to the presentation

Children listen to the presentation ahead of receiving laptops from the Weber sisters.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

Two teenage sisters from Boston, along with their family and school, have joined forces with an American non-profit organization to provide laptop computers to underprivileged children in South Africa.

It was friendship and respect, they say, that motivated 17-year-old high school senior Hannah Weber and her freshman sister Julia, 15, to help members of the Kliptown Youth Programme, near Johannesburg.

After a school trip to South Africa two years ago, the Weber sisters flew home inspired by their experience and their new-found friends.

Back in Kliptown, excited children smile as they line up for the presentation of the boxed-up mini-machines. The sisters speak under the blazing sun before handing out the laptops they brought to the children.

Hannah tells the story about their first visit to South Africa.

"Kliptown was one of the stops. We spent a few days out of our stay here and we were so touched by the sense of community that these people had. They were so welcoming to us and we just wanted to do something for them and come back and see them again, " she says.

Julia adds, "We saw how strong a sense of community they had and we thought that the laptops would bring a different sense of community, you know, one they have online, with the Mesh network, and we thought it would just be great for them to have this experience."

Larry Weber, the girls' father, says his daughters were so moved by what they had witnessed in South Africa that they shared their experience with piles of photos and many stories — and a desire to do something.

Weber says he happened to have brought home the prototype of the green and white XO computer and was showing it to his children. They said it would be great if the kids in Kliptown could have a chance to use the XO, he recalls.

The laptop is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a friend of Larry Weber. Negroponte set up the ambitious non-profit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. The idea is to provide durable, low-cost laptops to school-age children all over the world in rural and urban areas.

OLPC has already been introduced to Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan and Rwanda. This is their first foray into South Africa.

Weber says the project is "about getting laptops into the hands of the poorest children in the world. There's a lot of brand new technologies that are being used. It's not just about accessing the Internet, that's just a fun thing. There's a technology called Mesh networking that this community will have."

One hundred children will be able to talk to one another, not just through email, but through their XO laptops, wherever they are in Kliptown, or within a 50-mile radius, according to Weber.

"They will also be able to create music together, draw together, play together and have access to download a hundred different textbooks ... starting with Zulu and English — and be able to use those textbooks digitally, so it's great," he says.

Weber says that the XO is specially designed for kids, and that each machine is individually identified, with a mini-keyboard for little fingers. It is durable, attractive, practical and able to withstand harsh treatment — and the near-indestructible laptops went through rigorous tests, says Weber.

"First we have an oven that goes up to 180 degrees, make sure that nothing melts. We drop them 10 times from five feet and see if anything breaks. Nothing broke. We dump them in a bathtub and then, my favorite, was burying them in the sand and then taking it out and see if they still work. And they still work!" Weber says.

Laughing, he compared the laptops with the "Energizer Bunny" in the TV commercials, adding that there were only five parts, so it was easy for the children to fix them.

The XO has no hard drive or fan, so should not suck up dust and dirt, according to Weber. It runs on the Linux operating system and stretches wireless networks using Mesh technology.

That enables each computer, either in a village or urban setting, to relay information and data to others.

The computers were meant to cost less than $100 apiece, but are almost double that price. However the project's managers say the cost should drop to below $100 once the machines are mass-produced.

The Webers praise their friend, Thulani Madondo, the dynamic and energetic director of the Kliptown center, which is tucked behind the railroad, down a dirt road in Kliptown. Kilptown is a poor black and mixed-race neighborhood on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Madondo emcees the event, entertaining dozens of schoolchildren — toddlers to teenagers — parents, grandparents, and local residents.

The Kliptown youngsters welcome their visitors with song, dance and exuberance. The performances raise laughter, cheers, appreciative applause and whistles. Everyone excitedly awaits the moment for the presentation of the laptops.

There are whoops of joy as their names are announced. The young girls and boys parade onto the stage to receive their XOs from Hannah, Julia and their younger brother.

Nelisiwe Walaza, 17, as she clutches her laptop, says, "This is the highlight of my 2008. I'm carrying a laptop and I'm very happy and excited about it. It's a really great opportunity for us, as the youth of South Africa."

Thanking the Weber family and all those who had helped to deliver the computers to Kliptown, Nelisiwe say she will be using the new laptop to help with her schoolwork — "to discover new things that will teach me things that will be educational. Education is the key to success and I think everybody has a right to education and this is going to help us a lot. Thank you."

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