|Luther Lee, PPI Volunteer
Administrative and Technical Consultant
A little over a year ago, three secondary schools (Sazira, Mekomariro, Kabasa) located in the home district of former Tanzanian Minister of State Stephen Wasira were individually selected to receive a solar-powered Raspberry Pi computer lab provided by Powering Potential, Inc. (PPI).
The team included Albin Mathias, Elitumaini Reweyemamu, Tito Mathias, Neema Lyimo, Denis Christopher, Karmeli Marko, and Luther Lee. In the U.S., Rich Segal, V. Ena Haines and Manny Ackerman provided technical support.
We’ve been en route to Bunda for several hours and I’m still as excited as a bridegroom on his wedding day. The nose of our rugged Land Cruiser that started the day white is now powdered red from the thirsty Earth. We, its passengers, brace through our “African Massage” as it lurches to and fro, absorbing the contours of the road. My tailbone remembers the last pothole and pities my companions’ tailbones seated on crates in the rear of the cruiser.
Packing the Land Cruiser was a game of Tetris, only winnable by stacking boxes floor to ceiling in such a way that a couple people would have to keep the towers propped up. Our driver, Matiku, strapped the remaining boxes that couldn’t fit inside the cabin to the roof rack.
I breathe a sigh of relief that Matiku used extra straps for the roof cargo, and as I peer forward to thank him for his wisdom, irony strikes me. Matiku, a Bunda district elder, is talking on a high-end smartphone I haven’t even seen in America. Its screen size is three times that of an iPhone. He ends his call and begins texting with the kind of dexterity you see in Manhattan tech-savvy youth, the kind you joke about having athletic thumbs.
As we’re travelling through Ngorongoro I gaze out the window, mesmerized by the sun-bleached grass scrublands whose crust has grown a pale mustard color during recent parched months. A woman I met earlier informs me that geological evidence indicates that these vast “grazing lawns” are the result of a volcano erupting 7500 generations ago which gifted nutrient-rich, ashen soil. The grass thrives during the rainy season. Right now at the end of the dry season, it’s just peppered with short, ruddy shrubs as far as the horizon.
Peering out the side or rear window of our rattling, dusty Land Cruiser you wouldn’t notice it, yet the windshield clues us in that the clouds are actually sneezing a mist of rain on our little cargo-carriage. Matiku and Powering Potential Inc’s (PPI) director in Tanzania, Albin, start chattering in Kiswahili and then it hits me: in the chaos of departing for the day, I don’t remember the straps going over a tarp. I only remember them going directly over our sealed, corrugated boxes. Did we make the mistake of leaving home without our umbrella?
With much trepidation I ask, “Please tell me we brought tarps?”
“Luther, I’m afraid not,” Albin responded.
A moment later, Matiku pulls over, gets out, and steps up on the rear bumper to see how soggy our corrugated boxes are growing. So far it’s just superficial dampness. As if it wasn’t already challenging enough for our colleagues in the rear, I’m pretty sure our Matiku pulls a couple smaller containers off the roof and crams them in the already claustrophobic rear cabin.
Matiku resumes our journey and the clouds decide to further crank open their spigot. I begin to grow anxious and ruminate. I imagine the computer equipment taking a bath, equipment that so many people gifted their hard-earned savings and the PPI team labored so diligently to prep. As if responding to our pleadings, the clouds close their spigot minutes later.
We are far from clear of danger, however, because we’ve only been on the road five hours. It’s another six to Bunda which lies at the western edge of Serengeti and the eastern edge of the largest freshwater lake in all of Africa, Lake Victoria. Other than the boxes being well sealed with tape, are the contents inside wrapped in plastic? I’m thinking I’d rather a soggy box bouncing around in my lap than a drowned box on the roof.
A small encampment of huts appears on the horizon. As we draw nearer, I squint my eyes; am I hallucinating, or are half of the huts actually wearing blue stocking caps? With the huts a little more than 100m off the road, Matiku pulls over as close as we are going to get. To my astonishment, of the twenty huts before us, enchanting blue plastic tarps enshrine eight of them!
I hope we can obtain tarps not vital to the bushmen. As much as I’d like to be helpful in carrying a tarp back, I know that the presence of a Westerner could serve as more of a hindrance than a help. The bushmen might charge us a mzungu tax (Westerner tax), and at the moment I have no extra shilling to give. With a little chatter between Albin and Matiku, it’s agreed that Albin, Elitumaini, Karmeli, and Tito will go. I remain in the Land Cruiser, curious as ever to the deal-making of the group.
They start off towards the encampment. The anachronistic spectacle of Elitumaini and Albin running towards the huts in formal attire of suit coat, slacks, and dress loafers might as well have been scripted comedy. After they disappear into the encampment, a couple of bushmen already wandering the scrubland pay a visit to our Land Cruiser.
Matiku, pacing as he waits outside, greets them with a warm smile. They briefly exchange words. Smile. Nod. Smile. Nod. With his driver side window down, he leans in grinning, “I couldn’t understand anything they said. I expect they speak Maa language.”
As the visiting bushmen walk off, disappearing into the horizon, I contrast the parallels between them and Americans back home. Bushmen tattoos have significant personal meaning just as they do for people back home. Like Americans, bushmen opt for body piercings on their ears and elsewhere.
Technology, on the other hand, isn’t always met with enthusiasm. Human psychology is wired to be skeptical of the disadvantages as well as advantages of technological marvels. It’s a perpetual balancing act between heritage conservatism and cultural progressivism. In America, there are a couple hundred thousand rural families that live enthusiastically “off the grid.” To name three American groups more inclined to live off-grid, there are the Amish, Native American, and wilderness off-gridders.
Much like Tanzania’s bushmen, most of these off-grid groups aren’t absolutist; they’re adopting technology at their desired pace. The wilderness off-gridders use store bought tarps. The Amish leverage phones and PCs to conduct business. And all three leverage automobile transport as it suits them.
Be it Tanzanian bushmen or American or off-grid groups, I see the allure of our cultural heritage, allure of simplicity, and allure of technological tools. The degree of technology use, however, balances differently for each group. It’s easy to admire them all and respect how they’re adopting changes at their own desired pace when met with enthusiasm.
An Albert Camus quote rises to the forefront of my thoughts:
“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… just be my friend”
With these things in mind, just how enthusiastic are Tanzanians about adopting technology? If cell phone use is a reasonable proxy indicator, then Tanzanian technology adoption is skyrocketing. Three quarters of Tanzanians currently use cell phones, a seven percent increase from 2014-2015 alone. At that pace, there could be one cell phone per person by 2020. I can even attest to seeing other bushmen herding their livestock with an o-rinka in one hand and cell phone in the other. O-rinka is Kiswahili for a wooden club walking stick.
World Bank Data for Skyrocketing Cell Phone Use
Between those facts and Matiku’s tech-savvy, it’s no wonder why he travelled all day yesterday to chauffeur the PPI team and our precious computer cargo 300 kilometers from Karatu to Bunda. Other elders and teachers eagerly await our arrival as we bring computer systems that will serve the twelve hundred secondary-school youth of their community.
French sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote in 1888 the following: “We may call it social evolution when an invention quietly spreads through imitation.” Likewise, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in the 1960s that in social evolution, the decisive factor is “selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits.” I don’t know about “quiet”, but I’d say technological inventions are spreading through Tanzania like wildfire, and Tanzanian’s habits are undergoing a technological revolution.
My mind snaps back as Tito and the others reappear from the encampment with the blue treasure in hand. Awkward as they appear fumbling with a dirty tarp across the open field, I imagine them as warrior bannermen gallivanting across the land, proudly waving their ancestral coat of arms. Victorious heroes! They arrive back at the Land Cruiser with a heavily-worn tarp, but it’s enough to protect the equipment.
Six hours later, hours past sunset, and our fuel tank signaling empty, our Land Cruiser is received with fanfare by teachers and elders at Sazira Secondary School in Bunda. Using the LEDs on their cell phones to illuminate our efforts, they help us unload the equipment. In the weeks that follow, the PPI team will install the solar energy systems and computer labs with raging success.
Flash forward to a year later: I’m deeply grateful for my Tanzania experience. I’m mindful of the abundance of opportunity that remains to make a positive impact on Tanzanian children. And I’m once again reflecting on some of Tanzania’s statistics that nudged me to journey half an Earth from my home.
▀ 3M children aged five & younger have severe growth retardation (stunting due to malnutrition) 
▀ 400,000 children aged five & younger have extreme malnutrition and are 5-20 times higher risk of dying from common diseases like diarrhea or pneumonia than normally nourished children.
▀ U.S.: 1 physician per 400 persons. Tanzania: 1 physician per 30,000 persons, among the world’s lowest 
Prior to this journey, my life had been so insulated from challenges like these. I think about the many times I’d felt lousy as a child with pneumonia, strep throat, influenza, ear infections, and broken bones. How would I have felt recovering without seeing a medical doctor? Would I have always recovered? Fortune has smiled upon me. My health and survival isn’t remotely as worrisome as it is for others in this world.
Coupled with the dearth of access to medical care are the literacy challenges Tanzania faces.
▀ Most children don’t start attending school until age 7 
▀ The ratio of pupils to qualified teachers in Tanzania primary schools is 43:1 
▀ Net enrollment in primary school Grade 2: 64%, Grade 4: 50%, Grade 7: 37% 
▀ 19% Primary students have sole use of a math textbook. 16% a science textbook. 
▀ After age 13 years, 23% of children remain in school 
▀ Net enrollment in secondary school Grade 12 is 12% of Grade 8 
▀ 60% secondary school children have a math textbook, 50% have a science textbook 
▀ 4% of Tanzanians attend college 
In order for a community to have doctors, students must matriculate to medical school. With teachers and textbooks in short supply, how can Tanzania’s educational opportunities be increased? My conviction remains in the Kiswahili and English Khan Academy platform with its computer-guided lectures and exercises. This platform provides a phenomenal opportunity to expand the availability of education to Tanzania’s children, hungry to learn. Check out the English Demos for yourself:
I remember just a couple short years ago reading PPI founder, Janice’s, blog about organizing individuals to seize this opportunity. I’m grateful to have been able to help PPI with some odds and ends during that time. Other than the smiling girls and boys at the schools we served, the greatest privilege has been to observe the tireless heavy lifting of some of the organization’s backbones.
West of the Atlantic, I’ve seen the tome that is Rich and Manny’s, PPI’s programmers, hundreds of lengthy email exchanges. I know these emails are just the end result snippets of the countless hours they dedicate to programming, updating, and problem-solving tasks. I’ve seen Janice ‘ninja networking’ with the 300 executives of the Defrag Conference, Tanzanian government officials, and others. I’ve seen Ena, a PPI manager, hosting meetings, building consensus, and keeping projects organized. I’ve seen Olivia’s glowing personality and brilliant job with the blog and Facebook.
East of the Atlantic, I’ve seen Albin be a road warrior executing deployments and keeping things on track. He and his family were tremendously kind to welcome me into their home. I miss you guys! It was a special treat to see PPI Tanzania’s staff of Neema, Karmeli, Elitumaini, and Denis’, surgeon-like skills in prepping the network and Rasberry Pis at Sazira.
It’s been an honor to serve this organization, and I’m overjoyed to see it continue to grow. It’s because of these folks that 10,000 additional students in Tanzania now have technology access unavailable to them ten years ago. It’s because of people like these and others that literacy in East Africa has doubled since 1980.
While in Tanzania I shared with the girls and boys an interactive map of how the big blue marble we live on looks at night as seen from the International Space Station. They were astonished how brightly the global north shines at night compared to their home.
Later when the holiday season arrived in Tanzania I saw this article:
That’s right. American Christmas lights use more than all the energy Tanzania uses in an entire year.
There is a Kiswahili proverb that captures the essence of their intrigue and of Powering Potential boosting youth education. “Elimu ndio mwanga uongozayo kila shani.” Translated this means, “Knowledge is the light that leads to everything wonderful. With intelligence one emerges from a difficult case.”
As you reflect on holidays past, surrounded by friends and family, and likely how your community was illuminated with Christmas lights, I invite you to join with Powering Potential in brightening the future of the girls and boys in Tanzania. Every bit of light helps.