Features | Estudiantes conectados en barrios pobres

Katie Marney examines computer literacy and the challenges facing Peru’s rural poor

“The computer is more useful than a library,” said Oscar Galindo, 31, before taking a sip of yerba mate tea. “As I learned, you find everything. There is everything: searching, information for research, music, games, and connections. The computer and Internet provide the possibility for strong and open connections between different countries.”

Oscar was hosting us for dinner. We sat in his one-room brick house with a rusty roof over our heads. I could see the cloudy, wintry sky through the small holes pierced in the corrugated steel. A cool, damp coastal breeze swept through the foot-wide gap in the walls. Oscar’s wife Gloria walked through the red plastic door with a large pot of chicken soup, potatoes, and rice that she had been cooking outside over a naked fire to save gas.

“My first motivation was to learn to be able to teach my kids,” continued Oscar in Spanish.

Before May 2010, Oscar had never used a computer. The first time he did, he attempted to move the pointer by picking the mouse up off the computer desk and moving it in mid-air. He did not understand what it meant to click on an icon. Now, through his own efforts and classes through Proyecto Conectados, he uses email, writes formal letters, and searches Google on his own. Matt Jeppesen, a 21 year-old from Wisconsin, a 19 year-old Peruvian named Joseph Vargas de la Cruz, and I were in La Libertad, Peru, working on Proyecto Conectados (Project Connected) for a local grassroots NGO, Wasiymi Wasiki.

“I want to specialize and enroll in a technology institute to learn more about computing,” said Oscar. “I want to learn to type formal documents, and [catalogue] my family history.”

Wasiymi Wasiki was formed in 2007 by Isaac Pucllas Tello, Jorge Merma, and Matt, and aims to transform children’s lives by engaging with them, their parents, and their communities. Conectados was its first initiative.

After raising $16,000 in funding for Conectados, Wasiymi Wasiki installed two computer labs in elementary schools in La Libertad and Villa María del Triunfo. As volunteers, Matt, Joseph, and I ran classes and workshops for the elementary and secondary school students, teachers, and parents. By the end of the project, the kids had mastered basic Word and Powerpoint, and learned about using Google, email and other tools on the Internet. We tracked their progress through weekly projects, reflections, interviews, and drawings. Matt and I combined this work with our own journal entries to create a website profiling the project and showcasing our students’ work.

We lived with Peruvian families in La Libertad, which was fitting, given that Wasiymi Wasiki in Quechua means, “My house is your house.”

La Libertad is a rural cooperative agrarian community just outside Lima known for its rich farmland and spring-like climate. The weekly average salary there is 125 soles ($45) earned by working on the farms or in the haciendas of Lima’s elite. One hundred metres down the road, the average price for a hectare of land is $2.5 million. As a result, most migrant families do not have a permanent residence. Living in La Libertad is a temporary solution.

Oscar’s own experience demonstrates this reality. After immigrating to the coast, Oscar settled in a house on the school grounds in La Libertad. Once there, he traded his job as a farmer and prominent community organizer to work as a gardener on a lavish three-hectare hacienda. Matt and Joseph lived with Oscar for the duration of the project. “It is not easy,” said Oscar. “I can’t offer everything. … I was afraid they wouldn’t like the food, my family, my wife, my house because we are from the ‘country.’”

I lived with Marlene and Max, who faced a similar situation as Oscar. When Isaac asked for residents to host the three volunteers, said Marlene, “most in the town replied, ‘Me, with my poverty, I can’t offer her any amenities.’” She and Max had been the only others to volunteer their house. “My house is small, I don’t have a lot space, but that doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you are here,” she said to me in Spanish.

Max works on a construction site, building luxury condominiums that were on pre-sale for $1 million. Marlene cannot work because she has suffered severe migraines ever since she was exposed to toxic fumes while working in a factory in Lima without a facemask. At the time she had to support her newborn daughter Estefany. With only one source of income, Marlene and Max face high doctor’s bills, unsteady paychecks, low savings, and one to two meals a day.

Living in the town allowed us to temporarily share the reality of the people we were teaching and working with. It meant a diet of rice and potatoes, little meat, and few fruits, vegetables, or dairy – the cause of pervasive malnutrition among children in the town. It meant doing laundry by hand and being at the mercy of the cool, damp weather. It meant limited access to health care, with one health clinic nearby and the nearest hospital two hours away in Lima. It meant two light bulbs in an entire house, one outlet, and an ungrounded power supply. It meant no indoor heating or hot water throughout the winter. In fact, it meant no running water and frequent shortages lasting about three days per week. We learned that around 80 per cent of families in La Libertad get their water from a water truck or get access to rationed water through a hose three times a week.

One day in the town dashed any romantic ideas I may have had about the lives of rural Peruvians. The children in La Libertad face a wave of changes as metropolitan Lima expands at a rapid pace – from 0.5 to 9 million people in the last 60 years. “The kids in the town are becoming more urban, the jobs in the town are very rural, but their daily life is urban,” said Isaac Pucllas, president of Wasiymi Wasiki.

The majority of this growth has been migrant-driven and has resulted in an urban explosion of pueblos jóvenes, or informal slums, along Lima’s hillsides. Yet Lima’s universities and better-paying jobs appear increasingly more accessible to young people in places like La Libertad. For many of them, moving to the city seems like the only option.

At our second location, this disparity was already clear. Villa Maria del Triunfo is an urban slum on the periphery of Lima. Rapid migration has pushed its population to over 350,000 with the majority being under 35 years old. This trend leads to problems where the local government cannot provide basic services such as water, sanitation, basic health care and education, or jobs to support the local economy.

In our first week as volunteers, we held a meeting with around 35 parents in La Libertad offering free classes. Our first class, however, was only attended by seven people – and therein lies another reality in Lima and in Peru as a whole. Despite the demand for skills and the desire to acquire them for career advancement or to support one’s children, the challenges of daily life in La Libertad present tremendous obstacles. The average worker in Lima works 12 hours a day, six days a week in agriculture, factories, transportation, construction or the informal service sector.

“For the adults, [computers] offer a large benefit because it helps us and teaches us a lot, but sometimes our work doesn’t let us take advantage of it,” explained Marlene. “Max comes home tired; I have to cook and take care of Estefany. … There are many other things to do.”

Conectados seeks to teach computer skills to parents and kids in the community, but our impact was limited in this respect. Despite parents’ recognition of the importance of these skills for their children, their daily lives impeded their own learning. Isaac explained that these pressures prompted the NGO to invest in computers over other learning tools. Beyond the obvious economic benefits and opportunities for breaking poverty cycles, the computer as a learning tool requires less direct support by teachers and parents, and offers more possibilities for the student. “Kids find a thousand ways to use a computer,” said Isaac. He added that the objective of the project was getting teachers and parents to participate in the project inside and outside of the classroom.

As many were starting from scratch, we chose to focus on basic skills. “We started with, ‘This blue space is the desktop. Move the mouse and push the button on the right to see what happens,’” said Matt. We also wanted to offer an alternative to the traditional rigid classroom environment that pervades the Peruvian state school system. It is a system where the curriculum remains static and urban-focused. The typical classroom experience in Peru is one of dictation, repetition, and copying; critical thinking remains an afterthought. With high demand and little funding, especially in areas like Villa María del Triunfo, the system reverts to this model. The approach we proposed borrowed from our own experience to promote a sense of self-confidence in our students.

We were forced to compromise as well. The resource constraint we faced was clear: three teachers with an average of 26 kids per class across nine classes and ten computers. Beyond that, 40 per cent of all the students had never used a computer or clicked a mouse. We realized that our initial plan could not work in this context, at least at the start. With few computers and fewer teachers, we encouraged students to work in pairs on their weekly projects. As our classes progressed we saw a change.

Marlene told me, “In Peru, the schools are very weak. … Only recently were most secondary students learning to use a computer.” Our students were predominantly in their first years of elementary school.

At first, we began with a static teaching method that the kids were comfortable with. It was familiar. Matt had asked them to change the background colour of their Word document to their favorite colour. They all changed the background to the colour in the example. Joseph, a Peruvian from the area who grew up and was educated in this system, explained that the kids were taught that unless they picked the specific teal blue as in the example, they would fail. I ran into this again when I had to explain to the kids countless times during one lesson what it means to have a special talent, other than their best subject in school.

As the weeks progressed, we shifted to a looser teaching method and kids were answering questions, changing fonts, colours, and exploring computer menus without the same level of hesitation.

And as we engaged them we heard their stories – stories that are often ignored by the system. During one lesson in Villa María del Triunfo, I met a student named Hugo, who wore tattered clothing and unwashed hair. After a power outage, I helped him rewrite the weekly assignment, a personal profile. His ambition was to be businessman because, he said, he wanted to make something of himself. His one wish was for his parents to come home. His superpower of choice was strength, so he could finish building the roof on his house. Stories like Hugo’s highlight the full scope of the project, beyond increasing computer literacy.

Living in the community and teaching the classes were complementary; without one, the other would have suffered. Dinners with Marlene and Oscar taught to us meet the needs of the communities and the importance of flexibility. Those dinner conversations were reflected in our weekly lesson plans. Oscar once explained it: “The volunteers don’t say, ‘You can’t’ but rather, ‘What do you want, what do you want to learn?’ … That’s the most viable way to teach.” Conectados directly introduced 300 people across the two communities to computers and opened up access to hundreds more. The computer labs had an economic impact by lowering the cost of internet access per student from $1.50 per hour to $1.75 per month. Next February on the first day of school at each location, 100 more students will be connected to computers for the first time.

Wasiymi Wasiki will install a third computer lab at a more rural Andean school in Pucará this fall, and two other projects are in the development stages. Wasiymi will be looking for volunteers to work on those projects and run activity programs.

For more information on Proyecto Conectados, click here.