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Drought in the Eastern Cape

Understanding rural impoverished circumstances is quite difficult for people who live in suburban or urban areas. A city's veins are its water and effluent systems and its nerves are the communications and power networks. Living within such an organism and being part of it, one is shielded from all sorts of practicalities of life, which is why we live in cities and which is why they are recognised as being the potential tool to support a large number of humans on the planet in an ecologically sustainable manner.

Since the beginning of our Southern Summer, we have faced water restrictions in Grahamstown and all across the Eastern Cape. We have a fairly sizeable vegetable garden, which is partially also interspersed with the ornamental plants. Water restrictions during a drought are often a death sentence for a garden. One is prohibited from watering, using automatic means such a hose-pipe. All watering must take place manually.

Fetching and carrying water is one of the main tasks performed by an isiXhosa woman, living at the Siyakhula Living Lab. These days they have it easy. The water only needs to be fetched from the nearest community borehole, which may be 500m away. Formerly water may have had to be hauled much farther distances, especially in times of drought. Based on durable plastics, there are several inventions that aim to ease this task (e.g. the water barrel that is also a tyre, and can be pushed). These inventions are struggling to find their way into rural life though and at Nkwalini, one can see women carrying water in the traditional manner - on their heads.

Hauling bucket after bucket of water, just to keep the vegetables alive, I had plenty of time to ponder the rural fate, which involves many such chores, that we take for granted, and to ponder the activities with which we fill the saved time -- productive work, and for some of us, TV / games / etc.). I really enjoyed that reflexive aspect of the drought. I also marvelled at how well the veggies grew, which receive the daily bath water. These recipients of daily water grew magnificently and thrived. The hand watered plants just survived. This highlighted to me the need for drip irrigation schemes such as the ones piloted by SELF in Benin.

South Africa is very vulnerable to food scarcity, because its rural population is not farming veggies, hardly at all. David Martin calls it a joke compared to what he is seeing in South Asia. We need to wake up and use our resources better. Financial and natural resources can be used in win-win ways to boost productivity. For instance linking grants to food growing schemes. If paying out the grants (delivering money) is costing so much, why not deliver what the people are buying with that money from home-grow schemes - boosting employment in rural areas? The spare money should be invested in infrastructure further boosting employment in the rural areas as well as opening new possibilities for economic activity. South Africa is a rich country -- with the potential of being a model African country. That is something I'd like to see.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 25th 2010 05:55

OLPC XO Last in Comparative Survey at Rhodes University

This may be of moderate interest to some. Constance Sibanda, a honours student at Rhodes University's Computer Science Department published a comparative study on three netbooks.

The OLPC performed the worst of all of them. The author says because it was tested with older children. In the conclusion she makes the following comments:
"Participants found the OLPC XO the least intuitive for secondary school educational purposes. They felt that this netbook is better suited for small children. None of the participants were interested in buying this netbook and the teachers did not recommend the learners buy it. Arguably, this recommendation would extend to the South African Department of Education with regards to secondary school learners. Some difficulties expressed by users were that the cursor got “stuck” and participants found it difficult to familiarise themselves with the operating system interface. The first impression of the participants when they saw the OLPC was that it was a children’s toy and they were reluctant to use it."
Exactly this final comment is what allows the Kliptown Youth Project to send children home in the dangerous township of Kliptown / Soweto with their XOs every day. Children are not molested, because no one realizes the value of the tool they are carrying.

A further criticism not enunciated quite as clearly by the Ms Sibanda is that teachers in the schools generally endorse and prefer Windows on their hardware. They feel that this is the best option. Especially power users, the ones who might help with first level support at a school, are sceptical of Linux. Furher, many teachers have completed courses, which predominantly teach on Windows and MS Office basis. Teachers do not in general want to be challenged in the ICT space. They feel their productivity is assisted by staying on their known course. Viruses, costs and alternative methods do not seem to factor into their consciousness.

Anyone who knows the sugar interface, knows that it is revolutionary. As a Mac user, I am used to different ways of thinking and new productivity tools. The sugar interface is however a real challenge, and as such it often does not meet with the approval of the school directors. This observation, which is founded in my experience with about a dozen schools serving disadvantaged populations, is linked to the idea that many modern methodologies (like OBE -- Outcomes Based Education) can only thrive if there is a critical mass of knowledge already present in the population using the method. Otherwise they fail. Going into any situation, you have to play to the strengths of the group you are dealing with, before you challenge them. This is something that is difficult to do using boilerplate (i.e. templates, or prefabricated, mass production methods).

Can the promise of modern education, based on innovative insight, logical reasoning and freedom of thought, be realised in Africa?

(Read the entire thesis: http://www.cs.ru.ac.za/research/g09s2432/)
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 3rd 2010 07:52

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