Many poor African children have never seen a television set or used a typewriter. But some of these same children can make a computer play music, print a letter, or manage financial records, thanks to several pilot projects being introduced independently across Africa. As microcomputers saturate the Western schools, educators and parents in Africa are asking what this new tool can do for their children.
``I claim the alphabet today is computer and information technology,'' says Muhammad Hosny, head of the Information Systems Technology Center at the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, in Cairo. ``Parents either want their children to survive, or they're interring them in the desert.''
But despite the growing push to introduce computers into African schools, an effort being supported by numerous international organizations, project directors are finding the process isn't easy.
In some schools, electricity must first be installed, and where it's already available, voltage often needs to be stabilized before computers can be brought in. Although microcomputers are very hardy compared with large ``mainframe'' computers, they are more susceptible to excessive dust and heat damage. Researchers say breakdowns occur especially often in mechanical parts such as the disk drive and printer. Locally trained technicians are generally available to perform simple repairs, but severe breakd owns may require new parts to be shipped from Europe.
Educational software poses another problem. Much of it, written in the West, is viewed as culturally inappropriate. David Wilson, founder of the Starehe Computer Education Project in Nairobi, pointed to students using a program called ``Joe's Diner.'' ``What's a diner?'' his students asked.
The software problem becomes more acute in countries whose school systems do not use Western languages. While the technology already exists to display languages such as Arabic on video screens, little educational software in such languages exists. Mr. Hosny's center converts some software to Arabic, but limited resources often force it to use English-language programs, leading some critics to complain of cultural imperialism.
Finally, the projects face a problem similar to one in the West: Persuading teachers to use the computers. Because third-world teachers are less exposed to technology, they tend even more to view the computer as an unfriendly intruder. ``The teachers feel the computer will take their place,'' Hosny says.
Despite all these difficulties, however, pioneering efforts are forging ahead. Hosny trained teachers last year from around Egypt to use microcomputers in a pilot project set up by Egypt's Ministry of Education. Egyptian professors working abroad donated 50 Sinclair microcomputers, which the ministry placed in 25 schools. The self-proclaimed ``computer literacy'' guru of Egypt sparked lively editorial disputes across his nation.
Some 2,000 miles to the south in Nairobi, Mr. Wilson tells his students that to ignore computers is to bury their heads ``like an ostrich.'' Supported by a $150,000 grant from the West German government, Wilson has set up a computer laboratory with 37 Apple, BBC, and Sinclair microcomputers at the Starehe Boys Center, a school for orphaned and needy children.
Nearby, Brian Wray introduced Apple microcomputers at the Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi. He says that 90 percent of the teachers have integrated the microcomputers into their classes this year. Based on their results, the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation is creating a ``Threshold Package'' to help other third-world schools introduce computers.
At the other end of the continent, researchers introduced computers in four Senegalese schools this year.
These pilot schools are not the only ones using microcomputers. In Kenya alone, at least 18 private schools have them, a recent UNESCO study found.
The Senegal researchers hope the computer can improve fundamental literacy skills. The children work in the LOGO computer language, which has been translated into French and Wolof, a traditional Senegalese language, to develop their reading and mathematical skills.
In Egypt, Hosny promotes computer literacy so students will understand what the computer can do and how to use it, he says. Few students have used a keyboard, so he starts by having them type on it before showing them common business applications -- and games.
The Starehe project also aims to raise the students' computer literacy, which Wilson believes requires an understanding of computer programming. Because he was the only teacher for 300 students, Wilson wrote a self-paced set of instruction sheets for students to work through independently in the BASIC language.
Mr. Wray sees the computer playing a much wider role as a catalyst for spurring educational change across the curriculum. Like many educators who come from Western countries, he finds the third-world education much too steeped in rote learning. The computer puts the emphasis on solving problems and processing information which can fundamentally change the way students learn in school, he and other educators say.
Project leaders disagree to some extent on the choice of schools in the pilot projects. Officials of the World Center for Computation and Human Development in Paris insist that unless computers are introduced to people at all levels of economic and social standing, the technology will be a further ``wedge'' between advantaged and disadvantaged.
Others contend that starting with elite children is the only practical approach. Hosny said that when he began his computer literacy campaign in Egypt, he spent several years trying to design a project that would reach all segments of society. ``It would require 200 years [to design such a program],'' he concluded. He contends that having the elite children use computers helps eliminate the cultural barrier that impedes computers from becoming widespread in Egypt.
Leaders of these projects continue their pioneering efforts. They see encouraging, albeit preliminary, results. And they scoff at those who advocate ignoring the existence of the new technology rather than adapting the technology to help solve the nation's problems.
The author traveled to Africa on a Frederick Sheldon Fellowship from Harvard University.