Our amazing journey to southern Africa

Is it possible for primary and secondary students in two very different countries like Lesotho and Norway to collaborate using technology? What can we learn from each other and how would we even attempt to start such a project?

Lesotho is a landlocked country completely surrounded by its only neighbor, South Africa. It has a population of approximately 2 million and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. About 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line of US $1.25 a day.

In contrast Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, with 5 million people and extensive reserves of petroleum, natural gas, minerals, seafood and fresh water. What we do have in common is that both countries are constitutional monarchies with kings!

Based on written applications, four high school students from Norway were chosen to accompany me to Lesotho and stay for 4 days. Our goal was to help a primary school with technology and teach the students how to use laptops to make presentations for a joint project with our school. The project grows out of my meeting with Lesotho educator Moliehi Sekese in Brazil in 2009 and her subsequent visit to Norway and Sweden in 2011. If you would like to know more about how we met, read this previous Voices post here.

Cultural differences

Before we left on our trip we knew next to nothing about life in Lesotho. And when we began planning for this journey, I was very surprised to learn how nervous some of the Norwegian students were prior to traveling. It turns out that if you do an online search for Lesotho, you might find pages like this one from the US government. The warnings here I imagine are enough to scare the bravest travelers: Lesotho has a high rate of crime. U.S. citizens should remain vigilant about their surroundings at all times. Foreigners are frequently targeted, robbed, car-jacked and sometimes killed.

To prepare, we compared our countries’ living conditions using the website If It Were My Home. This site offers a visual of the size of the countries. Lesotho, it turns out, would just about fit into one of Norway’s largest counties (we have19). If we lived in Lesotho, we would be 232 times more likely to have HIV/AIDS as adults, be 14 times more likely to be unemployed, die nearly 30 years sooner, and consume 99% less electricity than we do in Norway.

To get a picture of what young people in Norway know about Lesotho we interviewed students at our school and created a Google doc where we shared prior knowledge and questions we had.

Comparing technology

My high school, Sandvika, has 850 students. They are all equipped with laptops and our building has a fast and reliable wireless connection. All our classrooms have projectors and audio systems. When our students start high school they are offered a new laptop, which they get to keep when they graduate after 3 years. In Lesotho, Mamoeketsi Primary School has 750 students and had 5 computers (3 were stolen one month ago). A couple of years ago they had electricity installed. They have a well outside their building where they can pump water.

Our mission: a shared project on equal terms

Prior to leaving we managed to get 11 laptops and 15 mobile phones to give to our friends in Lesotho. We also collected money to install a wireless internet connection. With help from a school in Sweden, Mamoeketsi had already purchased a projector, a projector screen and some modems, and a week before arriving we were actually able to Skype with the class!

Even if our schools have different resources it is important to stress that this project is about collaborating on equal terms. After providing computers and internet we are hoping to level the gap. Our project is about global warming and comparing the consequences of the climate changes in our countries. The students at Mamoeketsi had researched the topic and as soon as we had logged on to the new laptops we brought, they started to type their findings into their presentations. We were all amazed by the quality of their work and how well they write in English! When we get home we will continue to do research on global warming and send more information back to the school. Our goal is to share back and forth equally as partners on this project.

Sharing our story

On day two of our visit, the Lesotho National Broadcasting Service came to report the story of our partnership for the national 7 p.m. news. They interviewed my friend Moliehi Sekese (right), a student each of our schools, and me. We expressed how fortunate we are to have been connected and how much we look forward to continuing our work together. The segment was aired on national TV twice, once in Sesotho and later in English (both are national languages). The report showed scenes from the classroom: the global warming presentation by the Lesotho students and how the Norwegian students offer technical advice.

Skype in the classroom

Phase Two of this project will come when the school is able to routinely connect to the internet and Skype with us on a regular basis. That way we can continue communicating and learning from each other! Once you open the lines of communication there is no limit to what you can do!

I look forward to seeing how our relationship will continue to grow and how we will find new areas where we can collaborate. One of the takeaways from this project is how we connected so easily with the teachers and all the new friends we made. Together with the amazing farewell ceremony, it is an experience I will never forget! My hope is to go back there soon.

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Ann Michaelsen

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