Written by Karan Magu
‘For the duration of this trip, patience will be your new middle name,’ our friend Chris, an administrator at NYU Accra, duly warned us on the very first day of our arrival in Ghana. The term patience usually entails the capacity to endure delays and inconveniences with composure. I didn’t take his words too seriously. Yet as our group of 20 fresh-faced volunteers left behind the urbane bubble of Accra and headed deeper into rural Ghana, it quickly became clear that some of us would soon need to consider adopting new middle names. Two days into our trip, we had arrived eight hours away from the nearest semblance of urban life and were in the Woadze Tsatoe village, where the group would be spending the next two weeks working on community development projects. We had already been through gallons of bug spray, enjoyed hours of bumpy bus rides, acquainted ourselves with the blistering heat and made ourselves at home in the stationary bus as unforgiving rain flooded the streets. As I looked forward to our time in Woadze, I remembered Chris’s words and thought to myself, ‘This is going to be one slow and long-winded trip. I don’t know how I’ll get through this.’
Fast forward two weeks later, and I found myself staring at the mirror back home in New York, wondering if I was still seeing the same person who had taken that flight to Africa on the last day of spring semester. The rest of our time in Ghana had swept us by at a surprisingly fast pace, as if it had all just happened in a flash of colors, sights, sounds and smells. Yet as I stood here, I could still not help but enter a flashback, trying to relive the past few days in Ghana and make sense of it all. I will never forget the looks of awe on the faces of those 5th grade students in the village school when I taught them how to use a computer for the first time!
They huddled around me in a close knit circle under the tin roof of the school, and I slowly introduced to them the various parts of a laptop. The inclined angle of their heads, and the gasps of wonder they emitted as I connected the charger to the single dusty electrical outlet in the school and booted up the machine were clears indication that the device had them transfixed with curiosity. I started off by explaining the different parts of a computer, equating terms like hardware and software to their bodies and brains. ‘Just like your body has a brain that it needs to think, the hardware needs the software to function and think’, I said to them. Then I allowed them to interact with the keyboard, to touch and move around the mouse pad. As for navigating the computer, I explained it to them through narrating a story of the adventurous ‘mouse’ who needs to find his way around a living room (the home screen) with their help and direction. I told them that the icons for internet explorer or other applications, were magic windows which the mouse could click to enter and explore! Most of them had no idea what a computer even looked like before that day, but by the end of our class, most were able to transcribe notes from their school textbooks onto word documents on the PC. My flashback ended and I jolted back into the present.
This experience had confirmed my hypothesis that given the right environment and basic infrastructure, it is possible for anyone to learn how to interact with technology, even without any prior experience. Through the support and encouragement from our professors and contributions from the SIV Ghana class, we managed to donate 3 laptops to the village school. During the school semester, I had also been independently working on a prototype for a sub-$100 affordable PC suited for use in offline and disconnected rural areas, which we were also able to donate. In the span of one day, a school which previously had no access to any digital infrastructure and where the students learned about IT from outdated textbooks now had a fully functioning computer lab. In a village where fishing and farming had forever been the status quo and the only future available to these children, the possibility of working at an IT company, whether as a typist, an engineer or a programmer had now opened up. I now realized that the look on their faces was not one of awe alone, but a look of hope and imagination of the endless possibilities they could now access with the technology they were witnessing for the first time today.
As I faced the mirror, reflecting on that experience inspired me to choose a career path that would involve leveraging digital technologies to connect the disconnected and providing people access to a world of information at their fingertips. I formed a sincere belief that responsibly scaling accessible and affordable technology to everyone has the potential to eradicate illiteracy, income inequality, information asymmetry. From the African continent to the Indian subcontinent, digital technologies like mobile phones, computers and the internet are already well on their path to becoming the great equalizers, and will pay tangible socio-economic dividends going forward. Connecting people on well designed digital platforms can also solve various socio-economic-political challenges in the increasingly fragmented first world as well. Ghana made me realize that I want to be a part of this technological revolution that will only gain more momentum in the coming years, especially in emerging economies where inequality of all kinds is currently a way of life.
In those moments that flashed by in my mind’s eye were several that left an indelible mark, changing my perspective on my own life plans and my outlook on the world. I guess I had learned a new, broader meaning of patience, as I realized that often our struggle to obsessively plan for and control all the elements of our life comes to no avail, especially when certain experiences we go through or certain actions we take have the unexpected effect of altering our preconceptions in ways we could never have planned for. We can only keep an open mind and act in the moment, then look back to realize that something wonderful happened. We can retrospectively dissect and analyze what we learned, but in the moment, often we are not fully conscious of what our senses are taking in or what are actions may lead to. It is in this vein that I will forever cherish those moments from Ghana, the conversations I shared, the connections I formed with others and the lives I was able to hopefully inspire through my contributions. As they say, time is a relative concept, and sometimes we do not know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.