We opened the computer center on Monday. Suffice to say, it has been quite popular. We held a town meeting on Saturday evening to discuss the schedule and costs of the center. While the computers have been donated, the electricity to run them and the maintenance fees have not been guaranteed by Yanapuma. While Yanapuma will almost certainly contribute to these costs, we wanted the community to also contribute financially to create ownership of the center, both so that people use the center and so that they take care of the center.
The town meeting started with a discussion of the use of the center, why it is here and what is to be gained from learning computing skills. We then segued into talking about a class schedule. We had already decided to hold open computing hours during the same hours that we open the library for free hours (every week day, 3-6). We used to have two people in the library, now we have one in the computer center and one in the library. These free hours are available for people to work on any sort of project or practice their computer skills. We told the people who gathered for the meeting that we would be offering six classes a week. Every Sunday, a list of the times and classes offered will be posted outside the center. We wanted to consult to see what times were best. The feedback we received indicated that we should offer a variety of classes during the week, some in the morning, afternoon and evening. We should have known that this would be the response, especially because I have already blogged about Estero only having three times a day, but community involvement is important.
We had difficulties communicating the idea of sign-up sheets. People wanted to sign up for a block of classes, for example, Tuesday at 7 PM for a series of weeks. We thought about going with this model, but decided before the meeting that this would limit the amount of people we can help. Primarily, this puts a cap on the amount of people that can take classes for a period of time. With our system people can take class one and then move onto class two on their own time. We can work with different people each week. We were also worried about what would happen if people that can’t read and write sign up for a block of classes (illiteracy is very common amongst the adults of Estero). While we don’t want to tell people that they cannot learn how to use a computer, without literacy it is hard to gain benefits from the computing resources available at the center. We were also concerned about illiterate people holding back the pace of the classes for everyone else. We figured that with our system, someone who is illiterate will realize quickly that using a computer implies literacy and stop signing up for classes.
The concept of scheduling and signing up for classes seems to be a difficult and foreign concept for the people of Estero. People only think about today and tomorrow, we are now asking them to think ahead and plan a time to attend a computer class. I think this is a push in a positive direction. As people start to plan ahead for computer classes, they will start to plan more of their week. Hopefully this will start to shift people’s gaze a bit toward the future. We have had a few sign ups but most of the people just wander in during class time and look for an empty seat. This is ok too, as long as there are spaces available. We have 4 working computers at the moment. They are old and break quite frequently, so we are not sure how many we will have by the end of the week. For a class we have two people per computer. This allows us to maximize the amount of people who participate and at the same time make sure that everyone can use the computer for the classes. Because few people sign up for classes, the sign-ups have become more of a reservation system. Those that have signed up have first priority for a seat at a computer. I think that as the classes grow in popularity this will change.
After talking about scheduling, we moved to talking about costs of the computer center. We thought that maybe paying per hour or per use was an acceptable way to charge. We didn’t want to be responsible for money or worse, collecting money that is owed. We mentioned this at the meeting. It is not our job to walk around and collect people’s debts. It is not good for our image in the town, nor is it a necessary activity for us to complete. The people decided that the best way to charge would be for everyone who uses the center to pay a dollar a month. I am not sure if this will cover all of the costs, but at least people are collaborating. When someone enters the center they need to sign-in (this is for Yanapuma’s record keeping), next to the sign-ins we keep a book with the records of who has paid and who hasn’t. If it is your first usage of the month, you need to pay a dollar. You are then covered for one month of usage. This system will work somewhat well. We are a bit bummed that the record keeping has fallen to us, but we do not plan on hunting down the dollars of people who haven’t paid.
So far the center has been inundated with children. For the mothers of the village, our 3:00-6:00 open computing hours, has created a $1/month babysitting program. This is ok, it provides a nice service to the hardest working members of the community: the mothers. The other benefit is that Sarah downloaded a bunch of typing games from the internet and installed them to the computers. The children use the typing games and are learning to recognize letters on the keyboard and some of the older ones are even learning how to type properly. This is a great way for us to sneak in some education in the afternoon hours. I am going to look for some Spanish language PC games next time I am at the internet cafe. If anyone has any suggestions please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
So finally, after more than three months of working on the project, the community computer center is finally opened and running. The people at Yanapuma were surprised that it took us so long and I am sure that many readers of this blog are equally curious. The construction and opening of the center took a long time because we waited for community support every step of the way. Before simply placing the computers in the library, we decided to ask the town at a meeting if there was a place that was more secure or better for the center. People said that the library was not safe because donated computers have been stolen from there before. They suggested a building in the center of the town that was not being used. The owner lives in Guayaquil, we waited for his brother to get in touch with him about using the building. Following the contact, we organized a town minga (work party), to clean the room and remove the lumber that was stored inside. After the room was cleaned, we solicited wood for tables and benches. People grow trees for lumber on their farms. About half of the wood for the center was provided by the community. This was a great expense for some of the farmers who usually sell the wood for a profit. The rest of the wood was purchased by Yanapuma. Construction of the tables, benches, locking systems and electricity was all done by the community with our facilitation. We could have gone to the lumber store and bought all the supplies, hired someone in town to do the construction and completed the whole project in under a week. We opted for a longer process to try and create some community bonding, involvement, and ownership. So far so good, the center is up and running and the people seem to be really excited to learn about and use the computers.