The Peace Corps experience can be more than a little frustrating. Sometimes, no matter how hard I worked, progress comes slowly, if at all. Most volunteers have similar problems, so Peace Corps often gives its volunteers the opportunity to attend "in-service training", usually in the form of a three- or four-day conference between volunteers and local experts. It focuses on a specific topic - AIDS education, for instance - and it gives everyone a chance to share experiences, to brainstorm new ideas, and to take a step back and look at the big picture. Somehow, these conferences always melted away my frustrations and gave me new energy in whatever projects I happened to be working on at the time.

One such conference was on Gender and Youth Development (GYD), which meant learning how to promote social equality for women and children. For example, Ghana has a huge problem with girls dropping out of school before they graduate, so we talked a lot about how to keep girls in school. One of the ideas that came up was a "girls club", a kind of Girl Scout program but without the camping. It sounded like fun, so I decided to try setting one up at my school, without really knowing what I was getting myself into. Below you'll find an article I wrote about my experiences starting this club. It appeared in an issue of The Exchange, a Peace Corps newsletter on gender development.

Girls in Ghana Get Computerized

Submitted by Trevor Harmon/PCV

Figure 1 Faustina, Alimatu, and Gariba (from left to right) record songs onto a laptop computer.

"What is all this...singing?" asked the schoolmaster, squinting through his spectacles at eleven young women huddled around a laptop. "I thought you were teaching them computers." The girls ended their song--something about sending your girl-child to school--and he watched closely as one of them tapped a key. Instantly the room filled with a digital recording of their voices, piped through the laptop’s tiny speakers.

"But I am teaching them computers," I replied. The schoolmaster seemed perplexed, then frustrated, and finally said, "Please tell them to reduce the noise small. They are disturbing my work." As he turned to leave, another girl pressed a different key, and the recording was played again, this time at double-speed. The girls burst into laughter at the sound of their altered, high-pitched voices. The schoolmaster closed the door, shaking his head and looking slightly annoyed.

When I began teaching computer classes six months ago, I never thought that getting my colleagues to accept my unusual teaching methods would be a problem. But there were plenty of obstacles, as I discovered, in teaching computer literacy to girls in Ghana. In this article, I want to share my experiences and offer some tips on how to overcome the challenges of teaching computer skills in a developing country.

Computer Classes with the Girls Club

Figure 2 Jamilatu (left) and Zenabu practice using the mouse.

During my first year in Ghana, I kept busy as a full-time math teacher, so I never really considered starting computer classes. But after I attended a GYD workshop sponsored by Peace Corps, I had picked up some ideas on starting a girls’ club at my school. I was a little reluctant at first; I didn’t know how the students and the staff would respond to a white guy as the patron of a club for girls. In the end, I decided that making computer literacy--not girls’ health, girls’ empowerment, or other touchy issues--the major goal of the club, I could avoid the problem.

The first step, of course, was to find some computers. I had brought a laptop with me from home, but that wasn’t enough for the fifteen girls who had signed up for the club. And although my town had recently been wired for electricity and was growing at a phenomenal pace, the only computers around were tucked away in a few NGO offices and the hospital administration block.

Luckily, the government had recently established over a hundred "science resource centers" across Ghana, each containing chemical solutions, dissection kits, magnets, and all kinds of equipment for teaching science--more stuff than my old high school back in America ever provided. Also included were six computers for running educational software and gathering data from experiments. None of the science teachers knew how to use them, however, so they just sat in the labs collecting dry-season dust. I figured the newborn girls’ club could find a better use for the computers at our local science resource center.

After getting permission from the headmaster, the girls club and I opened our school’s first-ever computer lab. We carried the cases, monitors, and peripherals to an old storage room, dusted them off, and fired them up. At each station sat at least two girls, one operating the keyboard, the other on the mouse, both looking at me wide-eyed and ready to learn.

I knew that none of them had ever touched a computer before, so I decided to start off slowly with the basics: a lesson on how to open and save files. That was my first mistake. Using the mouse and keyboard was so natural for me that I had never thought about teaching it to my students. My lesson plan was soon scrapped as I discovered how fundamental my teaching would have to be. I felt somewhat like a little league baseball coach, instructing the proper hand grip of the mouse and finger form on the keyboard. Although my students needed a good twenty minutes just to master the art of the double-click, they left the computer lab that day with a little more knowledge of the computer and a lot less fear of it.

The classes continued, one per week, as the girls discovered how to type their names (probably the all-time most popular lesson), how to launch programs, how to print, and even how to calculate sums and averages in a spreadsheet. They also studied definitions--ROM, RAM, and other acronyms--which are more important than ever now that their standardized graduation exam includes questions on computer literacy. Of course, I gave equal time for fun stuff as well. After each lesson, I would allow the girls an hour to do anything they wanted: paint digital pictures, browse a CD-ROM about dangerous African animals, or record impromptu songs through the computer’s microphone (which got me into a little trouble with the faculty, as I mentioned earlier).

Figure 3 The Girls Club visits Abiba (left), a secretary at the District Assembly, to learn how computers are used in the workplace.

Though my fantasies of turning the girls’ club members into computer geniuses have long since faded, together we accomplished some big projects. For example, the club put together a two-page magazine of original essays and poems that they typed themselves. I helped them format it newspaper-style and print copies for all of the club members. Later that year, we went on a field trip to the local District Assembly (the Ghanaian equivalent of a city hall) to learn how the secretaries use computers for writing reports and keeping track of the local government budget. After the tedious hunt-and-peck experience typing up the magazine, the girls were shocked and impressed when the secretaries gave a demonstration of touch-typing, their fingers flying across the keyboard.

Even if we had not pursued these projects, the most important goal was accomplished: The girls now have the desire to learn more about computers. Perhaps some of them will one day launch prosperous careers as consultants--not such a far-fetched idea ever since computer training institutes began popping up all over Ghana. If nothing else, they can go on to teach their children a little something about the world of computers.

Lessons Learned

If you are thinking of starting a computer class for young women, keep the following ideas in mind:

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