Global Catalyst Foundation, an organisation in California's Silicon Valley that aims to improve people's lives through the effective application of IT, runs three Internet Learning Centres in Kasulu, a remote town in the far north-western corner of Tanzania, near the border with Burundi. The centres are located in the UNHCR-run refugee camp at Mtabila, at the Kasulu Folk Development College and at the Kasulu Teacher's Training College.
The foundation is funding the three centres for three years at a cost of $120,000; the communities have contributed their labour to build the computer labs, while the UN refugee agency provides logistical and administrative support.
The project aims to promote economic development in the Kasulu district and among Burundi refugees - just having an Internet connection gives Kasulu an advantage over other similar-sized Tanzanian towns. In addition, the project will give refugees and local residents opportunities to get well-paying jobs with their new IT skills and to earn money through new income-generating projects. Another goal is to promote co-operation and increase tolerance, partnership and understanding between Tanzanians and Burundians in the district.
Before it started in October 2001, the computer project had to overcome huge hurdles, especially the lack of electricity. In Mtabila camp, solar power is used to generate electricity for the 10 computers, which are linked to the Internet through i-Way, a low-cost direct satellite Internet access service for Africa. At the teacher's college, a bio-gas system uses cow manure from the college's herds to generate up to 70 percent of the electricity needed to power the computers.
Mtabila camp's Internet centre is managed by the refugees themselves. A committee of refugee volunteers has agreed the centre will be used for education, including programmes for targeted groups like secondary school students, women and professionals. The committee is also working with a local non-governmental organisation on plans to re-broadcast Internet radio programmes to the large refugee population in the area.
Most mornings at the Mtabila Internet centre are spent on training activities in computer literacy and Internet use, while the afternoon sessions are used for private e-mail communications and typing services for refugees. On average, 30 refugees use the centre to send their e-mail messages every day, at a charge of about 500 Tanzanian shillings (50 cents) per session. In addition, the Internet is used as a source of news, and refugees can get free access to news channels and media outlets on the web, including those in Kirundi and Kiswahili languages. So far, about 55 per cent of the users have been men, predominantly with secondary or higher education.
Since the project started less than two years ago, it has already paid dividends. Cisco Systems, a US-based technology giant that produces most of the networking equipment used to run the Internet around the world, has designated the Internet centre at the Kasulu teacher's college a Cisco Networking Academy.
This is an international project to provide education over the Internet ("e-learning") to equip graduates for jobs in the IT industry. Twelve students, including three Burundian refugees from Mtabila camp, will attend classes at the Cisco Networking Academy for about 150 hours spread over six months, to learn IT and Internet skills.
Upon graduation, the students should be equipped to obtain IT industry certificates like the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certificates. The academy is jointly funded by Cisco and the UN Development Programme.
Stella Daniels, a Tanzanian woman who first learnt computer skills at the Kasulu Folk Development College, has been certified as a Cisco Networking Academy instructor and now teaches in the community. The Kasulu Folk Development College has its own Internet cafe and is now offering computer training to its adult students.
Although only a small percentage of the 130,000 refugees in the Kasulu district will be making full use of the Internet, UNHCR officials believe it can make a huge difference to the lives of those who do.
Just ask Burundi refugee Leon Ntiramdekura, who sent the first e-mail from Mtabila camp, addressed to Kamran Elahian, founder of Global Catalyst Foundation. "I'm not able to tell you how happy we are to get connection to the Internet," he wrote. "We are now able to speak to our friends and family outside the camps."
His words leave no doubt about the importance of the project: "Before I was connected to the Internet, I felt lost. But now that I am connected, I feel saved. The world will not forget us now, because we, the refugees, can speak to the outside. Thank you for all you have done, and we hope you will continue to help us until we go home to Burundi."
By Ivana Unluova