Connectivity brightening future of refugees in Malawi
Burundian refugee sees his future brighten thanks to UNHCR and Microsoft’s Connectivity for Refugees Project
By Tina Ghelli in Dzaleka, Malawi | 10 March 2017
“Everything about computers interests me,” says Remy Gakwaya, a 22-year-old Burundian refugee who resides in Dzalaka refugee camp in Malawi. He currently runs the only computer lab in the camp, called Takeno Lab, where he voluntarily teaches other refugee youth how to programme.
“Java, Python, MYSQLITE, Android Development…” Gakwaya lists the programming languages that he teaches his fellow refugees.
“I love programming,” says Gakwaya. “It is inspiring to see something that I create myself. Here in the refugee camp you are not free to do anything. We aren’t able to work outside of the camp. However, if you do programming, you can do it from anywhere in the world and be paid for that.”
After his parents were killed in Burundi during ethnic clashes, Gakwaya fled with his older brothers to Tanzania. When they saw that young people were being recruited to join a rebel movements they decided to flee to Malawi in 2008, when he was 15 years old.
After finishing secondary school in the camp, Gakwaya learned how to programme by taking a class in Lilongwe. He also learned through some courses offered at the online university run by Jesuit Refugee Services in Dzaleka, where he is enrolled as a diploma student.
He opened the Takeno Lab in 2016 because he wanted to help other youth in the camp also learn to programme. He first taught six students from the basics – how to use a mouse, how to use a keyboard and by the end of the year, they had learned how to programme and make apps. Because the refugees had no access to the internet, he had to teach the students offline. Initially, they also didn’t have enough computers, so Gakwaya managed to print photocopies of a computer keyboard layout and students would take that sheet of paper home to practice typing and using the keys. Eventually, he received some donated computers for the students to practice on. Another major challenge is electricity in a camp which often faces frequent power cuts. When they don’t have power to run the computers in the lab, Gakwaya uses the class time to teach theory.
Apps benefitting the overall refugee community are already being developed by Gakwaya and his team. One of the apps will help teachers facilitate the registration of student’s enrollment and registering of their grades, which currently takes up a lot of time. They are also working on an app that will map the different tribal groups and share cultural practices so that the various ethnicities and nationalities in the camp can better understand each other.
“I want to use technology to solve local problems that big software companies do not have the time to take on,” says Gakwaya. “I wanted to be part of the modern world so I joined the class. I originally hoped to study law but now I’m invested in learning programming,” says 20 year old Gracia from the DRC who is one of Gakwaya’s students. This past weekend, Microsoft and C3, their contractor in Malawi installed Wi-Fi access points in Dzaleka. It is one of the pilot sites for the Connectivity for Refugees project between UNHCR and Microsoft. Microsoft also donated 1,000 smart phones, which are to be distributed to individuals or community groups chosen by UNHCR, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Plan Malawi and Jesuit Refugee Services. Some thirty “refugee ambassadors” have been selected to engage in the project and help establish the mechanisms to roll it out.
Gakwaya was very excited and honored to be selected along with some of his students to be part of the “refugee ambassadors.” He is confident that having faster and cheaper ways to connect to the internet, he will be able to complete more online training to complement the programming skills he learned so far, but he also will be able to strengthen the training he is giving to other young people.
“My idea is to support knowledge so that this knowledge can help us today, tomorrow or in the future,” says Gakwaya.
Dzaleka refugee camp is located some 70 km from Lilongwe and currently hosts about some 28,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and Ethiopia.