In the Umkhanyakude district of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, learning conditions are bare bones. As many as 100 students cram into a classroom in schools that have little water or electricity. Noises distract, from the wooden chairs against cement floors to rain hammering on the corrugated roof.
By any measure, life here is challenging: 77 percent of the district’s residents live below the poverty line, 67 percent are unemployed, and the vast majority live in shacks with only basic amenities. But a new program designed to engage adolescents through computer technology is helping more than 10,000 pupils overcome some of these obstacles.
Four mobile health and computer units tour 12 schools, offering basic computer literacy training, and health education and screening. Each month, two trucks carrying 24 computers for skills training and equipment for health counseling and screening visit a school for one week.
“When the colorful trucks roll in, the kids are so excited,” says EDC’s Scott Pulizzi, developer of the program’s health education materials. “They love the idea of connecting to computers.”
A local organization, Mpilonhle (“a good life” in Zulu), developed this program to address Umkhanyakude’s high rates of HIV infection. Adolescents face a 50 percent chance of infection during their lives, yet very few receive HIV education or screening.
“A stifling stigma surrounds HIV here,” says Pulizzi. “This innovative program helps overcome that by providing computer training along with HIV services.”
Students build computer skills, from basic software proficiency to writing a resume and completing online job applications. Skill-building activities incorporate information on healthy behaviors. “The message is the medium,” says Pulizzi.
He adds, “Many people are vulnerable to HIV due to lack of opportunity. This program offers skills to enhance economic opportunities, and helps students develop a sense of personal investment. As health educators, our greatest challenge is apathy.”
Initial funding was provided by Oprah’s Angel Network and Charlize Theron’s Africa Outreach Project. The computer labs are underwritten by the AMD Corporation.
Originally published on May 1, 2008