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A Goat Called Paloma
The first hour of the drive from central Lima is a tour of sprawl and poverty. Then comes 90 minutes in which the traffic thins and the scenery gives way to vegetable farms in the valleys of the Andean foothills. The air clears and cools as the elevation passes 1,000 meters and you traverse the small town of Santa Rosa de Quives. You turn off onto a desolate, rocky dirt road and continue for another hour. The road switches and jogs its way to 2,600 meters, skirting perilous precipices. Finally, rounding a bend, you glimpse the corrugated-steel roofs of Arahuay, an agricultural village of 742 residents. The steep surrounding hills contain pre-Inca archaeological sites and sparkling cold ponds. In the town’s colonial-era church is a Virgin Mary statue festooned with plastic flowers.

Arahuay is poor, but as Becerra explained later, it is also “not poor enough” to warrant laptops under the national rollout. Nevertheless, it was here that the Ministry of Education decided to test a preproduction model of the OLPC machines. Arahuay is relatively handy to Lima (battered buses make two trips daily), and it has a preëxisting Internet connection (a satellite dish was installed as part of the earlier Peruvian initiative). The laptops arrived in June 2007 and were delivered to the first building you encounter in ­Arahuay: the Institución Educativa Apóstol Santiago, a clean-swept, U-shaped concrete-block school with a concrete yard and corrugated-steel roofing, open at the eaves. The primary school has 46 students: 8 in the first and second grades, 21 in the third and fourth grades, and 17 in the fifth and sixth grades. (The town also has a secondary school, but many children drop out by then.) Some of Arahuay’s students come from smaller hamlets in the region that lack schools of their own. These children travel (often by foot) to Arahuay on Sunday night and leave on Friday; during the week they sleep in a bunkhouse owned by the town and run by a Catholic charity, where they are fed hearty meals, such as a spicy (and tasty) potato-based stew ladled out by a cheerful house mother.

The teachers knew we were coming. The children were at their desks, pecking away at their now-battered laptops. The machines were clearly well worn, with names written in marker to distinguish them (OLPC has since added color coding on the logo’s X and O, with 400 combinations, so kids can tell them apart). It was Monday, March 10, which happened to be the first day of school in Arahuay after the Peruvian summer. Kevin Gabino, 11, was following a teacher’s instructions to type a statement of the school’s values into a text file (Llegar temprano al colegio–Be early to school–topped the list). Several other kids were playing Tetris. Rosario Carrillo, 10, was performing a Google search for “elemento de la comunicación,” but the town’s Internet connection was so slow that the wait dragged into minutes. Rosario said she uses the laptop to play games, take pictures, draw, perform calculations, write documents, and send e-mails to her 25-year-old sister, who works in Lima “washing clothes and looking after babies.”

Cecilia Aquino, also 10, clutched hands with Rosario. She chimed in that she has used her laptop’s video camera to make grainy movies of her father’s goat, which she named Paloma. Becerra told me that such pursuits were part of the plan. “One of the problems with education worldwide is that children don’t understand why they should learn what they are supposed to learn,” he says. “When you have a computer, and students own the computer, they begin finding ‘why.’ They realize they can actually do something that is meaningful to them. For example, if they want to make a movie about their crops or their animals, they need to learn all the related aspects–not only technology, but expression, articulation, artistic representation.”

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Credits: Ana Cecilia Gonzales-Vigil/WPN

Tagged: Business

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