Penn Team Bridges the ‘Digital Divide’ in Cameroon

January 22, 2007

Members of CommuniTech, an Engineering service organization, spent their winter break in Cameroon, installing computer labs and conducting research.  The team of students, faculty, and alumni shipped more than 150 machines last October, and then spent two and a half weeks in late December and early January refurbishing and installing these computers in local schools and non-profit agencies in Cameroon.

CommuniTech takes old computers from Penn and outside corporations, refurbishes and then donates them to schools and nonprofit organizations both locally and globally.  With funding from Google, Pro-Literacy, and the Cameroon-based Meta Quality of Life Improvement Foundation (MQLIF), the team of students left Christmas Day and joined Dr. Godlove Fonjweng (GSAS ‘97), Assistant Dean of Advising in the College in Mbengwi, Cameroon, where Fonjweng is a ‘family head.’ The group prepared the computers and then spread out across the country to set up computers in labs.

CommuniTech donated mostly Pentium 2 and Pentium 3-class machines, which in Cameroon can cost upwards of 160,000 CFA, or nearly $320, a cost that is prohibitive to many schools and non-profit agencies.  CommuniTech installed computer labs at Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary School, Sacred Heart College, Government Secondary School Tudig, and at the Parents National Education Union Classical Nursery School (PNEU).  The team also networked with Penn alumni John Awahmukalah (C' 78) to install a computer lab at St. Fredericks Comprehensive High School and at Bamenda University of the Sciences (BUST).

In Mbengwi, the students met with Jenny Jinor (Graduate Student, SP2), who assists non-profit outreach agencies.  The students worked with Jenny to distribute computers to non-governmental organizations such as the Akwi Memorial Foundation, who will use the machines for computer literacy training at its summer camps.  The Presbyterian Teachers Training College in Mbengwi will educate future clergy about how they can utilize computers more effectively. Religion plays a central role in Cameroonian life, and donating machines to faith-based organizations will have a large impact.

At each site, in addition to setting up the computers, printers, and internet where applicable, the students also taught basic computer literacy courses, and organized future classes.  “Some of these people have never seen a computer before,” said Brian Quimby (E ’08), President of CommuniTech, “We want to encourage computer literacy and make sure everyone has a basic understanding of what a computer does.  The training materials are left with a ‘lab manager,’ with whom we stay in contact when we return to the United States.  That way we can stay connected and ensure sustainability in the lab.”  CommuniTech has developed their own training materials, which can be downloaded free of charge.

Members also visited lab sites from past projects and evaluated how well they had been used and maintained.  “We visited the Community Technology Center in Mbengwi, where we installed computers 18 months ago, and found the lab had been heavily used.  The lab offers classes, certifications, and printing to the community,” said Steve Hershman (C'08/GEN'08), Technical Director of CommuniTech.  “It really warms your heart that you’ve made such an impact, and makes you wonder how many people these new machines will help.”

With the nearly 100 computers scattered among 15 some sites, Fonjweng is trying to setup a consortium of organizations to ensure sustainability among the labs.

Communitech has now installed computer labs in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C., Himachal Pradesh and Pune, India, as well as in Ghana, Ecuador, Lahore, Pakistan, and Cameroon. 

The Team:
Brian Quimby (E ’08)
Steve Hershman (C'08/ GEN'08)
Dr. Godlove Fonjweng (Assistant Dean of Advising; GSAS ’97)
John Awahmukalah (C ’78)

Jenny Jinor (Graduate SP2)