Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – On Travel Website Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Cities

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has been named by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 cities in the world to be visited for the year 2013. Wondering why? Find out.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has been a popular destination for foreigners visiting the country for over a century. Founded in 1886 by Empress Taytu Betul, the wife of Emperor Menilik II, the city has never stopped growing. It has ever since been the seat of power of the successive governments that came afterwards. Today, it has become the place where tourists, expats and locals like to intermingle in a laidback attitude. It has become so popular a destination that the most popular travel site, Lonely Planet, has included Addis Ababa in its “Best in Travel – Top 10 Cities” list, ranking it at number 9 out of 10 cities, spanning three continents, to be visited in 2013.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
According to the site, the most endearing attributes of Addis Ababa are the fact that it is an “Ethiopian city evolving at pace” - in lieu of the fact that the city’s skyline has been changing at a very rapid rate, especially in the last 5 to 10 years.

Everywhere one goes in the city there seems to be something either being built or being brought down to give space for something new. Traffic jams are nowadays more common than ever as Addis Ababa’s residents put up with the inconveniences in anticipation of the changes that are to come.

But, the bustling energy of the city, or the “confidence and stamina” as Lonely Planet puts it, belies the gusto with which the city’s residents have for fun and entertainment once the sun sets.

Every corner of the city caters to its specific clientele – from the luxurious Sheraton’s “Gaslight” crowd to those that bar-hop the lowly, meter-by-meter shacks that pass as drinking establishments along “Chechnya” (so called because of the hidden risks that came with hanging out in the area - like the snipers during the war in the place’s namesake). One need only find the crowd one can associate with and plunk down for an unforgettable night on the town.

One common thing that can be noticed in all the places is the sprinkling of foreign faces that stand out and yet, oddly, do not look out of place. Tourists, expats and diplomats alike rub shoulders with the local populace without giving it a second thought. The intermingling becomes absolute sometime midway through the night when everyone (that still can) is on their feet dancing to tunes ranging Ethiopian folksongs at “azmari-bets” to selections from the latest, bestselling albums on the charts.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the “groovy city”, Addis Ababa, is one of the best places to visit. Home to big organizations like the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa  (UNECA) it has had a groove for as long as there have been visitors from abroad to add a flavor to the local spicy nightlife. And one thing that can’t be denied is that Ethiopians have always known how to have a good time. Just ask the old-timers that used to hang out in the “Arada” and “Piazza” of yesteryears.

On a final note, unlike the major metropolises where the prices of commodities and real-estate have leapt in folds with each foreigner that has set foot in it, the Ethiopian capital has been going it at a pace all of its own – for now at least. This was the point that Lonely Planet meant by “Best for: culture, food, value for money”. Any foreign currency can be stretched to an unbelievable limit as can be seen by the number of wily foreigners that have made the city their home and can also be seen braving the crowds of Merkato looking for bargains instead of opting for the pricier goods at the supermarkets on Bole road.

So, time to pack your bags! See you in Addis Ababa!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ethiopian Kids on Computers Excel without Teachers

Ethiopian kids on computers would probably be the last thing anyone would consider to be something that would neither make headlines or even be something that was possible. Until now...and what a surprise it has been.
The OLPC Motorola Zoom tablet

Imagine your surprise if you were to go to school to find a box of goodies left at your doorsteps. Now imagine that this was in a rural village where the children had hardly been exposed to electricity let alone modern gadgets like computers and laptops. That’s exactly happened when students in Welenchiti and Wenchi in Ethiopia, about 150 km south of the capital Addis Ababa, came to school one morning to find boxes left at their schools’ doorsteps. Opening them, they discovered that they contained laptops but there were no instructions about how to operate the them included in the packages.

The laptops were part of an experiment being conducted by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization. The devices are Motorola Xoom tablets that are solar powered and designed to be wear-and-tear resistant. They have software installed on them that allow children to learn the basics of their school curriculum and also allows them surf the internet (wherever access points are available.

The aim of the experiment was to find out if kids on computers would be able to take off as they would in any western country. But in this case the hitch was that the kids had no previous exposure to technology whatsoever, they barely - if at all - knew how to read and write and there was no one there to teach them.

In short - they were expected to not only read and write but also learn to operate a technologically advanced gadget without having a sense of what it was in the first place. Every week an OLPC worker would visit the children to swap memory cards that registered how the computers had been used. The results were amazing:

  • The kids were found to be singing the alphabet song in both villages.
  • A child that could neither read or write at the time of receiving the laptop, after playing a literacy game, was able to spell “LION” under the correct animal.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC, while describing the Ethiopian experiment at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Conference, said that the results were encouraging. He went on to add:

The One Laptop Per Child logo
I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Elaborating further on the comments made by Negroponte, OLPC’s Chief Technology Officer, Ed McNierney added:

The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” he said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.

So, this begs to challenge the old beliefs that children always need the guidance of their teachers and that not being exposed to something doesn’t necessarily mean that a person will not be able to not only figure out how to use it but also how to customize it to cater to their own needs.

Maybe seeing kids on computers will stop being a status symbol and more of a new way of learning. It is about time.