Independent Appeal: Whole new world is just a click away for children of Ethiopia

Computer Aid International, one of our appeal charities, is transforming lives in Africa by providing schools with PCs. Paul Vallely reports from Addis Ababa

Yidnekachew Seif is 16 and has not been close to a computer ever before in his life. He is so overawed that he sits back from it, about three feet away, allowing his two friends to control the keyboard and mouse.

The classroom around him is a hubbub. It is alive with excitement as 60 young teenagers crowd around the 20 computers recently installed in Eweket Leheberele High School in the Ethiopian capital. Some jostle for the seats in front of the Pentium 4 PCs, which have recently arrived from England.

Yidnekachew watches wide-eyed as his two friends, Tenesyen and Amanuel, mystify him with the finer intricacies of PowerPoint. Their fingers move rapidly and the mouse arrow flashes across the screen. "It all looks a mystery to me, but I am fascinated," he says. "This is my first time to operate a computer. It's exciting but very complicated. With the help of my friends I hope to be able to master it."

Yidnekachew has only recently joined the class but Tenesyen and Amanuel are old hands. They are making a cover to print off for their exercise books. The letters are 3-D. They have made them recede like the lettering from the poster of some Hollywood epic from the 1950s.

Around them in this practical session their classmates reveal a wide proficiency. At one terminal they are making a Warp Speed screensaver. Others are using an Excel spreadsheet to grade and average the marks of every student and every subject to find out who is top of the class.

In the corner 15-year-old Maharene, another experienced user, is showing her fellow Grade 10 student, Abdi, 18, some computer basics. Many of the children in the class began their education late after the push that was put in place following the Gleneagles debt relief programme, which means classes reflect ability not age.

Across from them is Binyam Geti, 16, who has taught himself how to write codes in Notepad to make the text in his Word document move across the screen like tickertape. "Some of them are very quick," says the teacher, Esiet Haileselassie, an IT graduate of two years' standing.

The buzz in the room is as palpable as the intense heat generated by the combination of computers and the scorching Ethiopian afternoon sun. "These children are more enthused about information technology than any other subject," says the school principal, Yitayesu Kassa. "And we are as excited as they are. The Ministry Of Education made IT one of the six core subjects but until recently it was just an aspiration. We just didn't have the computers."

The machines have been provided by Computer Aid International, one of the charities being supported by the Independent Christmas Appeal this year. Its founder, Tony Roberts, who was an organisational development trainer in Latin America and South Africa, had a double motive. He realised that computers were to become key to the social development of Third World countries and he was outraged at the sheer waste of computers being scrapped.

In Ethiopia he found a willing partner in a small NGO called the Ethiopian Knowledge and Technology Society (EKTTS), started in 1994 to persuade émigré doctors and engineers to return to Ethiopia to bring back some the expertise they had learnt abroad. It then expanded into importing free books for schools. Computers were the next step.

"The computers we have been sent from England have been excellent. Our only problem is in raising money for the shipping costs," says its manager, Haile Sellassie Kebede. "Education here is booming. There are now 14 million primary school students, but one computer for every 350,000 people."

Computer Aid is doing its best to help. But resources are so thin that EKTTS restricts itself to giving a maximum of 10 computers per school. Across the city at the Medhane Alem Monastery School there are 2,500 pupils and just 15 computers. They are used, one between two, by Grade 11 pupils in shifts.

There too they display the same eclectic range of uses. Sabezer Birihane, 16, is changing text so that it flashes in an effect called Las Vegas. "With a computer you can learn much more about the outside world, as it is now, than you can with a book," says Maheat Yimera, 16. "And it's much faster when you want to search for something very specific."

Ninety per cent of the class will go on to university, says the teacher, Shibe Fente, "but we'd like more computers because there is hardly any job, in an office or in the field, where our pupils will not be in a stronger position to get a job if they have computer expertise."

Behind him a screensaver appears on a momentarily idle monitor. "We Need More Computers," it says. We get the message, loud and clear.

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