Children sit at desks in a classroom, Cameroon

for every child | a digital bridge

Today, more than 29 per cent of the world’s youth – 346 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 – are not connected to the internet. To be disconnected in a digital world is to be deprived of opportunities to learn, communicate and develop skills for the 21st century. Unless access and skills are available more equally, connectivity only deepens inequity, reinforcing deprivation from one generation to the next.

 
In Cameroon, access to quality education – including internet access – is challenging. Violence in neighbouring Central African Republic and Nigeria has sent over 300,000 refugees into the country. More than 300,000 Cameroonians have also been displaced – and two thirds are children.
The majority of these displaced children live in remote areas and don’t benefit from the same quality of learning as those living in urban centres – especially digital learning. If they do have access to education, these children may learn about the internet, but not use it. As a result, the digital divide widens, and at-risk children have even fewer chances to succeed.
But there is reason for optimism. By connecting remote schools and students to technology, one new initiative has begun to bridge the divide, starting with those who need it most in northern Cameroon.
A girl looks at the sky outside her home, Cameroon

Waibai Buka sits in the shade of a tree in the dirt courtyard of her school in Baigai, Cameroon, in the Far North Region, close to the Nigerian border.

 
The school is like any other in the area – large concrete classrooms, rows of wooden desks and benches facing chalkboards, groups of children dressed in neat uniforms adorned with the red, green and yellow of Cameroon’s flag.
But a closer look reveals unusual details: a solar panel and satellite dish bolted to the tin roof of one classroom, and sky blue tablets stacked on a headmaster’s desk.
In a region with extremely low internet penetration, Baigai Public School is exceptional – it has internet access. And after just a few months of learning, 12-year-old Waibai is now the resident digital whiz.

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Connect my school

 
Like most children living in the Far North Region, Waibai never had access to the internet growing up. Her family’s small clay house doesn’t even have electricity.
“I remember the moment I used the internet the first time. It was in January 2017,” she says. “Before that, I didn’t even know what the internet was.”
Without an internet connection or any digital tools to speak of, teachers in Waibai’s school would show the children pictures of computers and try to describe how the internet works. But how could teachers, many of whom had also never accessed the internet, possibly articulate the vast e-world just beyond these children’s fingertips?
Two children work on a tablet as a teacher looks on, Cameroon

Twelve-year-old Waibai Buka (right) and a classmate use a tablet with the help of their teacher at their school in Baigai, Cameroon.

Everything changed when Baigai Public School gained internet access through a pilot programme called ‘Connect My School’. In January of this year, the project installed a solar-powered satellite unit in the school, providing internet connectivity within a 500 metre radius. The school also received child-friendly tablets loaded with educational games and apps like Wikipedia, as well as drawing, text and photo apps.
For Waibai, the tablets have opened a world of information. The app she uses most frequently is Wikipedia.
“In science we talk about digestion, and the teacher gives us the tablet and we look up digestion,” she says. “I can then explain to the other children that digestion is a transformation of food in the stomach.”
“Before, when I was facing a difficult word, I would ask my teacher for the definition. But it was not like with the tablet, because the tablets give you the full explanation,” she says.

“Before, when I was facing a difficult word, I would ask my teacher for the definition. But it was not like with the tablet, because the tablets give you the full explanation.”

Teachers confirm that, for the children, being able to look up words and concepts and then talk them through with each other has been infinitely more successful than rote learning.
“It's like a movie stuck in their brain,” says Djemegued Dieudonne, one of the school’s two headmasters.
Beyond putting information within the students’ grasp, the tablets have deepened their curiosity and confidence in using digital technology. Waibai has proven herself to be like early adopters everywhere, quickly learning the ins and outs and then becoming herself a teacher to other students.
“My brain is different,” she says. “For me it was easy to learn the tablet.”
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A long path to learning

 
Although today Waibai deftly masters new concepts with the help of a tablet, her path to star pupil at Baigai Public School was anything but easy. When she was 8 years old and living in nearby Nigeria with her family, their village was attacked by Boko Haram.
“They attacked at night, we were sleeping, and they killed people and burned their houses. We escaped without money for food,” she says. Her father wasn’t home during the attack, and no one has seen him since.
Waibai’s family and neighbours spent weeks in search of safety – moving cautiously through the bush, avoiding roads for fear of being shot. At night they slept on scraps of cloth on the ground. They went nearly an entire month without food. “We just ate wild fruit,” says Waibai.
Their story is a familiar one in Waibai’s school. During 2014 and 2015, the school gained 400 new students, all of whom had been displaced from their homes by violent conflict.

Plugging in to the power of education

 
In recent months, the tablets have become a tool for helping new students integrate into the host community. Although the school has seen a marked decrease in the number of newly displaced students, those who do arrive invariably have little experience with the internet.
By welcoming them into the school and teaching them how to use the tablets, Waibai and her classmates are helping some of Cameroon’s most vulnerable children bridge the digital divide.
And in Africa specifically, getting these children online will be key to meeting the challenges of tomorrow. Digital literacy is expected to be the new default skillset required by Africa’s labour market, and children currently make up almost half of the population. Nowhere in the world are children like Waibai more central to a continent's future.
Investing in children’s education, as well as health, protection and access to technology, holds the promise of lifting hundreds of millions of people in Africa out of extreme poverty.
Waibai’s dreams for the future include being a part of that promise. “I want to become a school director when I grow up,” she says. “I want to give tablets to children and teach them how to use them.”
But for now, she is focused on exploring the new possibilities the tablet has opened up – ones she couldn’t have imagined before getting online.
“I would like to chat with people who are far away to know how to interact with them peacefully,” she says. “I want to talk to children in Europe. I would ask them: How do you live in your country? Are you like the children here? Do you go to school? Do you play the same games? Do you live together and do you share things together as we do here?”

UNICEF in Cameroon

UNICEF’s ‘Connect My School’ programme has been successfully implemented in six schools: two in the Far North Region (Baigai Public School and Minawao Refugee Camp), two in the East (Abou Boutila and Timangolo) and two in the capital of Yaoundé.
 

Since the success of the pilot, UNICEF has been working with public and private donors to bring the satellite units to more than 100 schools in the most vulnerable regions of the country. The future goals for the project include uploading pre-recorded audio classes on the tablets, and using video calls to connect students in Cameroon to students across the world – turning Waibai’s dream into reality.

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