During a recent field visit to Uganda, Nancy Furber from UNICEF UK's digital team went to a youth centre in Gulu in the north of the country to see the life-changing impact of digital learning for children in the area.
The digital drum is just one of UNICEF Uganda's technology for development initiatives. Seeing it in action was one of the highlights of my trip.
As we approached the youth centre we saw a big group of children in blue huddling over a digital drum in front of the building. The drum was literally built out of an oil drum with a simple keyboard and screen on either side.
These rugged, outdoor computers have been built in partnership with BOSCO (Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach) to give computer access to children in remote areas.
Children huddle around the digital drum in Gulu, Uganda. © UNICEF/Uganda/Nancy Furber
Everything about the drum has been designed and evolved to be sustainable, and easy to build and power locally. This one was solar powered – essential for a country with regular power outages.
The centre was one of a group of simple wooden buildings set up in a remote area. One of the adults working at the centre explained to us that during the war these buildings had been used by ‘night commuters’ – children who visited at night to seek refuge against the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), who were forcibly recruiting child soldiers.
The youth centre in Gulu. © UNICEF/Uganda/Lauren Shearing
Most of the youths we met at the centre would have been too young to have remembered the war. But a lot of the poverty and other challenges faced by children in the region are a legacy of this terrible period in their history. For these children education is a tangible way to move forward.
The amazing thing about the digital drum is that children will literally walk from miles around to get a look. One 13 year old boy called Samuel told us that he lives nearly 2 hours' walk away, but he still comes every day. There are so many of them on it at one go that they have developed their own system – they each have their own tab open and they take it in turns to flick between the tabs while their own pages are loading. Unsurprisingly there was a lot of Jackie Chan and celebrity footballers, but they also wanted to read about the history of Uganda, and they used the drum to improve their English.
The boys each have their own browser tab so they can all to use the drum at the same time. © UNICEF/Uganda/Nancy Furber
We chatted with one 12 year old boy called Simon Wokorach, who told us he loved visiting the BBC website.
When we asked what he read there he said: "What is taking place in the world - what's happening in Libya. I can see what is happening there, the political instability. Some of the things that are happening there should not be happening because it's bad. People are dying there."
12-year-old Simon Wokorach. © UNICEF/Uganda/Nancy Furber
Simon told us that when he grew up he wanted to be a journalist. His interest in and empathy with the problems facing other people in the world were a powerful reminder of how important access to information is – especially for children as they are forming their opinions of the world. Some of these children already have access to information at home through radio, or perhaps their parents have a computer, but this way they can seek out the information they choose for themselves. And it’s their introduction to learning how to use a computer.
The system isn’t flawless yet – we only saw boys there, for example. And not all centres can afford solar panels so rely on an unstable power supply. These are early days and our colleagues in the UNICEF Uganda office are working through these challenges with their partners.
Plans for the future include making school lessons available as videos on the drums to reach those children who aren't yet literate, and enabling the centres to generate income to maintain themselves by offering small services like phone charging.
There's definitely a bright future for the digital drum. Its potential for children and education is endless, not just in Uganda.
And watch out for Simon Wokorach – I have high hopes for him too!
Nancy Furber is a Digital Marketing Officer ar UNICEF UK.