Thristina Kanka is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. She served as a Secondary English teacher in Comoros from 2017-2019. She shared her experience with us about when she used SolarSPELL in her community.
She says, “I was in a village 30 km south of the capital, and to give you a reference for size, there were roughly 2000 voting aged people in the village. It was on the steep deceptively lush, volcanic hills overlooking the Indian Ocean and part of Comoros’ smallest island of Moheli. The islands are so quiet that even 20 minutes up the hills from the coast you could hear waves crash. Electricity was unpredictable, and access information was limited. People were very eager to learn and use the digital library resource.
I had a student who wanted to be a Cardiologist. He is bright, motivated and sincere making it hard not to feel his passion. He was at one of our SolarSPELL hotspots one evening and was able to watch a video demonstrating how a heart pumps blood to the lungs. Excitedly, he showed me this video. This was when I learned of his goal. Afterwards, I arranged for him to meet a local Cardiologist in the community nearby to talk about his career and we coached him through this professional experience.
Our community has distinct neighborhoods. Once trained on SolarSPELL, my community counterpart “FC” and I worked on a plan to bring SolarSPELL to the village. We set up “hotspots” around once a week for people to join either using their device, my laptop or the tablet that was donated.
The Peace Corps allowed our counterparts to attend the SolarSPELL training with us. In training together, is where I learned how to work with him on projects. I learned I had to step back and let my counterpart FC take ownership of this resource in order for it to be successful and sustainable. When we started community hotspots, I always made sure people knew that FC was the point of contact. He was crucial in the planning and the implementation. I took a step back taking a supporting role. He took a lot of pride in the training and in bringing it to our community. We were messaging a few days ago, and he is still using and sharing SolarSPELL with the village almost a year after I left and two years since first being trained! This opportunity has given FC expertise about SolarSPELL he has shared at other training.
SolarSPELL opened up a new world of information to the people in my village. There was a significant amount of French materials which is one of the main languages spoken in Comoros. A lot of the people using it were also excited about the Voice of America English learning videos. The local based content was a hit too. It was important to me for my community to have this resource long after I am gone because, the more information given in an accessible way, the more people can learn, grow and be citizens that give back to their communities.
My biggest takeaway [from having a SolarSPELL digital library] is that the amount of access most of us in America have to information and resources is a blessing. The amount of resources everyone needs to simply apply to a school or funding is basically nonexistent in some areas of the world. So, how are people in these communities supposed to make their lives better? I had a very promising student whose English was excelled and would make a great candidate for African Leadership Academy. Trying to get an email address set up for him to apply was such a process. This was only possible because FC and I had the materials to do it, and we had a lucky streak of electricity and sun that day. To follow up on the application, records and transcripts, then uploading or scanning these documents can be nearly impossible.
The Peace Corps and SolarSPELL are the bridging of some of these gaps. They are not necessarily doing something for a community but giving them access to tools and information so they can make changes themselves. At the end of the day, we are all capable but, sometimes, some people have to equalize the level of access of resources a community has.
This experience really made me look at access to online learning here in the United States because of the pandemic. There are a lot of students being left behind even in the United States because they don’t have a computer or can’t afford internet service. This made me appreciate SolarSPELL even more. I think about how far my students in Comoros could go if they could simply have access to learn technology and use it. As I taught them about how to find funding for school and how to apply, I realized how little they are exposed to the opportunities that are out there for them. It is hard to envision a prosperous future if you don’t know what goal or opportunity to work towards.”