Monday, September 25, 2017

Maslow's Web, or Why I Work for Powering Potential

by Zack Sherzad, Powering Potential Writer

When I graduated with my BA English in 2011, I was already a year deep into my application to the Peace Corps — an onerous administrative process that includes all sorts of criminal background checks, medical exams, and financial blah blah blah — and had been accepted on the condition that I didn't do anything get caught doing anything unbecoming of an American representative in the period leading up to my international flight.

In the months leading up to the commencement of my service, I spent a whole bunch of money on stupid overpriced crap, including a kangaroo-leather bush hat, a hand-cranked UV water filter, some super special space-age breathable pants (with handy zip-off legs), a miniature solar panel with special and expensive rechargeable AA batteries, a wearable whole-face mosquito net, and a $300 pair of allegedly bulletproof sandals.

Oh, Africa! Land of famine, disease, dangerous wildlife, and angry-looking men with berets and AK-47s riding in the backs of trucks! Every day would be a fight for my life! I'd seen the commercials with the soft music laid over pictures of children too starved to shoo flies away from their eyeballs, and I'd seen the movies where the tattooed warlords kidnapped Westerners, and I'd read Heart of Darkness and Green Hills of Africa!

Surely my bulletproof sandals would give me the advantage I needed to survive!

In reality, most of the expensive consumer goods listed above sat unused in a corner of my Tanzanian house, which had electricity, running water, and faster internet than I'd had stateside.

My younger self had fallen for the meme of "Cinema Africa" — a highly-dramatized set piece that seems to me, looking back on my twenty-seven months in Tanzania, to be about as real as Tolkien's Middle-earth or Rowling's Hogwarts.

But who can blame Young Me, given the modern media's ad-revenue-driven penchant for gloom and doom, and humankind's evolutionary-viable strategy of paying the most attention to things that are threatening? The world's best-kept secret: by many indicators, the global living standard is steadily improving. (Taken from World Bank Open Data.)



I staffed a booth for Powering Potential at a tech convention a few months back. I got to talk with a lot of people who seemed genuinely enthusiastic about our mission. Many of them shared what I see as my moral imperative to improve the lives of struggling communities living in underdeveloped countries, and have a good understanding of the current situation and of what needs to be done. They understood the need for long-term, sustainable development (versus unsustainable resource infusions), and applauded Powering Potential's efforts to improve educational outcomes by introducing modern technology into rural public schools.

But a certain subsection of folks were visibly confused. They didn't understand why we would bother distributing tech in rural Tanzania.

When I explained that they're for educational purposes, one man responded, "Sure, that's great — but they can't eat computers!" I assured him that nobody had ever tried to eat our computers. He seemed unconvinced, and politely declined to sign up for our mailing list.
I swear I saw "solar-powered Raspberry Pi computers" on here somewhere...
Above is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow believed this pyramid represents everything an individual needs to be healthy, happy, productive, and etcetera. You'll notice that it starts with a foundation of physiological need — oxygen, food, and water, followed by physical safety — before graduating up into the less tangible needs of love, esteem, and self-actualization.

My aforementioned friend clearly had a good understanding of Maslow's Hierarchy. And, loyal to Maslow's original concept, which claimed "the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need," my friend understood the pyramid as a temporal flow chart, with the lower tiers being necessarily fulfilled before one ascended into the less-tangible echelons.

Unfortunately, my friend also perceived Africa as a perpetually water-deprived and famine-stricken wasteland, with much of the population teetering on the brink of mortal disease and desperate starvation. From his perspective, Tanzanians were not yet ready to move up the pyramid.

Which is not accurate, in my two years of firsthand experience. (Not that that makes me an authority — just more of an authority than your average convention-goer.)


But, for the sake of continuing our abstract moral naval-gazing, let's assume a situation where my friend's perception was accurate. Let's assume Africa is as bad as the media's nigh-universal disaster-oriented coverage implies. Now we've got an interesting question on our hands.
Would my feelings about Powering Potential's work be different, assuming a Tanzania in which a significant portion of the population wasn't having their basic needs met?

Yes, food and safety are inarguably important — but do food and safety mark the point where our responsibilities to underdeveloped nations end? Similarly, are they so important that all other concerns are made irrelevant?

My response is this: Sherzad's Blatantly Derivative Web of Needs.

This took me roughly fifteen minutes in Microsoft Paint to make.
Please ignore the fact that I mixed up some of the colors.

A certain venerable philosopher once claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. I'm not sure if I'd take it to that extreme, but I would argue that when people make reference to living life, they're not speaking in the biological sense. (How is your aspiration, fellow homo sapian? Are you digesting your nutriment well today? — Said nobody ever.) Certainly, if you starve the stomach, one happens to die in an unambiguous way — but starving the mind can lead to a subtler sort of death.

Yes, people need food, water, and air. These are the absolutely basic requirements of life. But they also need things like education, access to knowledge and information, mental stimulation, and a sense of their greater place and purpose.

And what better way to encourage such things than to provide developing young minds with a greater portion of human knowledge? Powering Potential's offline digital libraries may not be as vast as the internet, but they're a whole heck of a lot better than the tattered 50-year-old textbooks I had to use over the course of my two years teaching in Tanzanian public schools.

I believe in Powering Potential's mission. Join me in changing the world by making a tax-deductible contribution today.

o o o 

Swahili is the language of Tanzania. The following African proverbs are another taste of the beautiful language:

Akili ni mali.
Intelligence is an asset.

Hasiri hasara.
Anger brings damage.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Peru Potential: Trip Report

Hello Friends of Powering Potential,

Those of you with a finger on our organization's pulse may already know that we've been looking into a Peru expansion recently. Earlier this year, Fulbright Grant Recipient and Spanish teacher Dana Rensi approached us about partnering up to implement our SPARC program in rural Peruvian schools. She believes that there are many schools in Peru that would benefit from our Solar Powered Access to Raspberry Computing (SPARC) program.

Powering Potential Management Team Member V. Ena Haines recently flew to the Amazon in Peru to meet with Dana and assess the potential for expansion. Her final report was so interesting that we've decided to share it on our blog. Hopefully it will give you a good overview of how the process is going.

Thanks for reading, and we hope you enjoy.

Powering Potential Staff


V. Ena Haines recently retired from her position as Director of Information Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she led an IT department of 45 staff. Her interest is in making technology work for people, particularly enabling activities that are not really feasible otherwise. She holds a BA from Smith College in Biochemistry (summa cum laude) and a Master's in Library Science. A lifelong New Yorker, Ena first visited Africa in 2009 and found the engaging people as unforgettable as the majesty of the Serengeti. Seeing the work that Powering Potential had begun at Banjika School, she and her husband Michael were inspired to support its growth. She has been working with Powering Potential for seven years.


Trip Report on Northeast Amazon Area of Peru July 28 – Aug 4, 2017
by V. Ena Haines

I spent five days with Dana Rensi in the Amazonian Region of Loreto, Peru, meeting people and visiting schools and other sites for K-12 education. Our goal was to explore possible projects which we could develop to partner in providing digital educational content and enrich learning environments. 

Left to right: Ena Haines, Dana Rensi

We were based in Iquitos, the regional capital, which is a city of nearly half a million, the fifth largest in Peru. It is the largest city in the world which cannot be reached via road, and is the gateway to the many communities of varying sizes along the Amazon and its tributaries.

Project Amazonas ( is a non-profit which has been active in the area since the mid-1990’s, with its medical boat bringing healthcare to remote areas, and field stations dedicated to preservation and reforestation in the jungle. They have a successful volunteer program to bring skilled volunteers as well as high school students to work there. Dana invited three local educators and a technology student from Iquitos to travel with us to Santa Cruz, the site of a Project Amazonas (PA) Forest Reserve. At the village by the river of about 100 families we were shown its three schools: the primary school for 95 students, the community center that is used for secondary school for 40 students, and a small kindergarten building.

Exterior of the 95-student primary school

Interior of the 95-student primary school

Community Center / Secondary School

PA has led a volunteer effort over the last two years to construct a dining pavilion that is to be turned over to the community this month (August, 2017). The state provides breakfast food for primary school students, which in Santa Cruz is shared among all of the students, and therefore runs out by the third week of each month. PA plans to find additional food aid to cover the gap. The local population does have food sources, e.g. fish, although clean drinking water and balanced nutrition are challenges.

Don Dean, a science teacher and musician from New Jersey who heads the PA Santa Cruz Forest Reserve, has led the effort with the community, providing educational enrichment for students at the field station and installing solar power for the schools, in addition to building the dining hall. He was very glad to receive Dana’s gift of a Raspberry Pi loaded with the Spanish version of RACHEL configured as a wi-fi hotspot and server. He and his local assistant will use it with the children at the field station, and would like to place additional Pi’s with RACHEL in the primary and secondary schools. After spending the night in the field station camp, we traveled back as we had come via two rivers and an overland transfer between them, to the CONAPAC (Conservacion de la Naturaleza del Peru, A.C., Amazon Library. It serves young people aged 6 to 20 with educational enrichment including reading, English, and music lessons, crafts and games. Children come after school on a regular basis from 8 nearby schools, with some outreach to another 45 river schools as well. CONAPAC was founded by leaders of Explorama Lodges in 1990 and has a long history of projects including building community drinking water filtration facilities as well as supporting local schools with school supplies and teacher professional development and leadership training. The teachers on our trip did a lot of brainstorming on creating local content for the students in the rural areas. They feel strongly that the educational material should be based on the local environment, in which the river and the forest are the major features. The government assigns teachers to the schools, but these are viewed as hardship posts and retention is a problem, as is teaching some subjects, such as science and English. The educators at the sites and in our traveling group have all been impressed with RACHEL, but the idea of adding local content is of great interest to the school and University people traveling with us from Iquitos.

We spent a morning with several dedicated faculty at UNAP, the Universidad Nacional Amazonia Peruana in Iquitos. A few of them had experience working with secondary schools in poor areas near Iquitos. In addition to communities along the rivers, there are about 52 rural schools along the highway (carretera) which have similar challenges. There have been efforts to provide solar power and computers, but we didn’t hear about much success. For example, one faculty member described a school where he works where the government had solar equipment delivered with no support for installation. The school has unsuccessfully sought government as well as NGO support for installing the equipment. We were told that the parents are very interested in computer training, but sometimes the teachers don’t see the value and don’t want to get involved.

Dana Rensi and Ena Haines on the Nauta River with educators from Iquitos

There was a lot of discussion about bringing teachers from the region for training in Iquitos when school is out in January and February. Meals would need to be provided, but most people would be likely to be able to stay at home or with relatives. Some suggested that the teachers would be motivated by earning a certificate recognized by the education authority.

I came away impressed by the dedication and creative energy displayed by these educators. They have been involved with poor schools, and were interested in being involved. We had heard about three specific schools which had eager proponents of RACHEL.

Ena Haines and Dana Rensi brainstorming with UNAP faculty

Dana Rensi introducing UNAP faculty to the RACHEL offline digital library

Dana and I visited Rosa de America, the beautiful private school where she taught English as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in 2005-6. It is bright and colorful, preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary, with new buildings and plans for continued expansion. The students and teachers, all in uniform, greeted us warmly. We met with the Director along with Cledy Grandez Veintemilla, the science teacher who has remained a close friend of Dana’s, who had been on our trip to Santa Cruz. Dana and Cledy demonstrated RACHEL to the Director, who was very impressed with it, even though they do have textbooks and impressive educational resources. They will use it in their computer lab.

Twice each year, Cledy brings students from Rosa de America to visit a public school in Belén, a poor district on the outskirts of Iquitos. The school, like its surrounding community, is built on stilts because of the flooding during the rainy season. Although the school was closed for two weeks of vacation, the principal was glad to meet us there and show us around. She is in the middle of a three-year assignment to the school, and has made enormous progress against challenging problems. For example, the school had been closing for weeks at a time because its roof didn’t keep out torrential rains, but she managed to get the government to replace it.

Dana Rensi with science teacher Cledy Grandez Veintemilla, in Cledy's classroom

She also managed to get the building cleaned, and developed a school tradition in which the students now keep it clean. She has reached out to the community to send their children to school. The enrollment is so large that they use the classrooms for primary grades in the morning and secondary grades in the afternoon. They do have electricity, although we did not find out whether it is any more adequate than the furniture, which does not accommodate all of the students. They have five laptop computers that work and a good technology teacher, although he, too, is there on a three-year assignment. Dana promised the principal that Cledy would return with a RACHEL Pi for them to keep. Between Cledy and a good technology teacher, it seems as though it should be successfully deployed.

From right: Dana Rensi, Ena Haines, and Cledy Grandez Vaintemilla

As I left, Dana was in the process of arranging meetings with the regional education authority (DREL) and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP), a government institute created in 1980 which “offers various services to society, mainly related to research and specialized studies of Amazon natural resources, training and technology transfer.”

Thanks to Dana’s leadership, we accomplished our goal of learning about possible projects. Next steps include learning of the interests and possibilities with DREL, IIAP, and additional schools, which she has under way. Then we can develop a couple of specific proposals from the ideas for technology installations, teacher development, and content development that arose.

o o o 

Spanish is the language of Peru. The following translated Spanish proverbs are another taste of South American culture.

Fortune and olives are alike: sometimes a man has an abundance and other times not any.

From the tree of silence hands the fruit of tranquility.